It was late, and the dusky sky was just edging from hues of pink and orange into dark purple. Dark clouds rolled lazily across the gray-black night. The air felt preternaturally still, and the only sound was the hum of an occasional car driving down the road, the chirps of crickets, and the buzz of the cicadas. It was summer in the small, Texas town.
Just as a sudden breeze fluttered by to shake the leaves of the trees that lined the old road, two girls came pedaling quickly down the hill filling the quiet with breathless laughter. They both stopped just at the bottom of the hill, balancing the now still bicycles with their feet on the ground as they hunched over handle bars.
“Ha! I won,” Julia laughed.
“So,” Elle muttered with a pout. Julia just laughed again before turning to the side and squinting down the road. “Say, do you want to go down Old Oak,” she asked, looking seriously at her friend.
She looked back at Julia. In many ways they were exact opposites, a study in contrasts.
Julia was tall and broad, womanly curves already beginning to show on her twelve-year-old body. She had shoulder length brown hair that fell in loose waves around her rounded, freckled cheeks. On the other hand, Elle was average in height, thin and muscular still waiting for puberty and any hint of what lay beyond the hot summers of the here and now. Julia’s eyes were rich and dark, almost coy, while Elle’s were light blue and still shone with the freshness of youth. Her hair was pin straight and blonde, and she always kept it pulled back into a tight ponytail. Julia was fair, a traditional, gothic beauty. Elle was summer sun with golden skin. Still, the pair had been friends since Julia had moved next door when they were only 5 years old.
Elle shook herself and followed Julia’s line of sight. Oak Street had a bit of a reputation in the small town they lived in. It was the one place in town where the hot, Texas sun never seemed to touch. Tall Oak trees stretched high into the sky on all sides and seem to loom over and block out the light, inviting uneasy chills even in the middle of summer. Most of the houses on the dead-end street were abandoned and decrepit, and everyone knew to steer clear of those that weren’t.
This was the first year that Julia and Elle were allowed out past dark during the summer. She was sure that would change if their parents found out just how far from home they had roamed and going down Oak Street was a sure-fire way to spend the rest of the summer confined to their own front yards.
“I don’t know,” she said. “You know if something happens we’ll be grounded for life.”
“Come on! What could happen.”
“Did you really just say that,” Elle groaned. “Of course, something’s going to happen now.”
Julia laughed and sat back on her bike, already heading to Oak. “Bock, Bock, Bock, Bock,” she clucked without bothering to look back. She didn’t need to. Elle would already be moving to catch up. “You’re such a cow,” Elle huffed beside her as they biked slowly down the dark street.
There was no race this time. They took it slow and allowed the feel of the forbidden to fall over them. Knowing they were breaking rules, even if no one bothered to say them out loud, was half the fun. The sky was now pitch dark The only light was the fading yellow of the street light at the top of the street--now well behind them.
Ramshackle houses and overgrown foliage crept up all around. “Down there,” Julia said quietly, instinctively lowering her voice. They followed a curve around and down past towards a cul de sac when they saw a path to the right.
There was a dirt road.
No one had ever come down this far that the girls were aware of. No one had ever mentioned anything beyond Old Oak . . . but there it was. They both stopped.
“We’re not really gonna do this, are we,” Elle said uneasily. Julia looked at her seriously. She clutched her handlebars and squinted into the dark trying to make out anything beyond.
“Not tonight,” she said finally, looking back at her friend.
“But we’re coming back.”
They made the attempt a week later. This time they came prepared. Elle wore a backpack filled with snacks, juice pouches, and hair spray.
“Hair spray,” Julia had asked arching a brow.
“Do you have pepper spray? Mom would notice if I tried to sneak out with her pepper spray. So . . . hair spray.”
“You’re so paranoid,” Julia laughed.
“Good for life expectancy,” she nodded seriously, and they both broke down into giggles.
Julia’s backpack had two Maglite flashlights, two hoodies, and two extra pairs of socks.
(“Socks?”-- “You get to bring hair/pepper spray. I get to bring socks. Shut up.”)
Thirty minutes later they were heading back towards Oak, and 45 minutes later they both sat in the exact same spot as they had previously, peering down a mysterious path that no one had ever heard of.
And so, they went.
Twenty minutes after Julia puffed to stop at the top of a ridiculous hill.
“This is stupid. It’s a dirt road. That’s not fun!”
Elle laughed. Only half was in response to Julia’s petulant attitude. That was when she saw it.
“Julia,” she said, clutching her friend’s arm in a death grip.
From the top of the hill they had a clear view, even down in the thick foliage and brick-a-brack that surrounded the path. Just off to one side, at the bottom, was an old, red Ford truck, but what really caught their attention was the man who had just shaken a young woman before striking her hard across the face.
Both girls gasped and pulled their bikes to the side and-hopefully--out of sight. Julia looked silently at Elle before clutching her hand and beginning to move quietly towards the pair from the side, through the high grass and branches. They were about 30 feet away when they could see clearly and finally hear the couple arguing.
“No! It’s not right. I’m telling, Michael.” The woman was young and pretty, though there was something, unnatural, about her appearance. It was somehow faded. That was all they had time to really notice before things got even more out of hand.
“You were there too, Sally. If I go down, so do you. I’m not going down! I’m leaving in two weeks. If you think I’m gonna let what happened here get in the way of going to college, you’re crazy,” he shouted. But again, something was wrong? There was an odd echo to their speech. Still, Julia gripped Elle’s hand tighter when the boy struck the girl again.
Elle gasped, and the girls quickly looked at each other. Elle covered her mouth, and they looked back uneasily, worried that they had been heard. The fight carried on as if they weren’t even there though.
Now the man was striking the girl again and again. Her struggles had shifted, become feebler. Her shouts were fainter and fewer.
“We have to do something,” Julia whispered, tears streaming down their face. They were both afraid, though, too scared to draw the man’s attention to them.
By the time they looked back, the girl had gone still. The man was breathless, but suddenly he stood back and clutched his hair in his hands. He looked surprised to see the body of the girl that he had beaten--to death?--on the ground.
“Sally,” he whispered before stumbling towards her and falling onto the ground next to her. “Sally,” he said brokenly. “I didn’t mean it.” He clutched at the girl pulling her into his lap and rocking her. Julia and Elle watched as he fell apart slowly before finally laying Sally down.
They watched as he looked furtively around, nodded, and then began dragging the girl’s body into the trees. He pulled some branches over her and then stumbled away back towards the truck. They watched as he got in the truck. He stared for a moment and then started the truck with rumble.
And then he was gone. One minute they were watching the horrifying events of a murder unfold. They watched as the murderer hid the body of the woman that was his friend, maybe more? Then everything vanished, nothing but trees and the same dirt path they had ridden down on their bikes.
“Did you . . . “ Julia began before looking at her friend in confused fright.
Elle was nodding, her mouth open in shock, but no words escaped her. The sky had grown dark as they had watched the scene unfold. “Come on,” Elle said suddenly, clutching Julia’s hand and dragging her up. She pulled, dragged and shoved while Julia stumbled and struggled to keep up. “Come on! Move. Now!”
They made their way back up the hill to their bikes. Elle jumped on hers quickly and waited just long enough to make sure that Julia had climbed on hers as well before shooting forward in the dark. They made their way quickly, totally silent.
They had just gotten to the beginning of the dirt path and the cul de sac at the end of Oak Street when Elle finally looked to the side. An old woman had pulled rotten curtains to the side and stared darkly at the girls as they continued quickly up the street and on towards home.
That night marked a change in both girls. Neither really understood what had happened, but where Julia turned quiet (she was always loud and boisterous, full of jokes and silliness), Elle became obsessed.
She started with the local library, looking through old, dusty newspapers that crackled and fell apart in her hands. Then she started asking questions, questions that made little sense to anyone-including Julia.
“So, was there a girl who went missing in town? Maybe a body found later,” she asked Mr. Newman. Julia’s dad ran the local newspaper, so he seemed like a good source.
Julia sat on the couch looking troubled.
“I could check, but not that I know of. Why are you asking,” he asked, looking concerned?
“Just curious,” she snapped before getting up and going outside, the screen door slamming behind her. Julia followed.
“Why are you asking this stuff,” she said softly once they were ensconced in the old treehouse Julia’s dad had built when they were seven.
“Don’t you understand, Julia? That really happened, but it had to have been in the past!” Julia just stared. “Think about it. They sounded so funny, and they didn’t look quite right, sort of funny. Now that I think about it, no one dresses like that either. Sally had that long skirt on and the man had his hair fixed funny--like in that movie we watched in school, The Outsiders maybe?”
“What are you saying?”
“They were ghosts. We saw ghosts,” Elle said seriously.
“What now then.” She didn’t bother to deny what would have been an outrageous claim even a few weeks before.
“I want to go back. I want to see again. I want to know.”
So, they did. They didn’t bother with any sort of preparation like they did before, and Elle realized that things had changed. It wasn’t a game anymore. They made their way out to see the fight between Sally and Michael. They found that if they went at the same time, they would always see the scene, but if they went earlier or later--nothing happened.
The result was the same every time, though. Michael and Sally argued. He became angry and began hitting Sally until he had finally beaten the girl to death. He sobbed over her once he realized what he had done, but then hid the body, got into his truck and stared before starting the truck and disappearing like they had never existed. Julia and Elle watched then got on their bikes and rode away. And the old woman always watched them as they left Sally and Michael behind until the next day.
But Elle had noticed something that Julia hadn’t, and it would change things forever.
It was the third time they watched Michael kill Sally when Elle noticed that something had changed. Sally had glanced towards Elle and Julia just for a moment. Julia had clearly missed it, but Elle was sure of it. Then the fifth visit she had suddenly jerked away and moved towards the trees where the girls huddled watching.
Julia jumped, but things continued on as usual after that.
Then there was the day that changed everything. Julia and Elle sat watching as Michael hit Sally, knocking her against the truck.
Sally had just looked at Elle when she made a decision.
“Stop it,” Elle shouted standing up and moving towards the scene where Michael and Sally now stood staring back at her.
Julia stayed huddled in the trees alongside the dirt path, watching helplessly as her best friend strode towards the pair of ghosts that had haunted their summer.
Michael was struggling, looking confused for a moment, but Sally was smiling. It wasn’t a nice smile.
“Who are you,” Michael said, confused, but Sally had moved away.
She was walking slowly backwards, away from Michael and the truck. Once she was well away, she stood and watched.
Michael shook himself suddenly, and it was as if someone hit a reset button. The world began moving again, but not as Julia expected.
“You were there too, Elle. If I go down, so do you. I’m not going down! I’m leaving in two weeks. If you think I’m gonna let what happened here get in the way of going to college, you’re crazy,” he shouted. Elle looked shocked for a moment, but she only had a second of surprise before things went horribly wrong. Julia gasped as Michael strode forward and struck Elle hard, knocking her into the truck.
“No,” Julia whispered, standing suddenly as the scene began to unfold like it always had--except Sally watched from the side while
Michael began hitting Elle again and again. She stood smiling while Elle cried out, the ghostly hands of Michael feeling horribly solid.
Though Julia had stood easily enough, she found that she was unable to move now. She shouted each time Michael struck Elle, who had fallen to the ground just as Sally usually fell to the ground.
“No,” Julia screamed!
Now Michael was striking Elle again and again. Her struggles had shifted, become feebler. Her shouts were fainter and fewer.
Tears streamed down Julia’s face as she watched helplessly.
Elle had gone still. Michael was breathless, but suddenly he stood back and clutched his hair in his hands. He looked surprised to see Elle’s body on the ground, more than usual. And this time there was a certain sadness that was deeper, more tragic than it had been while he had played out the tragic scene of Sally’s death. It was if Michael’s ghost had known this would happen and was sorry.
“Elle,” he whispered before stumbling towards her and falling onto the ground next to her. “Elle,” he said brokenly. “I didn’t mean it.” He clutched at the girl pulling her into his lap and rocking her before looking to where Sally stood, still smiling her eerie smile. Julia watched as Michael fell apart slowly before finally laying Elle’s beaten body down.
He looked at Sally once more, shook his head, and got in the truck. He stared for a moment and then started the truck with rumble. And then he was gone. Sally stood there still, triumphant. Elle’s body lay crumpled on the ground . . . and Julia found she could move again. She stumbled forward and clutched her friend just as
Michael had. Sally smiled darkly at the scene.
She walked up the path towards Oak Street then. She didn’t look back. Julia stayed long after dark, clutching the body of her friend. Eventually she lay Elle’s body down just as Michael had and walked back up the path, passing the old woman who glared at her from her window. She kept walking, leaving everything behind.
That summer the town mourned as a local girl went missing. Julia and her family moved away not long after, hoping the girl would begin to heal if she left the loss of her friend far enough behind. Julia never told anyone what happened on Oak Street. And she never went back, too afraid she would see Elle acting out Sally’s story in her stead.
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