“Cindy, where are the stadium seats I bought last week?”
Standing in the bathroom, staring at her image in the mirror, Cynthia Ramsey took a deep breath and bit back the urge to tell her husband of seventeen years that the damned stadium seats - little more than a cushion with a handle for which he paid forty dollars - were still wrapped in plastic and sitting on the workbench in the garage where he’d dropped them. Instead, she said nothing and awaited his inevitable arrival, when he could ask again. After sitting on the aluminum bleachers as last week’s football game went into overtime, she’d asked Mike to get the foldaway stadium chairs that offered some back support; instead he’d bought the flimsy logoed cushions from that spoiled Winslow girl who lived down the road.
Her reflected scowl deepened, and her attention was drawn to the lines on her forehead and around her eyes. Leaning closer, she wondered exactly when those lines had begun to mar her face and why she hadn’t noticed them before. The normally cheerful mother of one released a breath she didn’t realize she was holding and closed her eyes trying to relax. The strength of the hand that closed on her shoulder felt reassuring, causing her to smile as she leaned backwards to snuggle into her husband’s strong arms.
Losing her balance, she fell backwards, feeling the towel rack give away as she thudded into the wall.
“Mike?” she cried out angrily, wondering why he had moved as the towel rack hit the floor with a hollow clang.
“Found them!” Mike’s voice carried up to her from the door between the dining room and the garage. “If we’re going to walk to the stadium, we need to leave now.”
Cindy glanced quickly around and then poked her head out into the hall; she was alone on the second floor of their home, but that hand on her shoulder…
Stepping back into the bathroom, she turned and looked into the mirror half-expecting to see a man in a hockey mask standing behind her. The lines on the face of the woman in the mirror somehow seemed even more pronounced. Taking another deep breath, she turned her attention back to the reason she was in the bathroom in the first place, her hair. It was bad enough that she let Darlene talk her into the blond highlights, but the way she trimmed and layered it was just too trendy, it made her feel like she was trying too hard to look young, even though it hadn’t been her idea. She didn’t want to be trendy, she just wanted to be Cindy Ramsey, mother and office manager at Watson’s World of Cars.
She picked up a brush but wasn’t sure what good it would do when she heard Mike’s heavy footsteps treading down the hall. The floor creaked as he passed their son’s room. “Honey, we need to go if we’re going to be there when Mikey runs out of the locker room.”
At the sound of his voice she allowed herself to breath, wondering to herself why she’d let herself worry that someone else was in the house. They lived in Coal Ridge and nothing bad ever happened in their little town.
“I hate my hair,” she said into the mirror as Mike’s presence filled the doorway.
“You’re gorgeous,” he replied, a happy grin on his face as he stepped behind her and wrapped his arms around her shoulders.
A familiar warmth filled her belly; she’d always loved his smile, especially the way it touched his eyes. It was the first thing she’d noticed about him when they met and for her that smile defined specific moments in their life together. The day he’d proposed. That moment when she told him that she was pregnant. Holding Michael Jr. in his arms for the first time. A hundred others crossed her mind, there were so many of them. Age may have put a few pounds and a little gray hair on them both, with lines on her face and glasses on his, but in a little town where gossip was traded like a commodity, no one ever talked about anything coming between Mike and Cindy…and they never would.
* * *
“Okay, let’s go,” Cindy said, stepping into the garage while Mike locked the door to the house. Glancing over at the two flimsy logoed cushions on the workbench, she let out a quiet sigh. Mike walked past her and opened the door to the backseat of the Crossover. A look of confusion crossed her features. “I thought you said we were walking?”
“We are,” he said, standing up with a large Target bag in one hand and closing the car door with the other.
That grin again. “The stadium seats I bought last week; you said you wanted the foldaway ones.”
Cindy glanced over at the logoed cushions on the workbench and grinned. “I love you.”
His grin widened. “I know.”
He hit the button on the wall, closing the garage door and forcing them both to playfully rush out…narrowly avoiding being caught inside with the shadow that stepped away from the wall.
* * *
Walking down Poplar Road hand-in-hand, Mike swung the Target bag back and forth, playfully threatening to lose the stadium seats inside. Crossing over Fourth Street and turning up Fifth, they were approaching the open field that once held Shelley Elementary, when Mike suddenly fell quiet.
“What’s wrong,” Cindy asked, pulling him closer, more tightly gripping his hand.
He pursed his lips together and took a breath but didn’t say anything.
“What is it?”
“I thought I,” he shook his head, “I was just thinking about something that happened when I was a kid.”
She smiled up at him, feeling something poke at her shoulder, which she absently tried to swat away. “Tell me.”
“It’s dumb, forget it,” he said, a quiet laugh sputtering from his mouth.
Up ahead, an older SUV rolled up to the stop sign at the corner of Bur Oaks and Fifth. Mike nodded towards it, “I think that’s Tony, he said he was coming in for the game.”
Cindy grinned, watching as the battered blue jeep pulled away. “Mikey likes him.”
“Yeah, Mikey likes him because he keeps telling embarrassing stories about his old man.”
“Not all of them are embarrassing,” she said, playfully swinging his hand now that the bag was being carried normally, “and it’s good for Mikey to hear stories about your childhood.”
That quiet laugh again, and then he fell silent as they came up to the crosswalk. “Mrs. Temple,” he said finally, his eyes glazing over. “Agatha Temple. She was always making us do artsy things like cutting figures out of construction paper, finger painting—you know that saggy bowl my mother has on her counter she keeps her keys in, I made that in Mrs. Temple’s fourth grade class.”
“The fire,” Cindy interrupted, squeezing his hand again; he had told her this story before.
“Yeah…the fire, but that’s not what I was thinking about.” Mike stopped, turning towards the empty field with a happy grin. “There was this jungle-gym on the playground. We used to crawl all over that thing doing the stupidest things, it’s amazing we didn’t die.” The smile fell away from his face. “That morning when the fire alarm went off, me, Tony, Don Francone, and Nick Denisco ended up under that jungle-gym; it felt like the safest place in the world. I remember Mrs. Temple finding us there, thinking that she was going to be furious because we weren’t standing in line by the fence with everyone else, but she wasn’t.”
“She was probably just relieved that everyone was okay.”
“Yeah,” he replied, seeming unconvinced; and then smiled and kissed the end of her nose. “I don’t know what brought that memory up, but for a second there it was so clear…” He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Feeling his hands clasped at her lower back, she snuggled into his chest. “It was probably something you heard or smelled; you grew up here, there are bound to be lots of things that bring back memories.”
“Like a big empty field.” He squeezed, lifting her up off the ground for a moment, with an exaggerated kiss on the neck. “Why Mrs. Ramsey,” he said, setting her down and feigning shock, “we need to get to our son’s game; you’re going to make us late.”
The playful punch in the chest caught him off guard, giving her a chance to get halfway across Bur Oaks before she was grasped around the waste and whisked the rest of the way to the sidewalk, giggling.
* * *
Having played football at Coal Ridge High himself, Mike was good enough that his name could still be found around the football stadium, but his glory days had ended in high school. By contrast, Cindy had grown up in a borough of Tampa Bay and spent her youth on the beaches and in the ocean. The closest she’d ever come to team activities was pickup volleyball games, and then only to meet boys, as a result she struggled to understand his love, not just for the game, but for the stadium.
Turning onto Sixth Street, the red painted press box came into view and Mike lit up like a kid at Christmas. She didn’t understand it, but she never tired of that boyish exuberance.
HH Hulewat Stadium, built in 1982, had weathered the years well and still stood among the best in the area. Constructed of concrete, the home-side bleachers housed two locker-rooms and the concessions, with the Red Riders logo scrawled across the front of the press box, while the skeletal steel and aluminum visitor stands, also painted red, rose opposite, with the field surrounded by a well-maintained quarter mile cinder track. The stadium was a source of pride for the town of Coal Ridge and served as the center piece of a newly constructed elementary school and heavily renovated high school.
Compared to many schools in the area, Coal Ridge High was doing well.
They walked down the alleyway behind the high school and stood in line at the ticket booth along with several of the other parents.
“I wish they would just sell the season tickets again,” Andrea Cromwell was saying, her arms crossed over her ample chest, the scowl on her face showing deep lines that Cindy was apparently now going to see everywhere, “I hate waiting in line.”
The line had stopped, most likely because someone from the visiting team was trying to pay with a credit card; everyone in Coal Ridge knew better and brought cash.
“People were getting into the stadium and handing their season tickets back through the fence for others to use,” Cindy responded automatically, “the school needs ticket money to support the stadium and it helps to fund other activities.” Mike was on the Sideliners committee and had talked about the decision to not sell season tickets for months, presenting her with every argument for and against it.
Andrea rolled her eyes and sighed, heaving her shoulders and causing her multiple chins to bounce unflatteringly. “I know, I just don’t think everyone should suffer because a few cheapskates were being dishonest, that’s all.”
Cindy nodded, maintaining the socially polite smile and hoping for some distraction to give her an excuse to end this conversation. With Mike having found his own football conversation, she was stuck and so continued. “It wasn’t just a few people,” she replied, wondering to herself why she was still bothering to carry the torch for this argument with a serial complainer like Andrea, “entire families were using just one ticket.”
“Well my point is that my family wasn’t, but we’re still being punished because others were; it should be those people who have to wait in line, not us. I don’t understand why they don’t just get one of those scanner things to track the tickets.”
“Because it’s more than just a scanner,” Cindy could feel her patience wearing thin, “it has to be hooked up to a computer with special software to track the tickets and in case you haven’t noticed, these ticket booths were built in the early eighties, they’re not exactly computer friendly.” Feeling fingers slide across her shoulder, she almost let out a sigh of relief. “Excuse me,” she said, putting a finger up to stop the next complaint, and turned.
Ginny Davis was standing there, her back was turned, and she seemed to be in a pleasant conversation with Monica Rodriguez, the recently divorced third grade teacher who was four months pregnant. Mike was on her left talking about his fantasy team with Darren Davis. There was no one else nearby.
“What are you looking at,” Andrea asked, stepping past her; the cowbell she carried in her purse gave a muffled ring.
“I thought I felt someone touch my shoulder,” she said, shivering as a cold chill ran down her spine.
“I don’t see anyone.”
“Me either.” Cindy turned back, trying to find that pleasant smile.
Thankfully, the line began to move.
* * *
“…ready to cheer on your Red Riders!” Charlie Dodge, the longtime Coal Ridge sportscaster was saying as Mike unfolded the new stadium seats and set them down on the aluminum bleachers.
Cathy Wilson, who’d saved a place for them, stared longingly at the stadium seat as Cindy sat down onto its cushioned base. When Cindy glanced down, she saw the edge of the logoed cushion peeking out from beneath her longtime neighbor and offered her a sympathetic look. Without either of them opening their mouths, they agreed that the next time Emma Winslow came around selling anything, they’d send her on her spoiled little way.
The PA system blared above them as Charlie began to introduce the starting offense.
Mike and Cindy clapped for each player, but when he announced: “At center, number fifty-four, Michaelll Rammseyyy!” Cindy put her pinkies in her mouth and let out that same shrill whistle with which she used to call him in at dusk when he was little, while Mike shouted, “Mikey!” and whooped. Somewhere on the other end of the bleachers, Andrea was ringing her cow bell.
Cindy felt a tap on her shoulder, but ignored it, not caring who wanted her to be quiet while her son was running out onto the field.
The tap came again as the next player’s name was called.
“What?” she snapped, spinning around with a look of annoyance on her face.
Tony Yoder looked down at her and shrugged, mouthing, “What’s the matter?” as Charlie began to announce the next position.
She mimed a tap on the shoulder, he shook his head and shrugged, returning his attention to the players running out onto the field. To her right, Mike was leaning towards Tom Wright, shouting to be heard over Charlie’s voice, likely telling the retired History teacher about how he had been working with Mikey in the backyard. She rubbed her tingling fingers together and took a deep breath, trying to push aside the discomfort she felt in her stomach.
A hand closed around her shoulder.
Cindy jumped, feeling the stadium seat shift beneath her, but Mike steadied her with his other hand. Glancing at her left shoulder, she saw Mike’s hand and immediately felt a rush of relief, and just a little bit foolish for being startled. With a sheepish grin she turned to him, watching the look of concern grow into a grin, and then turned her attention back to the field, looking for number fifty-four…
* * *
The first half ended in a nothing-nothing tie and by the time the second half was ready to begin, the warm evening had dipped into a cool night. Huge stadium lights buzzed from their perch above the press box attracting dozens of moths, some of which became entangled in the spider webs strung between the brackets. There would be feasting later, after the people went home and the lights were turned off.
Waiting for the players to run back out onto the field, Cindy and Cathy speculated on how cold it was going to get in mid-October, while Mike, Tom, and Tony second guessed all the play calling from the first half. With the halftime clock on the scoreboard dropping under three minutes, people were returning to their seats.
Tony sat down behind her and Mike leaned over to kiss her cheek, his breath feeling warm on her flesh. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“I’ll be better if we can get a couple of scores this half,” she replied, watching his face break into a grin.
A cheer erupted as the kids burst out of the locker-room. Mike stood up and started shouting; Cindy was about to add her whistle to the cacophony when she felt a hand rest on her shoulder and the lights went out.
For a time that felt much longer than a blink, the darkness was absolute.
When the lights snapped back on the only lingering sound was the echo of the cowbell. The field was empty, as were the aluminum and steel stands on the other side.
Cindy looked to her right. Mike was gone. Everyone was gone.
Her stomach fell. She had just enough time to think, “This can’t be happening,” when a strong hand grasped her shoulder, looking at it she saw its shadowy form changing from five long emaciated fingers to three taloned claws. Jumping up, she narrowly avoided plummeting down the bleachers and spun to see who was behind her; what she saw caused her eyes grow wide and a terrified scream to echo through the empty stadium.
* * *
A cacophony of angry and scared voices filled the darkness.
Like most outdoor arenas, Coal Ridge stadium used high intensity discharge (HID) lamps, though much less expensive than LED’s, they required five to ten minutes to warm up; as a result, while the outage was little more than a blink, it was almost a full two minutes before the disoriented crowd could see well enough to recover their wits. In that time four people fell down the concrete stairs—one hurt badly enough for the paramedics be called over, several players became mixed in with the fans on the track while looking for the gate to the field, and three shoving fights resulted from people running into one another in the darkness.
Once there was enough light to see, order was restored quickly, but for Mike Ramsey the chaos had just begun.
For a time, he only stood there in the dim light, staring down at the empty stadium seat with his mouth open. The murmur of the crowd seemed miles away. Next to his wife’s empty seat, Cathy Wilson was asking him where Cindy had gone, but for that he didn’t have an answer.
Finally, pulling his eyes away from the place where his wife sat only moments before, his gaze settled on the matronly mother of three who had once been a cheerleader and dated his best friend in high school. “She didn’t move past me,” he said, his tone becoming almost accusatory, “she had to have gone by you.”
“She couldn’t have,” Cathy said, pointing to the over-sized quilted tote bag sitting on her feet, “I have to pick it up to let anyone get past.”
“Maybe she stepped over it.”
“In the dark?” she replied, her tone incredulous.
“Sorry folks,” Charlie’s voice boomed from the PA system, “it seems we had a little power glitch there. The lights should be back up in a few minutes and we’ll get the scoreboard reset. Go ahead and get some hot chocolate at the concession stands and we’ll be ready to go before you know it.”
“Where’s Cindy?” The question came from Tony.
“I’m trying to figure that out myself,” Mike replied. “She didn’t climb past you, did she?”
He shook his head. “I got a little jostled when the lights went out, but I was standing, there’s no way she came up here.”
Mr. and Mrs. Grundy took up four of the numbered seats in front of them, Mike didn’t have to ask to know that Cindy couldn’t have gone that way. “What the hell,” he mumbled to himself, looking around. His eyes went back to her empty stadium seat and he felt his stomach churning.
* * *
The lights had not yet fully come back up and Mike had managed to work his way around to both concession stands and called for Cindy at the women’s restroom until several of those inside shouted back that there was no one named Cindy in there. He tried her cell phone again, and again it went right to voicemail. If he’d still had a flip phone he would have snapped it shut, as it was he had to touch the stupid red phone symbol to end the call—it was an extremely unsatisfying way to express his frustration.
“And here we go with the second half kickoff,” Charlie’s voice boomed from the PA. Both sides of the stadium erupted in cheers; Andrea’s cowbell rang above it all.
Several people pushed past Mike heading back to the stands as he ran his fingers through his hair; Tony rounded the corner and jogged up to him.
“Cathy is on her way to your house to look for her,” he said, between panting breaths. “Mr. Wright is going to ask Charlie to…”
“Hey folks,” the PA blared, “before we get started it seems like we have a lost husband out there. If any of you see Cindy Ramsey, let her know that her husband is at the concession stand.” A round of laughs erupted from the stands. “I hope she doesn’t get mad at me for suggesting the hot chocolate.”
Tony shrugged, shouting, “At least it will get people looking for her,” over the start of the second half play-by-play.
Mike pressed the little green icon under her picture on his phone. Yet again, it went straight to voicemail. He stabbed the red icon, shoved the phone into his pocket, and ran his fingers through his hair. “What the hell?”
* * *
“So, no one saw her exit the stands?” Officer Vince Gregory asked, it was the fourth time he had rephrased the question.
“That’s right,” Tom said, stepping in front of Mike, moving quickly for a seventy-seven-year-old man. “The lights went out, when they came back up she was gone.” Off to their right Tony was busy trying to keep Mikey calm, but no one was keeping Mike calm and that was going to very shortly become a problem if Officer Gregory found yet another way to rephrase that same question. “We searched the stadium several times; Cathy Wilson is at their house, both cars are in the garage, and there are people walking every possible path between their house and here.”
“Uh huh,” the local policeman said, staring down at his notepad. “And you’re certain she was there before the…”
“Yes goddammit!” Mike shouted, drawing the attention of everyone in the area as he stepped up beside Tom. “She was right next to me when the lights went out, when they came back on she was just gone!”
“People don’t vanish into thin air, Mr. Ramsey.”
It was a perfectly reasonable statement, but Mike was far beyond reason. “Apparently they do!” he shouted. “And standing here asking the same damn question for the fifth time isn’t doing anything to find her.”
To his credit, Officer Gregory remained calm and in control. “People are out looking for her, Mister…Mike, but we don’t even know if we’re looking in the right places. If I can figure out how she got out of the stands, we might be able to track her movements.”
Not having a response, Mike ran his fingers through his hair and rubbed at his skull.
* * *
Sitting in the stands with one arm wrapped protectively around his son, Mike stared at the field, his eyes rimmed red. The blanket they shared kept enough of the cold out that that Mikey had fallen asleep leaning on his father’s arm.
“Come on Mike,” Tony said quietly, sitting down next to him, “take your boy home, I’ll stay here in case she comes back.”
Mike just stared at the field.
Putting his hands to his mouth and blowing warm air into them, Tony nodded and made himself as comfortable as he could. The stadium lights were left on and though there were far fewer as Friday night rolled into Saturday morning, cars still moved through the streets looking for Cindy Ramsey.
“Do you remember getting to the jungle-gym that morning,” Mike asked, without looking at his longtime friend. He didn’t need to mention the fire.
Puffing up his cheeks, Tony let out a long, steamy sigh. “We were nine,” he said, shaking his head, “that fire scared the crap out of us.”
“That fire should have killed us,” Mike retorted. “Nick primed the kiln but forgot to light it, when you struck that match…” his words trailed off. “The four of us were standing in front of it, there’s no way we should have survived.”
“We got lucky.”
Mike laughed, the sound was somewhat manic. “Lucky?” He turned to his friend. “You think we just got lucky.”
Tony looked at him and shrugged. “You explain it then.”
“I can’t. Neither could Don.” Mike took a deep breath and let it out. “But Nick…”
“Nicky was hooked on heroine the first time he talked about it and remembered seeing her.”
Mikey mumbled something and slid down his father’s arm to lay on his father’s leg, pulling his feet up onto the aluminum bench.
“That wasn’t the first time Nick told me about either of them,” Mike said, lowering his voice and turning gently to cover his son with the blanket. “About a month after it happened I went over to his place and found him in the family room staring at his mom’s yearbook. He told me that right after you struck that match he saw something erupt from the kiln, like it was breaking free or something. I always thought the fire was reaching for us.”
Tony shook his head. “It was just a flash of fire, anything you think you saw was just your imagination.
“What about her?”
“There was a picture of her in that yearbook. He said she stepped between us and it.”
“That was just something he made up to help him deal with the fact that he damn near killed us.”
“What if he didn’t?”
“Didn’t make it up.” The earnestness in Mike’s voice made his friend pause. “What if she was really there and she took us someplace safe?”
“Elizabeth Angeline Felger died December 16th, 1968 in her sleep. I looked it up,” Tony countered, “She’d been dead for almost fifteen years when it happened.”
“And what? You think her ghost saved us?”
“What if she did?”
Steamy breath escaped Tony’s open mouth. After a moment he shook his head. “Mike, I get that your upset about Cindy…”
“No, I’ve been thinking about it. Vince Gregory was right, people don’t just disappear, but there’s no way that Cindy would have just left; hell, there’s no way she could have gotten out of her seat. I was standing next to her, you were behind her, Cathy was next to her with that big ass bag between her knees, and the Grundy’s were in front of her. What if something like what happened to us happened to her?”
Tony stared at him open-mouthed.
Mike ran a hand through his hair, never breaking eye contact.
“Wh-” Tony started, obviously flustered. “Where do think she is?”
“Someplace safe,” Mike said, his eyes focusing on a point past his friend’s head. Realization seemed to dawn on him as he whispered, “Son of bitch,” and then started to shake his son awake. “Mikey, wake up.”
Questioning noises fell out of the boy’s mouth as he started to push himself up.
“What are you doing?” Tony asked, beginning to stand.
“Earlier I thought I saw her…Elizabeth Felger. Right before you pulled up to the stop sign, Cindy and I were walking up Fifth towards Bur Oaks, and for a moment I could have sworn I saw her.” He stood, trying to help Mikey up, but the boy was having trouble shaking off the sleep. “Come on Mikey, I think I know where she might be.”
“Mom?” the boy asked, seeming to come awake all at once. “Where?”
* * *
Tony hadn’t wanted to let Mike drive his jeep in his current state of mind; he had, in fact, emphatically told his friend no and put the hand holding his keys behind his back. What he hadn’t anticipated was Mikey. The boy had grabbed his wrist and twisted it until he’d released the grip on his keys, and then tossed them to his dad. The apology he offered was sincere enough, though rushed as they piled into the SUV.
With gravel spewing from beneath the tires, they left the parking lot and hit Seventh Street with squealing tires.
In truth, the sign at Seventh and Bur Oaks saw more rolling than full stops, but what it saw that night was a sky-blue Jeep accelerating as it rounded the corner, missing both it and the opposite curb by a hair. Mike didn’t slow down for the stop signs at 6th or 5th either, bringing the SUV to a screeching halt in the remnants of the teacher’s parking lot.
“Stay here Mikey,” he said, before jumping out, with a glance over at Tony.
“No way. I’m going with you to find Mom,” his son replied, opening the rear door and climbing out.
Tony was already out, grabbing the boy by the shoulder and pushing him up against the Jeep. “Give your dad a minute,” he said, glancing over at the empty block. Whether it was Mike’s words or a combination of the late hour and the terror of the short drive, something about being here made his insides quake, as if he’d just downed a double espresso.
* * *
With his best friend and his son arguing behind him, Mike jogged forward, trying to imagine where the jungle-gym sat. After jogging through where the school had been, he knew he was standing in the area that was once the playground; in his mind he could see the sloped, weathered and cracked asphalt that ran from the sidewalk up to the beige door of the cafeteria. Turning north, he tried to imagine his feet falling on the asphalt courtyard as he moved along the west wing addition that housed kindergarten through third grade and the art room. The painted hopscotch court was somewhere behind him and the bench where the recess monitors made you sit when you broke the rules was somewhere ahead.
Cold dew from the grass was beginning to seep through his shoes. He glanced to his right, trying to orient himself to the houses running along Whiteoak Road, and could almost see the old chain link fence that surrounded the playground.
“Come on,” he muttered, knowing he had to be close. “You have to be here.”
Stepping into a divot, Mike stumbled and fell; his hands slipped on the wet grass as he tried to catch himself and he ended up lying facing down. Slamming a fist into the ground, he sat up on his knees and looked around. There was no school, no playground, no fence; it was just an empty field. He was so sure that she would be here; he’d convinced himself of it while sitting on those aluminum bleachers. In the back of his mind he half wondered what happened to their stadium seats—that was when the first tear rolled down his cheek.
“Where are you?” he said to himself, trying to blink away the tears welling in his eyes.
Somewhere behind him, Mikey was screaming for Tony to let him go. Several doors were opening on the porches across Whiteoak Road at the commotion; someone shouted “shut the hell up” from a second-floor window. Knowing he had to get back to his son, Mike put his hands down on the grass to push himself up, feeling fine gravel under his palms. The odor of stone dust filled the air, and the screams behind him turned into ghostly shouts and laughter of children at play.
He looked up and saw the jungle-gym to his right. Made from telephone pole logs and railroad ties, complete with two metal slides—one short and thick near the low end and the other long with a hump in middle at the high end across from a fireman’s pole—it was shaped like a submarine and had been the vehicle for thousands of imagined adventures. One of his favorite had been wielding an imaginary sword to save the princess from the pirates, but the pirates had looked nothing like the amorphous thing stalking around the backside of the wooden structure.
The sight of it seemed to steal the breath from Mike’s lungs. In one second it had long arms ending in claws with bat wings coming off its back, in the next it looked like a spider with a boar’s head and giant scythe arms. Its constantly changing form made it difficult to look at, but it was the way it moved, like a predator stalking prey, that made it truly terrifying.
Movement beneath the jungle-gym drew his attention away from the specter.
“Cindy?” It was barely more than a whisper but at the sound of it, her head snapped around and the specter paused, unleashing a roar in his direction. He was up and sprinting a moment later, his feet pushing off the gravel surface, leaving little puffs of dust in his wake.
It leapt up on top of the jungle-gym, looking almost like a hellish pirate.
He heard Cindy scream his name.
Four arms bristling with thorns, ending in sickle-like talons that reached down towards him, and for just a moment he was nine years old seeing the same thing reach for him out of the fire. He ducked beneath the hand, but one of the claws sliced his shirt open, leaving a painful, bloody line down his back as Mike dove into the small opening in the wooden supports, crashing into his wife. The specter leapt down and reached inside; neither of them saw the spirit of the kindly old woman who barred its passage, turning it away with a howl of rage.
Mike and Cindy slid across the wet grass, tangled in one another. Freeing himself, Mike sat up and turned towards the specter, but saw only the empty field; he felt his wife coming around him and turned as she grasped him by the neck and buried her face in his shoulder, sobbing. Tears rolled down his face as he held her tight.
* * *
As she stood there safe in her husband’s arms, Cindy could hardly believe that the nightmare was over. She wanted to tell him how many times she felt it touching her shoulder, about turning and seeing it in the bleachers after everyone disappeared, it hunting her as she escaped the stadium, being found in the church, getting caught in the road—somehow knowing that it wanted her fear and pain, being rescued by the old woman who told her to go to the old elementary school; it was a flood of emotion being held back by a shattering dam.
Wrapped in Mike’s arms, she felt a hand on her shoulder. Panic crept into her mind and a scream rose in her throat; it was halted by a single word.
She turned. Mikey was standing behind her, his young face lit by the street lamp wearing a mix of fear and confusion; Tony stood behind him looking like a guardian angel. Cindy twisted in her husband’s grip and reached out an arm covered in dry blood, drawing her son into their hug.
Behind them Tony grinned, doing his best to hold back tears as he turned to deflect approaching neighbors.
For Cynthia Ramsey, the nightmare was over, but for Coal Ridge, it was just beginning…