A Ghost Story

FICTION by Sean Campbell

I was eight—almost nine—when I met her.

I was walking home from school; I always did then. I had violin lessons when classes were over—two hours a day in the small basement of the church by the school—and as I made my way home the world slowly began to darken around me. Mother thought I was too young to walk home by myself, but my father insisted: He didn’t want his son turning into a sissy. He worried that the music lessons (Mother’s idea) would do that, so he tried to instill manliness in other, subtle ways. Walking home was not that big of a deal though. We lived in a small tourist town by the ocean that had not seen a major crime in well over twenty years. The kind of place where it was okay for an eight—almost nine—year old boy to walk home by himself.

There were two routes home: A short one along the highway that connected the residential and commercial parts of town, bordered by the cliff on one side and the forest on the other; and a long one that followed a dirt path to the top of the cliff before turning back down towards the rows of cheap, mass-produced houses. I usually walked along the highway. No one took the long way up the cliff except for the occasional tourist hoping to catch the sunset.

That day had been just like any other. I walked down the road as it curved away from the dirt path to the cliff, my backpack and violin heavy across my back, when I heard sirens approach from behind. I turned to see the sheriff’s patrol car blaze by, followed by an ambulance and the volunteer fire department truck. I knew something big must have happened. Our town didn’t own an ambulance; we had to call out to the next town to use theirs. Dark smoke began to rise from around the bend. I quickened my pace.

As I approached, I saw the smoking wreck of a car—I think it was red—smashed up against the metal divider that separated the pavement from the trees beyond. Its front end had completely collapsed towards the driver’s seat, black smoke billowing out from what remained of the engine. The smell of smoke and burning rubber filled the air. The firefighters were attempting to put out the flames while the paramedics rapidly performed chest compressions on a woman lying by the side of the road. I did not recognize her; blood flowed from a deep gash on her forehead, covering her face in a dark red mask.  I walked closer, even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to—Mother abhorred the very thought of violence. Sheriff Matthews stood by the wreckage, watching the flames as the firemen and paramedics did their work. When he noticed me approach, his face grew stern. He shouted at me to look away and to go back up the road. I turned around—back then I always did what adults told me to—and walked around the bend, not once turning back to watch the smoke darken the sky.

With the highway blocked off, I had no choice but to take the long way up the cliff. I had to hurry—I did not want to be late.

It was at the split in the road that I saw her, her long white dress billowing in the wind.

I recognized her immediately. It was Ms. Juniper from down the block. She lived with Ms. Ivy in a small one-story house with two big, black cats. Their house had a big front porch that they would often sit out on, drinking cocktails and laughing loudly to one another. They would always smile and wave at me whenever I passed by. Even though I was not allowed to talk to them—Mother did not want me around “their kind”—I always blushed when Ms. Juniper said hello. I thought she was very pretty.

As I got closer, I noticed that she somehow seemed different. She looked tired, as if she hadn’t slept in a very long time. Large black bags hung from beneath deep-set eyes, causing her face to droop downwards. Deep wrinkles that I did not remember before were etched into her forehead, and harsh, unfriendly lines framed her mouth. Several grey strands stood out within hair I remembered to be raven black. Although I did not understand why she seemed so different, I still thought she was beautiful.

She noticed me walking towards her. Her eyes—wild and bloodshot, the harsh red deepening the green of her irises—focused on mine. She quickly turned away and wiped her eyes with her fingers before looking back at me.

“Oh, it’s you.” She said, softly. “You were—are—the Jacobs’ boy, yeah?”

I stopped and stared at her, unsure of what to do next. I knew that I shouldn’t be seen with her, but I could not move away.

“Yes, I remember you.” She stared off toward something far away. I stood, frozen. Several moments passed in silence before she slowly turned her head back and asked, “Would you walk with me? I don’t want to be alone, not right now.”

I knew Mother would be angry if she learned I had talked with her, but how could I say no? I had always wanted to talk to her, and I was sad, in my own way, that she had been crying. I nodded.

I could not see the ocean from where we stood, but I could hear it. The sound of waves crashing against rocks filled the air with infinite repetitions, crashing again and again and again: An endless, powerful cycle that both scared and fascinated me. In many ways it still does, although I can no longer live by the sea.

She turned around and slowly began walking up the dirt path. I followed behind her.

“I used to love walking up this hill,” she began, speaking as if she were far away. “I always loved the ocean. Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to live by the sea. That’s why we moved here—Ivy and I—so that I could be by the sea.”

Waves continued to crash against the rocks, violent and hungry.

“She gave up everything to come here,” Ms. Juniper continued, “She had always been a city girl—lost amongst skyscrapers and subway lines—but I needed the sea. Salt in the air, crashing waves and howling storms lashing against me and shaking everything—I couldn’t think without them. The noise and the people made me sick. She left it all behind. She loved me enough to do that.”

I continued to listen silently. Pebbles cracked beneath my feet as we walked, calling out the beats of my footsteps as we made our way up the path. We were still a long way from the top of the cliff and the sun was ready to set. I felt anxious about getting back home, but did not want to leave Ms. Juniper alone.

“She said it was for my research, that it was my brain that needed its ideal environment, that she could do her writing anywhere—I was the one who needed to be happy. And so we moved here. And she died.”

I stopped walking. Ms. Juniper continued on ahead, lost in thought; she did not seem to notice that I was no longer behind her. I knew she had said something important, but I would be lying if I said that I fully understood it at the time. Death was still unknown to me then.

After a few moments I ran after her. I am not sure if she had noticed that I had fallen behind, though she seemed to slow her pace slightly as I rejoined her. The top of the cliff was still a ways away, but she continued on with determined steps.

“It was my fault—” she let out a small gasp, the tiniest puff of air, before breathing deeply and continuing on “—Had she never met me; had we not come here, she would have lived.” Her hands clenched into fists.

Waves continued to crash against the rocks.

“It was so stupid. A turn too fast: Five seconds would have made all the difference. Had she waited even just a moment to drive into town, it could have all been avoided. I remember it so well, all of that twisted metal, the smell of burnt flesh. I can’t forget it: Barbeque at a construction site.”

She continued to clench her fists tightly, the white of her knuckles glaring against already pale skin.

“It was too late by the time someone could respond to the accident; the ambulance couldn’t make it over in time—I couldn’t make it over in time.”

I remembered the crash on the highway and was glad that the ambulance had been there. I turned but could no longer see smoke rising towards the sky. I was sad about Ms. Ivy. I had no idea that she had died. I rarely saw the two of them, but I had always liked her. She had a kind face, and would always smile at me. Though I always thought Ms. Juniper was prettier.

Seagulls flew overhead, calling to one another as the sun continued to descend. Many of them had nests along the cliff face, the darkness calling them back home to sleep. Ms. Juniper closed her eyes as they passed above us, momentarily elsewhere—somewhere happier, I think—as we continued up the hill. She smiled slightly, but only for a moment. Her eyes snapped back open and her face darkened once again.

“I threw myself into my research then, driven mad by her loss. I devised a scenario, a crazy one, but the only one that could get me what I wanted: What I needed. My colleagues refused to take me seriously. They cut my funding, called me crazy, but I refused to stop. I couldn’t stop—it felt like all that I had left. And it worked. It took years, but it worked!”

She stopped and looked back at me. Her eyes somehow seemed sadder than before.

“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you cannot do something,” she said in a voice filled with false, well-meaning optimism. She turned back towards the path and we continued our ascent.

“I saved her. A simple phone call was all it took. The ambulance arrived, and she lived—a few broken bones, months of physical therapy, but she lived.”

We were almost at the top now. My legs were tired, but I didn’t say anything. I knew I had to keep going if I wanted to make it home, and I did not want to leave Ms. Juniper. I felt like she needed me to be there, for what I still cannot say, but I knew I had to stay with her.

“I was so relieved. It was all worth it: Everything had gone according to plan. Except that I was still here.”

Waves crashed against the rocks, louder than just a few moments before.

“I don’t know what I expected—if I would simply fade away or return home—but nothing happened: Nothing at all. I simply remained. An echo. A ghost.”

Her voice slowly faded as she spoke. By the time she said the word ghost it came out just above a whisper, quickly lost amongst the roar of another wave. I remember feeling very cold then. I had heard ghost stories before. I did not want to meet a ghost.

“That bitch—”

I had only heard that word used when my parents were fighting.

“—She didn’t know what I did for her. She had no idea that I saved Ivy. Her life, her happiness, it was all because of me. Me!” The woman had begun to cry. Her hands stayed clenched tightly into fists. “But she…she got all the reward. She got to live with her, to grow old with her, while I stayed behind: A specter haunting the background of their lives.”

We reached the top of the cliff. A small fence bordered its edge, its wood rotten and crumbling. Pieces of it had fallen to the grass and continued to rot, while others were lost amongst the waves. Beyond the fence stretched the seemingly infinite expanse of the sea, reaching towards the last light of the setting sun. The water shined in the dying light, and the distant sky had transformed into a canvas of purples and reds, soon to become grey, then black. It was beautiful.

“I tried to go back home,” she said, her eyes watching the sun slowly sink beneath the waves, “but it was gone, erased. I only saw them there—my age now—still together, happy. So happy.”

The woman did not turn to face me. It was difficult to focus on her; the sun silhouetted her in shadow, causing her outline to quiver and fade.

“I thought about killing her. It would not have been too difficult for me to hide the body and to take her place, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The life they would live together would still be lost to me. It would not be the same: She would not be my Ivy; I would not be her Juniper.”

The sun was now halfway beneath the sea. The waves crashed loudly against the rocks below.

“I came back here, to this moment, for…I don’t really know why. I thought about stopping myself, allowing Ivy to die so that I could possibly return home, but I couldn’t do it. I love her too much. I left never intending to go back, and now I have nowhere left to go.”

She stood there silently then, staring out towards the dying sun. I had forgotten about hurrying home, about dinner and my mother’s worrying. I had to stay. I could not leave this woman alone, though I also dared not approach her. I listened to everything she said, my own mind a blank slate. I took in everything.

“I am just an echo now: The leftover sound of a distant shout that was never uttered. And, I suppose, all echoes must fade eventually.”

She turned around and stared straight at me. Her face was calm, though her eyes reflected a deep sadness. They were the deepest green I have ever seen.

“Thank you for walking with me.” She smiled faintly, showing no teeth. “I am glad that I had someone to talk to. I am glad I am not alone.”

She turned her back to me once more. The last speck of sun sank beneath the waves.


I blinked, and she was gone.

The woman had, in one fluid motion, leapt over the top of the fence and off the side of the cliff. It happened so suddenly; it took me several seconds to comprehend what had just occurred. I quickly ran over and poked my head through the fence. I saw no sign of her. She had been consumed by the waves, lost amongst the jagged teeth of stone that poked through them.

I ran home through the early darkness more quickly than I thought possible, my eyes stinging with tears. I dropped my violin by the fence; I thought it would only slow me down. I did not know what to do. I launched myself through the screen door of my house and started screaming as loudly as I could. I shouted, over and over again, that Ms. Juniper had jumped off the cliff and that we had to help her. My mother did not understand right away; it must have sounded as if I was having a fit.

The sheriff was called and a search was organized. Several people from the town volunteered to bring out their boats as soon as the tide went down. Sheriff Matthews asked me what I had seen, and I lied. I told him that I saw her jump from a distance. I could not tell him the truth: I did not want to get in trouble for talking to Ms. Juniper, and I had a feeling that what she had said was not meant to be repeated.

As I was finishing my story a static voice came through the sheriff’s radio: They had found Ms. Juniper. She was at the hospital, waiting by Ms. Ivy, who had been thrown out of her car along the main road earlier that day. Ms. Juniper had been with her all evening.

I was grounded. My father blamed Mother for filling my head with silly stories. She would barely look at me, ashamed at the fuss I had caused. She never looked at me the same way again. Gossip spreads so quickly in a small town. Most chalked it up to a need for attention, a few to bad parenting: After a few weeks almost everyone forgot about the whole thing. No one believed what I saw was real. But I could not forget—Mother would not let me forget.

A few days later, I saw Ms. Juniper leaving her house, probably on the way to visit Ms. Ivy in the hospital. She looked towards me, her green eyes meeting mine, and she smiled.


Sean Campbell (MAPH’15) studies Early Modern identity development and writes fiction in his spare time.

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