“You’re not bad are you?” little Jessica interrupted their game, looking away from her dolly, blond and blue eyed just like she was, to meet the other girl’s gaze. They sat on a large green lawn under a clear blue sky, in the safest neighborhood in the whole county, a private community on a peninsula that jutted out in to a large lake, with one side undeveloped Appalachian forest, to preserve the view for the newly developed community of McMansions.
“No, I’m good, my whole family’s good,” Tanya said. “I hope your family is good, too.”
“Yeah, of course we’re good,” Jessica reassured her. “Anyways the No Moon Night is coming soon. And that’s when the ghosts come out. They protect the light from the dark, that’s what my mama said.”
Tanya didn’t like the way Jessica’s words sounded. Just because her skin was dark, did that mean she was part of some kind of evil darkness? “Well my mama says my heart’s got all the light of God’s angels because of how good I am,” Tanya smiled, remembering how her mother taught her to be confident, to combat any doubt shot towards her reputation with pride. She knew she was good, even Santa Claus thought so, so it must be true.
“Well hopefully the ghosts protect you. I think you’re good, but the way my mama talks makes me worried. So I had to ask to make sure,” Jessica set her dolly down in the grass. “Let’s play a new game. How about forest explorers?”
“Forest explorers? But you just said there was ghosts.”
“I want to show the ghosts that you’re good. They already know I’m good. So if I show them you’re good, then you’ll be safe, too.”
Tanya wasn’t sure how she let Jessica talk her in to visiting the ghosts’ home. The girls rode their bikes to the edge of the neighborhood, and then entered the forest. Jessica followed a dirt path lined with bent trees, pointing out the trail markers to her friend. They came to a small clearing, where several stone mounds sat mysteriously, some of them dismantled, in some places grass did not grow and Tanya thought that one of the stone mounds must have once been there, too.
“I dunno if we should be here,” Tanya said. “If this is the ghosts’ home maybe they don’t want us to be here.”
“No, we gotta show them that you’re good. We need to get something from here, so they know you’re good. I don’t want them to think you’re part of the darkness,” Jessica said, walking between the stone mounds, examining the rocks and searching for something.
Tanya didn’t want to touch any of it, it seemed disrespectful.
“Here,” Jessica said finally, pulling something out of the ground from halfway beneath one of the stone mounds. It was a dirty old hatchet, the wood rotted out, the last bits of it falling away from the stone weapon. “Take this. It’ll keep you safe, so the ghosts know that you’re good.”
Tanya wasn’t sure about that, but Jessica seemed confident, and she knew these ghosts better than Tanya did. She reluctantly took the old hatchet in to the front pocket of her overalls. “Thanks,” she said, knowing that was what would be polite.
“Mama,” the door creaked open as Tanya stepped out on to the wooden floorboards of their back porch, where her mother sat smoking a cigarette in a white wicker chair.
“Yes baby?” her mother cooed.
“Mama, Jessie says that some ghosts are gonna be coming out tonight when there’s no moon, and I’m scared.” A fog had started to roll in over the lake, and was heading towards their backyard.
“Don’t you worry baby, this neighborhood is so good, nothing bad can happen here.”
“But what about the ghosts mama?”
“Everything is gonna be just fine, just you see. Now I got a big day at work tomorrow, but I’ll leave these porch lights on all night so you feel safe. Now what’s that you’ve got there?”
“It’s a special rock we found in the forest,” Tanya said.
“That looks like some historical Native artifact, or, something,” her mother said, taking the hatchet from her. “Where did you find this?”
Tanya couldn’t sleep. She sat awake in her bedroom on the second floor, watching the fog get thicker through the cracks in her window blinds—she didn’t want the ghosts to know she was watching out for them. The porch lights were on but they didn’t do much to reassure her. Out in the distance, lights flickered through the dense air, and she could not tell how close they already were, only that they were getting closer. She ran in to her mother’s room, but it would be no use trying to wake her. Mama had already taken her sleeping pills.
Through her mother’s balcony window, Tanya could see the lights getting closer. Her heart started to pound. She wished there was an adult around, that would surely scare off the ghosts. Tanya ran to the phone and dialed 911. “Police, please hurry to my house!” she said to the operator. “There’s somebody coming and I’m really really scared.”
“Calm down young lady,” the operator said. “Let me just get your address.”
The lights were brighter now, they must have reached the shoreline of the lake. Now there was only the lawn to cross. Tanya hoped the cops would hurry up. She put on her mother’s bathrobe and slippers, maybe if she dressed like an adult the ghosts would get fooled and get scared away. When the cop car pulled up to her home, Tanya immediately took the officers around the back to see the lights on the beach.
The balding middle aged man set his hands on his hips, looked at the lights and then down at Tanya. “Doesn’t seem to be anything that suspicious to me,” he said.
His partner, a young man with a buzz cut, sat down in her mother’s wicker chair and helped himself to one of the cigarette’s from the box on the glass table. “Yeah, don’t seem like much here lil’ girly. You ain’t got no trouble.”
Suddenly, a huge flaming cross lit up the fog, and in the blazing light, three figures could be seen standing around it, ghosts that looked exactly like the cartoons had taught Tanya that they would, like flowing white sheets.
“There they are! Get ‘em!” she said.
The cops looked at each other and laughed. “Might as well check this out then?” the older one said to the younger, who left his cigarette hanging half smoked out of the ashtray. The two approached the ghosts at the flaming cross, but Tanya stayed on the porch. She watched the officers talk to the figures, then come back.
“No worries here,” the older one said to her. “We’re gonna head out. Don’t you worry about these ghosts, they’re here to keep us all safe from the darkness.”
“But wait!” Tanya thought about the hatchet that Jessica said would prove to the ghosts that she was real. It was in the pocket of her mother’s robe.
Tanya sat on her mother’s chair, holding the hatchet, watching the cherry on the cigarette move up as the smoke got shorter and shorter, and the ghosts began to head towards her just as she heard the cop car pull away.
“Stop right there!” But the white figures came up out of the fog and she could see them in their ghostly robes, standing on the wooden floorboards of the porch.
Tanya grabbed the cigarette from the ashtray. “Stay away!” she slashed the burning tobacco through the air. “Stay away from me!”
The warmth of a strong hand laid itself on Tanya’s shoulder but there was no physical body behind her. A chill ran up her spine but there was also the knowledge that she was safe.
“What—what the Hell is that?” a voice called from under the white robe.
The tobacco smoke formed in to a human shape, and one of the partially material hands reached for the hatchet, the solid stone floating in the grasp of a dense grey cloud. The sound of war drums seemed to come from all directions.
“Run! Run!” the voice called back from under the white hood to the others who were coming up the lawn.
The war drums grew louder as the smoke spirit slid across the porch. Jessica was right after all, Tanya thought. The ghosts were here to protect her.