Prompt 9: A child watches a black car pull up in front of her house.
So sorry it's been a while! I've been working on a larger project. This is a bit of it, as a prompt response (because I was stuck.)
It is so hot you breathe in mosquitoes and breathe out oven air.
Elyse was five and she had been sitting in the wine cellar for an hour watching her sister Beatrice "get a tan." Bette, as they called her (because "Grandma's name is 'Bea' and I'm not some old lady"), is turning pink and Elyse has predicted she will throw up like she did the last time they went fishing and sat on the lake for hours and hours and Bette was the only one who wouldn't cool off with the wet towel dipped in delicious lake water. ("We've got enough trout for a feast, Gary!" "If she's too stubborn to stick her head in perfectly clear lake water, then she'll learn what the consequences are.") Baby Wade bobbed along next to Ma in the innertube with a cloth baby seat stitched into it. He didn't throw up, but he did make a poopy. No one seemed to notice that Elyse hadn't needed any special cleaning crew.
Elyse felt prickles as her sweat evaporated in the slightly cooler cellar. Dust was sticking to all the little hairs on the exposed parts of her and now she was beginning to itch. The stone window sill felt sharp and dirty under her chin where she'd propped two big Mason jars of canned blueberries on either side of her head. She drew them hard against her skull. The liquid inside was endlessly cool and pulled the head from her face. She did a naughty thing today, though she hadn't meant to be bad. She ran up back into the woods after Gordon and Frankie Gellert. Ma told her it was too hot to run and the woods were dangerous and besides, she was too little for boys. But Frankie had built a treehouse with a real zipline.
But they were bigger than her and she had to run fast to keep up with their bikes on the dirt paths. But they never intended to take her to the zipline -- when they got up to the part of the woods with the big hills, they swooped ahead on their fast, heavy bikes, laughing as she fell hopelessly behind.
So Elyse ran home. She was afraid if Bette saw her sweaty, she'd know that Elyse had gone into the woods alone with big kids and Bette would tell Ma or worse, Daddy. Ma had the hairbrush but Daddy yelled louder and Elyse would rather take the smack and have it over with than Daddy's shouting. His "Irish temper," Ma said.
Presently, through the syrupy muck of the blueberries, Elyse was watching Bette do her handstands and cartwheels in the dusty side lawn. Bette was six-going-on-seven and had been deemed old enough to start first grade early last year. Ma sewed red stripes on her white shorts, and she wore her blue bathing suit with the white stars, so she looked like a real majorette. Bette was very seriously training to be a cheerleader in four years when she entered junior high -- if not sooner, because she might skip a grade, seeing as first grade had been so easy for her. Elyse thought Bette was going to get a smack if Ma noticed she'd gotten yellow dust all over the seat of her white shorts, doing tumbling on the dry grass like that. Maybe Ma would notice Bette before she noticed Elyse's red, sweaty face and loosened pigtails. Maybe Elyse would help her notice.
It was then that Elyse noticed a black car in the driveway. It was an old car, huge like Pop's, a monster with pretty silver trim. She blinked and it was just there, but now she felt like it had always been there. It was dusty and the white donut parts of the tires were dirty, and the wheels were half sunk into the gravel driveway even though the ground was hard packed. Bette didn't see it. She was cartwheeling closer and closer to it. She finished one cartwheel and then dove right into another one, over and over, like a runaway red wagon. Elyse gasped. If she called out, her hiding spot would be given away!
Someone was breathing in the basement. Elyse breathed slowly. She heard her own breath, in and out, echo against the cool wall. She held her breath. A long breath was let out behind her. Hairs prickled on the back of her neck. She wasn't afraid like she was afraid of getting caught by Ma or Daddy, or when the boys left her alone at the top of the hill or when Bette decided to be mean to her. This was the kind of fear she had at night when the floorboards creaked because there was a witch in the closet or a monster under her bed. This was the fear she felt when she didn't know what to expect.
Elyse squeezed her eyes shut and flattened herself against the bumpy wall. The old rocks scraped her knees but she didn't care. The breathing in the room grew quicker and more specific. She knew where he was -- knew that it was a boy, and a little boy. Someone her height or smaller. He was right behind her.
A car door slammed. Elyse squeaked. She clapped her hand over her mouth. If the ghost saw her, he'd eat her. If he moved any closer, she'd faint. If he did anything except breathe at her, she'd die.
Please, he said.
Elyse jumped. She opened her eyes. The black car was still in the driveway. Bette was still turning cartwheels, unaware or uninterested. Worse than everything except the talking ghost in the basement was this: a man stood next to the car now. She could only see the bottom parts of him, brown shoes with black pants. He was facing the house, not Bette and her majorette-ing still going on despite the stranger. He bent at the waist and Elyse could see his face. It was wrinkled and he wore a hat and his eyes were dark dark dark. He was looking at the house. He was looking at the basement window. He was looking at her.
Elyse whimpered. She jumped down off the crate and sat on it. She had no choice now but to look into the dark basement.
Please, the awful boy said again.
Elyse looked. She didn't want to, but she did want to, sort of. Like when the wolfman jumped on the screen and she covered her eyes but she looked through her fingers just a little, too.
She could see him even though he wasn't completely there. Looking at the ghost boy was like touching a cloud, which she thought would be like holding a cotton candy but Ma said was actually just air.
"What's wrong with you?" Elyse said. "Go away."
The boy showed her his back, except he didn't. Instead of telling, he showed it to her in her head. And she just knew that the man outside by the car had hit him with a stick when he was bad. That made her stomach hurt; Ma never punished her with a stick.
If you won't tell, the boy said, I won't tell.
He held his misty hand out before her. Elyse watched it hover, sort of a whole hand, sort of see-through, like the cloud she imagined when she pretended she was flying in an airplane. She put her hand out. Something cold dropped into it. She jumped.
For you, he said.
Elyse held her cupped hand in a ribbon of sunlight. The thing she held glittered very prettily. Fascinated, she held it up pinched between her two fingers. It was a little gold chain with a green diamond in it and three sharp holes that looked like flowers, sort of. The gold chain was decorated with little creamy beads that made her think of the man on the moon. It must have been a very expensive piece of jewelry, even if it didn't seem to have any way to put it on. (There was probably some grownup secret to wearing it.) She didn't have anything with this many pretty beads.
"Thank you," she whispered. "I'll keep it very safe and won't let my sister see it."
It's from there. The boy pointed.
Elyse looked. She saw, clearly in her mind: the center of the basement. A dirt floor that existed before Daddy laid cement. The boy's grave, where his body broke down like the dead animals on the sides of the road.
Elyse ran screaming up the stairs.
Later that night, after dinner, after being scolded for going to the woods alone, Elyse undressed for bed.
In the pocket of her cut-off jeans, she found the gold chain, just as real as it had been in the basement. She hid it in her hand before Bette saw it and jammed it under the satin lining of her jewelry box.
He was her ghost.
*Prompt source: The Writer's Book of Matches, by the staff of Fresh Boiled Peanuts, Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2005.Photo credit