Note: This is the fifth installment of a ghost story. It’s not meant to be read by itself. If you’d care to start at the beginning, click here and follow the links.
It took a little while to explain the joke to Clarice, but when she got it she loved it. It turned out she’d been a Scooby-Doo fanatic as a kid, and being compared to Daphne delighted her. The conversation went on merrily for a time, which was a pleasant change.
It was also in stark contrast to the gloom outside. The night had been dark before, but now with the mist rising it was almost impossible to see past the reflection of the headlights. Jake slowed to a crawl, then experimented with high beams. No help. Back on low… nope. He tried running lights alone but quickly gave that up; a faint shadow of tree tops was visible, but not the road so much, so it wasn’t very helpful.
“Any idea how much further?” he asked Sue.
“It should be just up ahead, on the right hand side. The, uh, the researchers said they’d leave their van parked beside the road.”
“Researchers?” Mike asked at the same time Clarice said, “Mystery Machine!” They all laughed.
“But, I mean, they’re ghost hunters, right?” went on Mike doggedly. “There’s no such thing. It’s not as though they’re looking for something, you know, real or anything.”
“Oh, ghosts are real,” said Clarice. “They’re just not what people think.”
Silence, with a tinge of embarrassment.
“What I mean is,” she continued, “of course they don’t go around in sheets saying Wooo! and scaring people. But there are cold spots, and stains on the floor that won’t come up, and all sorts of things. They can’t do anything; they’re just memories, all alone and sad.”
“Well, I think–” began Sue, when the car suddenly jounced violently, rattling them all.
“Pothole,” said Jake as the back end passed over it with a scrape. He went back to running lights, saw the comforting gap in the trees ahead, flicked on the headlights again. “Thought for a second we’d gone off the road there.”
“Not the best visibility, is it?”
“Kinda driving by feel here,” he admitted. “Still, I’d notice a tree if it jumped out in front of me. You all keep your eyes open.”
Just then the mist in front of them swirled, and they could see the dark shadows of buildings ahead, low and strangely humped on either side of the road. At the same moment, the lights went out and the car stopped cold.
Jake turned the key, off then on again. Nothing, not even a light. He sighed, reached down, tried the hood release. No joy. He pulled it again; nothing. He opened his door, got out, reached for a flashlight, sighed again. “Someone give me a hand?”
This was turning into quite a night.
One of the down sides of having a half-ton moose sit on the hood of a small car, even for just a moment, is that the hood once abused might get stubborn about opening again. Jake, chagrined, recognized that this was the case here. He began to swear quietly, stopping once he started to repeat himself.
“No good, huh?” asked Mike, a looming shape at the edge of the flashlight beam.
“What is that stink?” This from Clarice, who was shivering, arms wrapped around herself, feeling the cold. Of the four, she was the only one not dressed for the chill.
“The moose we hit,” said Jake shortly as he stumped around to the trunk. Sue followed with the flashlight, shining it in as he rummaged around. “It left blood on the hood. Here,” he said, tossing an old army blanket at Clarice, who yelped. She sniffed at it, wrinkling her nose, then shrugged and wrapped it around herself.
Jake came up with a long screwdriver, went back to the front of the car, and started prying. After a moment, he cursed again, throwing it down in disgust. “Just denting the metal.” He looked around. “I bet there’s still no cell signal.”
Clarice was sitting on a low stone wall that came out of the woods, ending right at the driver’s door. “Let me–” she began, then yelped again as her phone gave out a bright flash, sizzled, then dropped smoking to the ground.
“Mine won’t even turn on,” said Mike. “Damp musta got to them.”
Jake sighed, stretched, suddenly weary. This had stopped being fun a while ago. And now he had this strange sensation… like he was being watched. Unsettled at the thought, he looked around.
“Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things,” quoted Sue. “Make you late for dinner!” Then, when that failed to get a response, “Good thing we’ve got the flashlight. We’d better walk into town and get some help.”
“Town.” Jake shook himself, blinked. He thought he could still see the dark of the buildings a ways up ahead, but the fog was closing back in. “The graveyard must be just beyond. No sense waking people up; we’ll get to the ghost guys. All right?” Sue nodded. He turned to Mike, who stepped forward. “Clarice?”
“I never liked the name ‘Clarice’,” she said, joining them as they moved down the road. She was fully wrapped in the blanket now, nearly down to her toes.
“But… it’s your name,” Jake said stupidly. He thought something else was probably called for but couldn’t think of anything.
“Well, I didn’t pick it.”
Apart from her voice, the night was silent, no crickets this late in the year. The air was still and damp with no breeze at all, and a mat of wet leaves muffled their steps. The thick mist swirled around them as they passed, then was still again. The silence had a palpable presence, not threatening but somehow simple and very inert. Like being underground, Jake thought, and then jumped when Clarice went on, subdued now.
“Everyone’s always called me ‘Clarice’ except my grandmother when I was very young. She called me her ‘little Claire’. But after she died… I’ve been Clarice ever since, just because. I guess nobody gets to choose their own name. But I wish we did. We could pick one that suits us, not who we are even but who we want to be. Like, Sue, you’re quiet, but if you were a Susan you could be strict and mean, like a librarian.” She laughed, a quiet tinkle unlike her usual bray. “Except on weekends, you’d take off your glasses and put on a slinky dress and you could be Sin.”
Sue coughed, embarrassed, and Clarice stopped, looking over at her. “Oh, I don’t mean–” she began.
“It’s all right,” said Sue.
“But it’s not. I’m always saying things I shouldn’t, and sometimes I– I guess I rub people the wrong way. Because I’m a Clarice, and that’s what a Clarice does, I guess.”
They walked on a little longer through the murk, then Jake said, “I was named Reuben when I was born, after my dad. When I want to school, though, I… The other kids… well, so I decided to change it.” His face was beet red, but in the dark nobody could see. “They’d call on Reuben and I wouldn’t answer. I said I was Jake now.”
He didn’t tell the whole story, about getting in trouble and people laughing and the way his father’s face had looked when he’d found out. Instead he went on, brightly, “So you could do the same, you know? You could be Claire, pretty and– and–”
“Demure?” Mike offered. You could hear the grin in his voice.
“That’s the word, demure! When someone asks you a question, you could just… smile mysteriously or something, and…”
Clarice laughed shortly. “I don’t think I’d be very good at that.”
“Well, then, you can be Reese,” said Jake. “Not quiet, no, but loud, brash and bold and– and–”
“Spunky,” said Sue.
“And spunky, yeah!” Jake wasn’t sure that was the right word, but he was going with it anyway. “Brave and bold and in-your-face. How’s that?”
“Reese.” Clarice tried it out, thought a second, then shook her head. “No… no, I don’t think—”
A loud moaning bellow came from off to the left, accompanied by a loud rattling noise.
“That– that’s not a cow. Is it?” asked Sue, looking around wildly.
The rattling came again. It sounded, Jake thought, like six people fighting with wooden practice swords. “Sticks–?” he began. Then it was upon them, massive, roaring, stinking to high Heaven. He ran, screaming, terrified.
The next installment is up, and can be read at this link.
Of course I didn’t invent Scooby-Doo. Last I checked the trademark belongs to Hanna-Barbera, but again, if they can’t take a joke—!
Image credit: Junior Libby, by way of PublicDomainPictures.net