Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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Ghost

by Robyn Green



Eric stared into the darkness of the cave, fumbling with the flashlight until it turned on. He moved forward, planting each foot carefully on the uneven ground.

The halo of light darted around the darkness, revealing the tree roots that reached through the dirt and dead leaves scattered about the rocky floor. Eric had to fight the urge to look over his shoulder at his home one hundred yards. He shouldn't have been this anxious; it was just a dumb cave. There would be nothing in it but rocks, mud, and maybe some animal bones or something.

Ducking down, the young boy ventured further into the cave while trying to ignore the rapid beating of his own heart, briefly distracting himself by adjusting his wire-framed glasses. After scanning the small space with the flashlight, he started to feel more confident. There was nothing there that he hadn't anticipated.

As he crept forward, he realized that the cave angled to the left ahead. He looked back toward the entrance, still only a few feet away; if anything did happen, he could be out of there in second.

He stepped through a spider web and pawed at his mousy brown hair and face to remove the sticky, tickling threads. Then he lifted the flashlight to look around the corner, and froze.

A figure huddled several feet away, as white as paper in the glow of the flashlight. Dangerously thin arms were wrapped around scrawny legs; its head was pressed against its knees, hiding its face from view. The cave suddenly felt stifling and the light of Eric's flashlight began to shake as it swept over the body nearby.

The figure was as still as a statue.

"H-Hello?" Eric intoned into the silence, his voice seeming very small in the confined space. His heart pounding in his chest, the lack of a response led him to conclude: Whoever that is, he's dead!

I have to leave! I have to tell Mom! The flashlight slipped from his hand and he cursed quietly as he scrambled to pick it up. Eric snatched it up, yelping as the beam passed over the pale figure again and he saw something that made him spin around and scramble out of the cave. The 'dead' person had moved, turning its head toward him! Where had had seen only the back of the figure's head before, now he saw a face, a stark white oval with huge pitch black eyes -- a ghost, or something worse.

He ran until he found a tree and placed it between himself and the cave, panting from the abrupt exertion and chancing a glance to see if he was followed. When there was no sign of the pale individual, he relaxed against the rough bark while staring at the dark mouth of the cave, wondering if what he saw would emerge any moment.

As the seconds passed, Eric found himself wondering who he had seen, or more accurately, what he had seen. Had that been his overactive imagination, or was that creature in there as real as he was?

Eric had felt so sure of what he saw, yet now he doubted himself. He remained frozen to the spot, at a loss for what to do, until he realized that he had to go back into the cave if he ever wanted to know what was really there. Of course, going back seemed like something from a bad horror movie, something that would end badly...

Maybe the best course of action would be just to tell his mom...but that would be a really little- kid thing to do. He wasn't a little kid anymore; he was going to be in middle school soon, and that meant doing things on his own.

Breathing in deeply through his nose, he left the safety of the tree and started slowly approaching the cave. As he did so, a large stick on the forest floor caught his eye and he picked it up, hoping that he wouldn't have to use it. He entered the cave the second time that day with the stick in one hand and the flashlight clenched in the other, stepping softly as he closed the space between him and the pale thing.

The strange figure was still where he had last seen it, though now it -- he -- she? -- simply stared forward with those empty eyes, completely unresponsive to him or the flashlight. It was unsettling.

"Hello? Are you...okay?" His heartbeat started to quicken its pace. When he received nothing in response, he stepped closer and started to realize the poor condition of this silent individual. Now that Eric could see the figure more clearly, he could tell that it was a girl. She was incredibly thin, her arms thin and bony while her face seemed sunken in. Her hair was nearly as pale as her skin, white and gray, and it seemed far too old for her apparent age. Her dress was a faded gray and some sort of cotton material, completely threadbare. The realization that the girl might be sick, or in need of help, pushed aside his initial fears.

He kept approaching her until only a few feet divided them, though she seemed entirely unaware of his presence. His stomach roiled with anxiety and he scratched his head awkwardly as he tried to think of how to go about this.

"Hey, I can help you," Eric said hesitantly.

Her black eyes stared past him.

"I don't think you should stay here. It gets really cold at night and you don't, uh, I mean, you look sick." His anxiety was pretty obvious, but he still didn't get a response. He shifted uncomfortably. "Do you have a name?"

Nothing.

Eric furrowed his brows, finding it somewhat irritating that his attempt to help this eccentric person wasn't going that well. Then it occurred to him that she might be unable to respond. What if she had hurt her head, and couldn't speak? That thought left him feeling terrible.

"I'm going to take you somewhere, okay?" he said, with more conviction. "Can you follow me?" He started to back up, hoping that she would get the idea and follow, but she remained still. Is she even breathing?

He shuffled back over to her, chewing nervously on his tongue as he put down the stick and reached out to take her hand. Eric didn't let himself wonder if this was a good idea or not, knowing he might chicken out if he thought too much about it, but it paid off in the end. She let him hold her hand and, although she didn't grip back, she did stand slowly and let him guide her out of the cave. As they walked out, he realized she was quite a bit taller than him, but he was used to being shorter than the kids around him; he had been one of the shortest kids in his class last year.

He led her back to his house, opening the back gate into his backyard and taking her in through the back door.

His sister ignored him as she heard him enter the house, though his mother in the kitchen was much more attentive, wiping her hands on a dish towel as she turned towards him. "Dinner will be done in--" She fell silent when she looked up, her amiable expression shifting into something stern. "What is that?" his mom asked plainly, now facing him completely.

Hearing their mother's tone of voice, Eric's older sister shifted on the sofa to look over the back of it in interest, her expression immediately twisting into horror.

"Ew!" She was clearly repulsed by what her brother had brought into the house, though her disgust was quickly evolving into anger. "Why the heck would you bring that inside?"

Between his sister being blatantly rude about this strange girl and his mother's very serious attitude, Eric knew he was in trouble, but he wasn't exactly sure why this was so. That his sister might react coldly to a stranger, even one that clearly needed help, didn't surprise him. His mother's reaction, however, seemed out of character.

"I-I found her outside," he started hurriedly. His mother's expression told him that she could tell that he even he wasn't sure he was doing the right thing. Still, he couldn't send the girl away, after luring her out of her sanctuary. "I think she's sick or hurt. What should we do?"

His mom arched a questioning eyebrow at him before pursing her lips and turning back to her dishes. "I knew you'd bring something home someday, with all the animals around here," she said. "But this?"

Eric blinked in confusion. How could she talk about the girl as if she were some kind of orphaned raccoon kitten?

"You are going to put that back outside," his mother said firmly. "End of story."

Eric responded immediately. "But she needs help," he said loudly, shocked at her blatant refusal to help this poor girl. "We can at least find someone who can help her out."

"Eric, sweetie, that thing is more trouble than it's worth," his mother replied. Her voice was light now, as if she was considering whether to laugh or not. "It is not staying here and I don't want you near it. What if it's dangerous?"

"Mom, she's a girl, not an it," he replied in exasperation and rolled his eyes, glancing up at the nameless, pale girl that stood next to him. Her expression remained completely emotionless and, if she had been offended, she showed no sign of it. "And she's not dangerous. She's just needs help."

"Then help her by putting her back outside where she belongs."

"But mom--"

"Mom already said put it outside, just do it!" His sister butted in before returning her attention to the television set.

Eric knew arguing further wouldn't help him or the strange girl. With a defeated sigh, he led her back into the backyard, but had no intention to put her back into the cave. After all, if he couldn't help her, then maybe someone else could.

The town that he lived in was small, so the police station wasn't too much of a walk. That was where he was heading with the emaciated figure, positive that they could give her the help she needed. He maintained a gentle hold of her hand and, despite her lack of response to anything he did, he gave her a nervous smile.

"Sorry about my mom and sister. I bet someone at the station can help you, though," he said.

But the girl didn't even look concerned. Those completely black eyes just remained forward, her face lacking any sort of emotion.

Eric remained quiet the rest of the trip and became anxious when cars drove past or the two walked by people on the sidewalk. These strangers would boldly stare, expressions often changing into some kind of grimace or simply giving the pair an odd look. Those who walked past them often gave them a lot of space, wondering why that young boy insisted on walking with such a grotesque creature. They would whisper in hushed tones, puzzling about where he possibly could have found it. Eric would try to ignore the small negative responses to the girl.

They eventually reached the small police station, but as Eric went towards the front doors, an officer exited, not really paying the two much mind before he did a double take and walked towards them.

"Hey, hold on a minute," The older man in uniform raised his hand up to stop Eric and the creature. "What you got there?" he inquired, his brows pinched together. Eric looked down at the ground sheepishly, feeling awkward about the situation.

"Well, I found her out in the woods. I don't know where she came from and she looks sick." He finally had the courage to raise his gaze up to the officer. "I thought you could help her." The officer's eyebrows arched up high on his face, pausing a second before a giving a raspy chuckle.

"Son, we aren't going to be much help to your little friend," he said, his stance relaxed as he regarded the lanky, pale girl. "Should probably put it back where you found it."

"But she shouldn't be in the forest at all. She needs an actual home, and my mom won't let her stay at our house," he explained, growing exasperated at the way others were talking about this girl. "Not only that, but look at her. She's sick." Eric gestured to the scrawny girl, sighing before adding, "She needs help." The aged officer scratched his head, his gaze cast downward as he seemed to consider Eric's words.

"Okay," he started, pausing as if thinking about his next words, "How about I take a picture of it and put it up on the bulletin board? That way if someone's lookin' for it or wants to adopt, we can point them in your direction. It's the best I can do for you." The man waited for Eric's response, the girl staring vacantly forward as Eric ran a hand through his hair.

"I guess," Eric mumbled, not happy about settling on the compromise given to him, but it was better than nothing. The officer gave a smile and took out a cell phone, the distinct sound of a snapshot emitting from it as he took a picture of the odd girl.

After Eric gave the officer a phone number to reach him at, he was forced to take the girl back with her, a sick feeling in his stomach as he tried to think about how to do this. There was no way he was going to leave her outside, but his mom had been firm about not wanting this girl in the house. As he led her home, her hand in his, a thought suddenly struck him.

"Hey." He turned his head towards her, giving a shy smile, "What's your name? I mean, you do have a name, right?" he asked, still hopeful that maybe, just maybe, he would receive a response from her. He only got silence as his answer, making him wonder what name he should call her since 'strange girl' wasn't the most polite name in the world. His thoughts went back to the first time he had seen her cooped up in that cave and how much she had scared him, his smile growing. "Can I call you Jane? Is that okay?" He knew asking was futile, but Eric wanted to be considerate even if she did seemingly ignore his presence.

The two approached his one story home but, rather than head to the front door, he went the side of the house and stopped near the window to his room, where he let go of her hand.

"I'm gonna sneak you in, okay? Just stay there." He then turned and bolted to the front door, where he gained a more relaxed pace just as he opened the front door.

"Eric? Dinner is ready," his mom's voice called from down the hall.

"Okay, just a sec." Without waiting to hear what she might say, he briskly went to his room and closed the door, racing to his window and yanking the blinds open. To his relief, Jane was still standing there. He took the screen out of the window before opening it, leaning out of frame. "Here, I'll help you up," he offered, holding his hand out to her. When all she did was stand there, he frowned a little and then reached for her hand, guiding her to the window and then helping her through it. "You're lighter than you look," he said as he helped Jane onto the floor, but seemed to immediately regret his words. "I mean, you don't look like you're heavy or anything…" Eric rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously, for once glad that she was unresponsive. There was a moment of quiet before he remembered that he had dinner waiting for him. "Hey, I'll be right back, okay? And don't worry, I'll bring you something to eat and drink." With that, he gave her one last look before closing the door behind him.

After dinner he returned to his room, hunched over a small, hidden plate of food he had made for his friend along with a glass of water. To his surprise, she hadn't moved from the spot that he left her in, her gaunt face still staring at one of his walls.

Despite his attempts at giving her the food, she didn't even spare a glance, so he set the plate and glass down on his nightstand. Although he worried about her, he wasn't about to force her to eat or, even worse, try feeding her himself. That would just be creepy.

He tried to talk to her again later that evening, making small talk while he watched TV, but the result was always the same; she would stare straight ahead of her without any sort of expression, almost as still as a statue. When the time came for him to go to sleep, Eric decided to be bold and take her hand, leading her over to his bed.

"Here, you can have the bed." He gestured to the pulled back comforter, guiding her until she was sitting on the mattress and he backed away from her. "Don't worry about me. I have a sleeping bag, and I don't mind..." he assured, though he found himself mumbling half way through when he reminded himself how detached she was.

After unrolling the sleeping bag on the floor, he turned off the light and slid into it, peering over in Jane's direction. "Um, good night," he said before rolling over, knowing for a fact that she was probably still sitting on the edge of the bed and looking at nothing.

The alarm woke him up the next morning and Eric forced himself awake, pushing himself out of the sleeping bag to turn off the blaring, annoying sound. It wasn't until silence filled the room that he noticed Jane was nowhere in sight. Panic flared in his gut as his eyes darted around the room. Where had she gone?

"Jane?" he asked the empty room, "Where are you?" On a whim, he checked under his bed and nearly jumped out of his own skin; she was lying under the bed, her dark eyes staring straight through him. After settling his racing heart, he took her hand and helped her out from under there. "You scared the crap out of me. Why go under there?"

She said nothing, of course.

After he got ready for school, he made sure she had access to food and water, advising her to be quiet if she left the room and not to be caught by his mom.

The next few days would be a pattern of the same thing over and over. He came home from school and would have to find her, usually under his bed or in the darkness of his closet. After a while, he would start leaving her in those places, figuring that she liked it better than just sitting in his room. Despite his efforts to bring her food and water, she never seemed to touch either, so her appeared health remained poor. Eric grew concerned that her condition would deteriorate, but he had no idea of how to go about taking care of her, especially when her behavior was so strange. He found it hard to concentrate in school, completely anxious about his classes on top of the stresses taking care of Jane brought, wondering if his mom would find her while he was away.

He thought it was all over when his sister barged into his room one day after school. She had been in the middle of asking him a question until she saw Jane sitting on the floor by his bed.

"Are you kidding me?" She threw up her arms, Eric scrambling up from the spot in front of his computer as his sister started to turn to leave.

"Don't tell mom!" He pleaded, grabbing ahold of her shirt sleeve. The older sibling glared and wrenched her arm away from him, planting her hands on her hips.

"Mom said that she didn't want that thing in the house. Besides, it's gross and creepy!" She stuck her tongue out at that statement, cautiously looking past Eric to cringe at Jane again. "And you don't even have it in a cage or tank or whatever!"

"Sam, I will give you some of my allowance if you don't tell." Eric hoped that the bribe would work, swallowing hard as she seemed to consider the offer with a thoughtful expression.

"Half?" Her smile was sly and Eric sighed forcefully, reaching into his pocket to fish out some money. He found the appropriate amount of bills and grudgingly held them out to his sister, who happily plucked them out of his hand and walked away. "If I find it in my room, the deal's off!"

Eric shut his door harshly, looking upset until he spotted his quiet friend. He smiled a little and shrugged to himself, ultimately okay with the deal he made to keep Jane a secret. The preteen reasoned that it was to keep her safe long enough to get her adopted out or found, but watching after her was becoming less of an obligation and more of something that he enjoyed doing. Sure, she practically did nothing but sit there, but she was overall pleasant to have around.

"By the way, don't listen to her. You aren't creepy or gross." He doubted that Jane's feelings were hurt, but he said it out loud just to be sure.

Things continued as they usually did, though the fact that she wasn't eating or drinking at all was becoming more and more apparent. She was practically a skeleton with skin stretched over the bone, and he noticed that she seemed inclined to only want to be in one area, which happened to be in the corner of his room. It got to the point where she didn't move at all, completely huddled like she had been in the cave when he found her. Her eyes and cheeks were sunken in, her white skin taking an unhealthy appearance as sores appeared on her body. Jane's pale hair was also falling out and leaving obvious bald patches, and it was at this point that he was terrified for her well-being. If it was possible, she was even more unresponsive than before, not even letting him take her hand and lead her anywhere. He was sure she was going to die and that it would be his fault.

The worst seemed to finally happen after he came home from school and went to check on her, knowing something was amiss when he saw her lying on the floor. Jane's positioning was unnatural and awkward, her limbs bent at strange angles, and the disturbing sight made fear clench his heart.

"Jane?" He cautiously approached, keeping himself steady as he watched her body for some kind of movement. Eric trembled as he reached out to touch one of her hands, though recoiled when he found that it was stiff and cold. What he had been afraid of had come to pass: she was gone. Tears started to sting his eyes and he forced himself to look away from his friend's corpse. What was going to happen now? What if her family and the officer contacted him? How would he explain the fact that she didn't eat or drink or do anything other than hide and stare? Eric had been responsible for her, and he ultimately failed in watching after her.

He had no idea where to start or what to do, but one thing he did know was that he wanted to get out of his room. Turning to leave, he was about to run out when what he saw made his heart nearly stop. Just behind the door was Jane, or at least it resembled his silent friend. The difference was easy to tell; the girl no longer looked like she was on the brink of death. In fact, she looked completely healthy. Jane's body was no longer a contortion of ugly angles and protruding bones, her figure still slender, but no longer sickly. Her head was full of thick, pale hair that fell just to her shoulders, and her pitch black eyes were bright. Even her dark gray dress appeared mended and nice, if that was even possible. Questions plagued his mind and he spun around to look at the disturbing double of her on his floor, approaching it carefully and taking a closer look at it. After an internal battle, he decided to touch the body again and found that it wasn't actually a corpse at all. It was nearly an exact copy of Jane, but further inspection proved that it had been just a shell, as if Jane had shed her skin.

"I can't believe it." He gaped at the husk on his floor, standing up and nudging it with his foot. It was extremely light. His gaze went to Jane, who in turn stared back blankly, and he smiled and laughed nervously. "You had me worried for a bit there…" Eric admitted, though was startled when he heard his mom yell something at him. He walked to his doorway, hanging on the frame. "What was that, mom?"

"You have a call!" She called again, the preteen boy closing his door behind before going to the kitchen and picking the phone up. He had wondered who it could be when recognized the voice of the police officer. He explained that he had done what he said and stuck a picture of Jane on the bulletin board in the station, and word of mouth led to a family that was genuinely interested in adopting her. The officer wanted to set up a date where Eric could hand her over and the boy paused, unsure about the situation a moment before agreeing on a time and date.

He brought Jane with him to the police station with him the next day and, despite the fact that she looked far better than she had previously, people still whispered disapprovingly and avoided the two, something that confused Eric.

He entered the station with his pale friend, leading her along by the hand, and noticed a small family sitting in the lobby. Eric knew it had to be them taking Jane when they saw their reactions to her; the family looked downright enthused. The parents both sported large, pearly grins as a boy a few years younger than Eric sprinted up to him, looking at Jane in awe.

"Wow, she's cool." He smiled, his young parents following behind him.

"I've been calling her Jane." Eric hadn't been sure what else to say, suddenly feeling a little shy. The mother looked particularly interested in the pale girl.

"Oh, she looks lovely. She must have just molted, right?" She asked, Eric taken aback by the term she used. His thoughts went back to the shell still sitting in his room, wondering if that's what she meant. He gave a faint nod. Feeling awkward, he held Jane's hand out to the family, the mother accepting it carefully.

"What do you say, Mike?" The father asked, peering over at the young boy.

"Thank you. I've always wanted a spider." Mike smiled up at Eric before his gaze latched onto Jane. Eric was caught off guard by his words, wondering at first if he heard him correctly.

"Huh?" He felt stupid, but his confusion was genuine.

"I think he means tarantula," Mike's mother gave a laugh. "But yes, thank you. We'll be sure to take good care of her." Eric seemed to lose his voice after that, unable to utter more than a quiet farewell as the family left with Jane.

Watching her go left him with a strangely empty feeling. Although she had never even acknowledged him, never responded once to what he said or even truly looked at him, he was affected by her absence. Eric missed her eccentric, yet interesting, behavior and the simple way she lived, never complaining nor praising, merely existing and doing what she needed. Now she was gone, living with a family who could probably take much better care of her. His thoughts went to the words of the young boy, wondering why on earth he would say such a thing. Jane was a person, not some arachnid. However, the more he thought on it, the more he couldn't deny the similarities. Spiders were very good at waiting...

Eric walked into his home and closed the door behind him as if lost in thought, taking longer to do the things that he never even hesitated to think twice about before. When his mind went to the shell that Jane had left behind, he found himself rushing to his room, wrenching the door open and staring at the floor where he had left it. At first glance, the disturbing husk had all but vanished, but as he walked closer to where it had been, he noticed that something was there. It was small, about the size of his hand, and he picked it up delicately and stared at it.

It was pale, with long limbs curled in on themselves, but there was nothing human about it: in his hand sat the molted shell of a tarantula.

THE END


© 2011 Robyn Green

Bio: Robyn Green is currently a student seeking a degree in graphic design in Illinois. She enjoys playing video games, taking care of her small zoo of pets, and writing whatever comes to her mind.

E-mail: Robyn Green

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