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The Dare

by Joan Hall 7 months ago in Short Story
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A Ghost Story

The Dare
Photo by Maksim ŠiŠlo on Unsplash

Megan Spencer wrapped her hands around a steaming mug of coffee. The office of Carroll’s Crossing Times was cold on this blustery October morning. Not for the first time, she wished for a more modern building with a better heating system.

But George Bishop, the owner and editor-in-chief, preferred this location. “The newspaper office has been in this building for close to a hundred years,” he had said. “Why change now? Besides, our downtown location is ideal—close to where all the action is.”

She wanted to point out the only “action” was the group of old codgers who gathered each morning at Belle’s Café to discuss the world’s latest problems and offer their solutions. These men were also a primary source for local gossip.

Megan sipped her coffee. If last night’s cold front was any indication, the upcoming winter would be long. Might be time to suggest that George talk to the landlord about adding insulation or putting in central heat.

Like that would happen.

Although only in his early fifties, her boss was set in his ways and tight with money. He’d complained to her too many times. “Putting in central heat and air would only give the landlord another excuse to increase the rent. This building isn’t that cold.”

Easy for him to say. He had an enclosed office while Megan’s desk sat near the front door. It might not be so bad if the building didn’t face north. During winter, she had to dress in wool socks, cover her legs with a lap blanket, and use a space heater.

But she kept her complaints to a minimum. George was a good boss, and she’d enjoyed working for him in the two years since she’d moved to town.

A gust of frigid air nipped at her cheeks and toes when Joe Hendrix opened the door. The elderly man, a prominent member of the gossip brigade, had lived all in his life in Carroll’s Crossing.”

Megan took another swallow from the mug and waited for the coffee’s warmth to spread through her body. “Morning, Joe. What brings you here? Figured you’d be with the others over at Belle’s this time of day.”

“Headed there next but this couldn’t wait. I’ve got a story for you. Wanted to make sure you heard it before some out-of-town reporter or the TV station got wind of it. I guarantee it’ll be your next headline.”

Megan smiled, then arched an eyebrow. Joe had been known to exaggerate. “What kind of news?”

“Is your boss around?”

George walked out of his office. “I’m here, Joe. What’s going on?”

The older man glanced around the room as if to ensure no one else might be present and listening. He lowered his voice. “I saw Lucy yesterday evening.”

“Really?” George said.

Megan didn’t know of anyone in town by that name. “Who’s Lucy?”

Joe looked at her like she’d grown two heads. “Lucy Rhodes. Only the most famous ghost in Carroll’s Crossing.”

Megan stifled a laugh. “A ghost? And you just happened to see her?”

“Yes, I saw her! Can’t believe you’ve lived here all this time and have never heard about her.” He shook his head. “You youngsters don’t appreciate our town’s history. Anyway, it was close to dark. I was walking down Cemetery Road and—”

“Wait a minute. Why were you walking alone on that road near dark?” George asked.

Joe’s face grew red, and he furrowed his brow. “Because Doc Fisher told me I needed to exercise. That’s why!”

“Okay, calm down and tell us what happened.”

Joe pulled a chair up to Megan’s desk. “As I was saying, I was walking along the road. All of a sudden like, I felt this chill. I swear the temperature dropped twenty degrees.”

“A cold front moved through last night,” Megan offered.

“Weren’t no cold front! Wind wasn’t even blowing. I got to the gate, and there she was. Wearing a long white dress, standing beneath that big old oak near the center of the cemetery. You know she was buried beneath that tree.”

George cleared his throat. “Yes, I know. So, what happened next?”

“I got the heck out of there, that’s what happened. I ain’t crazy enough to hang around where a ghost is.”

“That’s it?” Megan asked.

“That’s it.”

“She didn’t follow you or anything?”

“Didn’t look back over my shoulder to see.”

Megan waited to see if George had anything to say. She’d heard lots of ghost stories but had never seen an apparition.

“Well?” Joe asked.

“Well, what?” George grinned. Megan got the idea that he enjoyed taunting the old man a little bit.

“The newspaper story, dammit! I told you this would make the headlines.”

George shook his head. “I’m afraid we need more than what you’ve told us. You didn’t see anything other than what dozens of people have claimed over the years.”

“Then I guess I’ll just have to take my story some other place. But mark my word. There will be more sightings. Halloween is just a few days away, and you know what happens then.” Joe scurried to the door. He slammed it as he left, scattering some of Megan’s papers in his chilly wake.

She waited until Joe was out of earshot before bursting with laughter. “And he’s going straight to Belle’s place to tell everyone who’ll listen.”

George nodded. “It’s a sure bet he’ll have a captive audience. The story will be all over town by mid-morning.”

“Not that I believe in them, but what’s this about a ghost?”

“Lucy was the daughter of Cyrus Rhodes who owned the land where the cemetery is. The Rhodes family were prominent citizens in the late 1800s. They lived in a large house beside the graveyard.”

“The old, abandoned one? Looks like it was grand in its day. Shame it’s fallen into ruin.”

George nodded. “Lucy was engaged. Three weeks before the wedding, someone shot and killed her fiancé. He was on his way to see her when it happened.”

“That’s terrible.”

“The shooting took place in front of the cemetery. Lucy heard the shots and ran outside to see what happened. He died in her arms. She went into a deep depression. People said she would walk up and down the road, pining for her lost love, unable to face the reality of his death. She never got over it and eventually took her own life.”

“Tragic.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“I suppose now she haunts the place.”

“So I’ve been told. A few years after Lucy’s death, travelers on Cemetery Road claimed to see a woman dressed in white near the west gate. She would”—George made finger quotes—"follow them. She never spoke but was able to keep pace with anyone on horseback. Interest in the legend, or whatever you want to call it, died away in the early twentieth century. It wasn’t until several years ago that it landed in the limelight again. A young couple walking along Cemetery Road swore they saw a woman in white.”

Megan rolled her eyes. “Let me guess. The sightings suddenly increased.”

“Yes. Especially this time every year. And like those early encounters, she doesn’t speak but can keep pace with runners, bicycles, even cars. It’s like she glides along the ground. When she reaches the east gate of the cemetery, she turns and goes back inside.”

Megan sighed. “That’s it?”

“That’s it? Sounds convincing to me. Lots of people claim to have seen her.”

“Do you know how many similar legends or sightings are around? People amaze me. They hear something, change the story to fit a certain time or place, then run with it. All it takes is for one person to report seeing a ghost, then suddenly everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon.”

“So you don’t believe the story is true?”

“I don’t.”

“I’ve known Joe for years. He stretches the truth sometimes, but I don’t believe he would outright lie.”

“I’m not saying he lied. Just that there’s a logical explanation for what he saw. If he saw anything. The mind can play powerful tricks, especially on a foggy night along a scary stretch of road.”

“You’re right about that. Except it wasn’t foggy last night and Lucy always makes her appearance before nightfall. I agree about people elaborating stories. Folks want their five minutes of fame. But Joe is right about one thing—the sightings always increase close to Halloween.”

“Not surprising given the nature of the holiday.”

“True, but there’s something else. Lucy died three days before Halloween.”

Megan glanced at the calendar. “October 28. That’s today.”

George wrinkled his brow, then rested his chin in his hand. “It would make a good story.”

“A gossip column based on what Joe thinks he saw?”

“No. What if someone really did see Lucy’s ghost? A story like that from a respectable witness…” George began to pace.

The wheels were turning. Megan had seen it many times.

He shrugged. “Or maybe we could disprove the story.”

“Disprove it? How do you suppose we do that?”

“Easy. You’ll take a walk down Cemetery Road at dusk this evening.”

“Why me and not you?”

“Afraid of what you might encounter?”

“Certainly not! I just don’t see the need. Write an editorial piece on how ludicrous it is to believe in ghosts. There’s your story.” Megan walked to the coffee maker.

“And offend half the town? People in these parts are naturally superstitious. But we can do an article based on your experience. If you don’t see anything, we’ll simply relay the legend, mention Joe’s story, and interview a few others who claimed to have seen her. If you do meet up with Lucy, even better.”

Megan refreshed her mug. “Ridiculous.”

“I’m beginning to think you’re afraid.”

“I’m not afraid. It’s a silly idea, that’s all. But you’re the boss, so if you tell me to, I’ll do it.”

George’s eyes lit up. “Let’s call it a dare.”

She never could turn down a challenge. “You’re on!”

><><><

“Why stop here?” Megan asked George as he parked his car at the end of Cemetery Road.

“Because the idea is for you to walk past the cemetery. Got the camera?”

She held up the digital SLR. “Right here.”

“Great. Be sure to get some good shots, especially of Lucy’s grave. I’ll drive around the block, then wait for you on the opposite end of the street. Good luck.”

“Thanks. See you soon.” Megan got out of the car. She was grateful the temperature had warmed during the day. A faint breeze blew from the south—hardly enough to notice.

Megan walked half a block when she came to the abandoned house. She tried to picture the beauty of its prime, but years of neglect had taken a toll. The brick chimney had crumbled. Several windowpanes were broken, others missing, and part of the roof sagged. The front door stood open as if beckoning visitors inside.

She quickened her pace.

When a black cat scampered across the road, she stifled a scream.

It’s a good thing I’m not superstitious.

Rhodes Cemetery was a creepy place—even by the light of day—and even more so as the last rays of sun dipped below the horizon. Part of the reason could be blamed on its state of disrepair. The old wrought-iron fencing was rusted and had fallen in some places.

Gnarled roots of oak trees twisted among the headstones, some of which were now cracked or had tumbled over. Unkempt branches touched the ground. Bats darted around in search of insects.

George wanted photos of Lucy’s grave. There was only one way to capture them. Go inside the cemetery. Megan took one step then stopped when something white moved from beneath the tree and ran in her direction.

She froze, unable to move or speak. The figure drew closer until it was right upon her.

Megan exhaled, not realizing she’d been holding her breath. A large white dog stood on its hind legs, then placed its paws on her shoulder.

“Well, hello there. Who do you belong to? Are you the culprit hanging around the cemetery?”

The Great Pyrenees wagged its tail. He wasn’t wearing a collar or tags but was well-groomed and appeared to be healthy. This dog wasn’t homeless, but people don’t often dump pedigreed breeds or allow them to roam freely.

Megan laughed. “Friendly, aren’t you? Wonder if you have a home?”

He licked her chin.

“Okay. You’d better come with me. Maybe someone can help me find your owner. Or we’ll see if a vet can scan you for a microchip.”

Megan continued down the street with the dog walking beside her. She didn’t mind admitting it was reassuring to have him along. When she neared the east side of the cemetery, she saw George’s car parked on the next block.

There were no signs of a woman dressed in white.

Megan looked at the dog. “I think you’re the solution to the mystery of what Joe saw last night. Not the ghost of Lucy Rhodes. I knew there was a logical explanation.”

When she reached the far gate, the temperature took a sudden dip. A chill ran down her spine. Despite the cold, beads of sweat broke out on her forehead and lips. The dog whimpered, then scampered away. As its footfalls faded, the rest of the sounds did too. No idling motor, no screeching bats, no hint of a gentle breeze rustling the leaves. Not the single hoot of an owl.

In the pregnant silence, Megan’s other senses heightened. The hair on the back of her neck prickled. She needed to see for herself.

So she turned around.

Short Story

About the author

Joan Hall

Joan Hall is an author whose writing is often inspired by her love of music. She enjoys observing the night skies, exploring old cemeteries, ghost walks, and learning about legends and folklore. Connect with Joan at https://joanhall.net

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