This story is by Peter Zhao and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There was an ancient abandoned house with a worn-down clock tower, standing like an age-old guardian, where the old cemetery on the hill overlooked the sleepy town below. No one ever went up there, save for the occasional precocious youth – yet the clock tower continued to chime faithfully, hour by hour. The bells struck six now, and as its low, dulcet tones resonated through the light evening fog, a bittersweet melody arose and struck a haunting duet inside that old house on the hill.
Two ghostly legs kicked softly up near the rotting rafters. Perched above was a little girl, faintly translucent as she sat and sang, with a ribbon in her hair and the last traces of a by-gone summer in her dress. As the final notes of her song trailed off, two more faint forms swirled up from the dust below.
“G-gee, that was r-r-really pretty!” The spirit of a bespectacled young boy stood looking up at the rafters, wide-eyed and adoring. He adjusted his glasses with a ghostly finger. “D-did you come up w-with that yourself?”
“Aw, thanks J.J., that’s sweet of you!” The girl beamed as she hopped off, slowly floating down. “I think I knew that song from when I was alive.”
The boy flushed a little, stammering, “Aw, c-come on, I t-t-told you guys, m-my name’s J-Jonathan Michael T-T-Thomas F-Fred—”
Soft laughter interrupted from another young boy with messy hair and a faded t-shirt. “Oh come on, J.J., that’s too long for us to say. Besides, none of us remember our real names anyway!” He turned to the girl. “So, Ribbon, what should we do tonight?”
The little ghost girl danced and twirled around, tapping a finger to her chin. “Well, it IS Halloween night. Let’s go around town with all the other children and see the decorations!”
J.J. nodded. “That s-s-sounds like f-fun! B-b-but we have until s-sunrise. W-what should w-w-we do afterwards?”
“Well,” the third child grinned. “Maybe we could go scare people!”
“B-b-but Chuckles, that w-wouldn’t be very n-nice!”
“Oh relax, J.J., it would be funny!”
Ribbon skipped past her two friends. “Stop arguing, you two! Let’s decide later; I want to see the decorations!”
“Ooh, m-maybe they’ll have a c-c-carnival!”
“Or maybe a haunted house! Let’s go!” Chuckles tugged on J.J.’s arm, and the two followed Ribbon outside. The evening sky was dimming fast, and a chill wind swept through the town below. Neither concerned the three ghostly children, however, as they skipped merrily alongside cracked and faded tombstones. Here and there, the odd group of teen-aged youths poked and prodded, courage bolstered by drinks smuggled from under the noses of unwary parents. These they avoided (much to Chuckles’ disappointment), ducking out of sight until they reached the roads leading to town. Boisterous laughs and howls filled the air as diminutive goblins, witches, and mummies filled the streets.
“W-wow,” J.J. breathed as the trio walked past house after house. “Look at all these c-c-costumes! B-boy, I w-w-wish I could dress up l-like that!”
Ribbon giggled as she dipped under a large lawn decoration. “Me too! I think I’d like to be a witch!” She twirled to face her friends, arms outstretched and doing her best to cackle. “Or maybe a fairy! What about you, Chuckles?” “Hmmm,” Chuckles rubbed his chin. “Maybe a vampire?”
“W-well, I’d like to b-b-be a m-mad scientist!” J.J. mimed holding up various beakers and flasks, fierce concentration masking his face. Suddenly, he stopped. “H-hey, look over there!”
The two followed J.J.’s finger. “Why, it’s a carnival!” Ribbon clapped her hands and exclaimed with glee.
“And,” Chuckles added, a slow grin spreading on his face, “it looks like they have a haunted house!”
“C-come on, let’s g-g-go!” And so the three friends, giddy with excitement, made their way through various attractions, cheering on participants in games, marveling at intricate masks and giggling at misshapen jack-o-lantern carvings, and casting wistful glances at assorted carnival treats.
Time flew, and soon the crowd began to filter out; Chuckles, having had his fill of the attractions, turned to hurry his companions onwards. Ribbon was skipping along, humming a simple tune, but J.J. had stopped, his attention fixed on a nearby telephone pole. “Come on, J.J., let’s go somewhere else!”
“W-w-wait, Chuckles! L-l-look at this!” Chuckles complied, following J.J.’s ghostly finger to a slip of paper. Ribbon, her curiosity now tickled, made her way back to join them. She let out a small gasp.
“Chuckles, that boy in the picture… he looks just like you!” And so he did; the smiling youth, forever frozen in time, was a spitting image of their ghostly friend.
Chuckles felt an electrifying shiver crawl its way up his spine. “What’s it say, J.J.?
“It s-s-says ‘M-missing Child’ on t-top,” J.J. traced the lines of words with his finger. “A-and there’s a n-n-name down here! ‘T-timothy Walker, age s-s-seven.’”
“Timothy Walker? That’s my name?” His voice swelled with excitement. “My name! My name is Timothy Walker, and I was seven years old!”
“What else does it say?” Ribbon chimed in.
J.J. cleared his throat. “W-well, ‘if f-found, p-please call L-lauren Walker.” He glanced over at Chuckles, who had fallen silent. “W-what’s wrong?”
“I… there was someone waiting for me. My… my mother.” He bit his lip. “Do you think she’s… still waiting?” His voice broke and trailed off, anguish and hope wrestling in his eyes.
“Oh, Chuckles,” Ribbon flung her arms around her friend tightly. “I’m sure she is!”
“But it must’ve been so long, and,” Chuckles gulped, “and what if she doesn’t want to see me?”
“Oh d-don’t be s-s-silly, Chuckles!” J.J. adjusted his glasses and grabbed his friend’s arm. “She’s y-your mother! C-come on, w-we’ll help!”
“He’s right, Chuckles!” Off in the distance, the clock tower’s bell tolled once again; Ribbon glanced at J.J. “But where will we look? It’s only a few hours until sunrise, and then we’d have to wait a whole ‘nother year!”
“It s-s-says ‘2431 Whitfield L-lane’ in the c-corner!” He looked at the other two. “Er, d-do you know w-where that is?”
Ribbon and Chuckles shook their heads. “Maybe we can split up to look?” Ribbon offered.
Chuckles thought for a moment. “Alright. Let’s meet back here an hour before sunrise. I’ll go that way!” Without sparing a second thought, he ran off in his chosen direction, ghostly footsteps slowly fading into the night. The two other children glanced at each other, then ran off in opposite directions.
Street names and numbers blurred past in their desperate search, the old clock tower faithfully urging them onward. Finally, as the bells softly rang for the sixth hour alongside early birdsong, J.J. and Chuckles arrived back. They hardly had time to greet each other when Ribbon’s voice sounded from the distance. “I found it! I found it!” came the triumphant call. “Over here! Follow me!” The two boys hollered and whooped, running after their friend. At length, the three came to a sign: “Look! Look! It’s Whitfield Lane!”
“The numbers!” Chuckles cried frantically, “Look for the numbers!”
“O-over here, this w-w-way!”
Tinges of rosy pink now brushed the horizon, but the three had found their destination. 2431 Whitfield Lane was a tidy little house with a clean white fence surrounding a lush lawn. Chuckles stopped, small eyes gazing around as if seeing for the very first time.
“Go on,” Ribbon gave him a gentle nudge. “You’ve come this far already”
Chuckles took a deep breath. “You’re right, I…” He crossed over to the front door, then looked back quizzically. “Aren’t you coming?”
Ribbon shook her head. “No, Chuckles, I think this is something you should do alone.”
“S-she’s right, it’s y-y-your family.”
Chuckles gulped, then passed through the door. Waves of tantalizing nostalgia brushed past him, memories just out of reach, as he walked wordlessly down a hallway. Pictures hung on the walls; there he was, and then again with another almost-familiar face. He paused just before a closed door, before resolve pushed him through.
It was a bedroom. He looked down at the sleeping woman before him. The face had aged with sorrow, but it was undoubtedly the same one that had smiled down at him from the hallway wall. An indescribable emotion welled up, stifling words, and his hand hovered over her sleeping form for what seemed an eternity. But off in the distance, the bells tolled once again; the first hints of light began to crawl through the windows, and his heart raced. Too soon! But the bitter lament was cut short by the sudden rustling of sheets behind him. The woman was stirring; she sat now in silence, facing the ghostly child. One second, two… a small, broken voice cracked the stillness.
The sun climbed ever higher over the sleepy town, watched by the lone clock tower on a hill. Little Timothy Walker was fading now – he could feel himself going – but he managed to gasp out one last whisper: “I’m home, Mother.”