Mississippi ghost story of a young girl terrorized by Billy Ray, her mischievous and mysterious cousin. Written by Jennifer Winters.
The gunshot cracked and echoed somewhere in the woods behind my uncle’s house. Without thought or hesitation, I jumped out of the backyard swing where I’d been sitting with my cousin, Janey, and ran as fast as I could to the house, over the back porch and slamming the screen door behind me. Once I was safely inside, I crouched down behind the kitchen counter, expecting Janey to follow close behind. She didn’t. Heartbeat turned up to eleven, I slowly raised myself up enough to peek out of the window over the kitchen sink. Janey was leaned over, clutching her stomach. As I watched, she slowly fell forward out of the swing, doing a slow roll onto her back, still clenching her stomach. Her face was a rigid grimace of agony.
“Janey!” I shouted, forgetting my fear and running out the back door towards my cousin, who was now keening. No, not keening, I realized. She was rolling on the ground, laughing.
“Janey?” I asked again, not quite sure what was going on.
“You are such a city girl!” she managed to wheeze out through her laughter.
“But . . . someone is shooting,” I stammered. Suddenly remembering the imminent danger we faced, I stiffened, squinting and quickly surveying the surrounding woods and small outbuildings for the sniper.
“Oh, Mel, it’s just someone shooting in the woods. It happens all the time.” Janey got to her feet, brushing leaves and bits of grass off of her butt and shoulders. “You’re in Mississippi, now. Hearing gunshots isn’t a big deal.”
For possibly the first time in my life, I was speechless. Having lived in midtown Houston my whole life, I couldn’t wrap my brain around such a nonchalant reaction to gunshots. Janey, still laughing, ran towards the house, announcing that my hysterical reaction to the gunshots made her have to pee.
“Happens all the time,” a voice piped from behind me. I turned to see Billy Ray standing by the sweetgum tree, dark hair tousled, grinning his snaggle-toothed grin. He was barefoot, and wearing a Houston Dynamos soccer kit.
“Whoa, Billy Ray! You’re wearing the right jersey! The Dynamos are my team.” I had only just met the baby of the family, as I guessed Billy Ray to be about eight years old. I was seventeen, and Janey was only fifteen. Her brother, James, was thirteen. I was visiting with them and my Aunt Linda and Uncle Eddie while my parents were doing a weeklong hike through Colombia’s Sierra Nevada to the Ciudad Perdida. The trek would consist of hiking for most of the day and sleeping in huts with no plumbing and questionable drinking water, so I was overjoyed when Aunt Linda suggested that I spend some time with my Mississippi relatives instead of getting in touch with the spirit of Gaia in Colombia. My parents were planning on joining us in a couple of weeks, after the hiking trip and a week to recover and deworm, I guessed.
Our moms were sisters and, while friendly, weren’t particularly close. Janey and I had previously met in person only once, when she came to visit my family in Houston a few years earlier. We had hit it off, despite our difference in age, and had been pen pals ever since. Real pen pals, writing real letters on sheets of dead trees. She’d never mentioned her youngest brother in her letters, and I couldn’t remember my mom mentioning him, so meeting Billy Ray when I’d arrived earlier that day was a surprise. He had been waiting for me when I went to put my suitcase away in the room I’d share with Janey. He’d been hiding under the extra twin bed where I was to sleep during my visit, and gave himself away with a falsetto giggle. I’d peeked under the bed, and been greeted by that snaggly grin.
“Hey,” I’d said. “I’m Melody, but everyone calls me Mel. What’s your name?”
“E. Normus Johnson!” he answered, slithering out from under the bed, and running out the door. He grabbed the doorknob on his way out, slamming the door three times and leaving it closed. I tried to follow him, but I couldn’t get the door open. It wasn’t locked, but jammed.
I called for Janey, who pulled on the other side of the door until it came open.
“Dangit, Billy Ray!” Janey yelled, over her shoulder. “Cut the crap!”
After an amazing, mostly fried lunch prepared by my aunt and uncle, Janey, James and I had cleaned the kitchen. When all the dishes were done, James took off through the woods on a shortcut to his best friend’s house, and Janey and I had gone out to the backyard swing to talk. Before the sniper incident, I had learned that there was no Wi-Fi password because there was no Wi-Fi. Not only was there no Wi-Fi, there wasn’t any cell coverage. Look up “rural” in a dictionary, you’ll see a picture of my Uncle Eddie and Aunt Linda’s house. The road to the house was legit gravel, with no streetlights or shoulders. Just woods, crowding up against the grated dirt and rock.
I was able to laugh about the gunshot after a couple of glasses of syrupy sweet tea in the kitchen with Janey. She asked me what I wanted to do for the rest of the day, and I told her that I couldn’t think of a thing.
“Hey! I know!” Janey exclaimed. “You like scary books. Do you want to go see a spooky graveyard?”
I told her that I was always up for a good graveyard.
“It’s out back, behind the house,” she said, setting our glasses in the sink. Wiping her hands on her shorts, she took a couple of steps towards the hallway. “Mama! Me and Mel are going to the graveyard!”
My Aunt Linda called back, “Y’all be careful! Look out for snakes and ticks!”
With that, we headed out back. The house looked like houses my parents and I find online to stay in for vacation. It was more like a cabin. It had a big back porch, and a large backyard with a neat veggie and herb garden. Towards the back, beyond a couple of small outbuildings, there was a small pond that my Uncle Eddie kept stocked with catfish. Janey pointed everything out as we walked back through the yard towards the woods. Just past the tree line of the woods, there was a cut little creek. Janey walked to a spot where it was barely a trickle.
“My house is so haunted,” she said as she gracefully leapt across the creek. I followed her, although not as gracefully. Aunt Linda’s warning about snakes and ticks made me feel like I had to keep looking in all directions at all times.
“Really?” I asked, barely paying attention to what she’d said. “What makes it haunted?”
Janey motioned for me to follow her deeper into the woods. “I’m gonna let you see for yourself,” she said, with a wry grin. Just then, I heard a small hissing sound, as the tongue of a snake flickered against the back of my bare calf. I squealed and jumped forward, tripping on my own feet and landing on my hands, hard. A small twig punctured the soft flesh of one palm as I made contact with the ground.
“Mel, are you okay?” Janey cried, leaning down to help me up. As she did, I heard Billy Ray’s giggle, and caught sight of him. He was running towards the clearing that formed the back yard, with a long, green weed in his hand.
“Billy Ray just pranked me. He made me think that a snake was licking my leg,” I said, as I got back to my feet and surveyed the damage to my palm.
“Billy Ray, you stop it!” Janey shouted. Looking at me, she said, “He can be a pill. He does stuff like that all the time.”
“Does your mom get onto him about it?” I asked, as I followed Janey onto what may have once been a path.
“Naw. It wouldn’t do any good. He does some funny stuff, too, the little turd.” I inwardly rolled my eyes, thinking of other babies of the family I’d known who all got away with murder.
As it turned out, the graveyard was pretty awesome. It wasn’t too far into the woods, and there were only about four or five headstones. Janey explained that it was a family graveyard that had been put there by the folks who had sold Aunt Linda and Uncle Eddie the property.
“So, how old is your house?” I asked. I assumed that it was old, if it were haunted. She told me that her parents had built the house they lived in. There had been an old house on the property, but not where their house sat.
We hung out at the little graveyard for a while, trying to read the headstones, and speculating as to what the people buried there had been like. All of them had lived to be in their sixties or seventies, and I told Janey that it was nice that no children were buried there. After we’d had our fill of the cemetery, we explored the woods a bit more. They were so green and pretty, with shafts of sunlight sneaking in here and there between the leaves. Finally, the light started getting a bit golden, and Janey said that we should head back, saying that when it got dark in the woods, it got dark!
As we headed back, I realized that we were walking in a kind of sideways horseshoe path, when we could get to the house more quickly by cutting straight towards the creek. Janey shook her head.
“Nope. Can’t go that way. The old well from the house that used to be back here is still there. Daddy made a concrete cover for it, but Mama still thinks that we’re going to fall in. I know we wouldn’t but I want to be able to tell her that we didn’t walk close to it. She freaks if we ever do.”
“I got’cha where I want’cha! Now, I’m going to eat’cha!” Billy Ray was suddenly running past us, towards the darkening woods. He jumped up as he ran, grabbing a low, dead branch on a tree just ahead of us, loudly snapping it off and dropping it at our feet. We both stumbled at bit, but neither of us fell.
“Billy Ray! You don’t need to go into the woods this late!” I shouted at him. Janey just laughed.
“Billy Ray does wherever he wants, whenever he wants,” she said, gingerly pulling a long vine covered in thorns out of the path to let me pass. “All the time. We can’t stop him. He rules the roost.”
Dinner, or, supper, as my Mississippi family called it, was leftovers from lunch. I commented that I was going to gain a million pounds if I kept eating that type of food, and my uncle laughed, telling me that he’d put me to work in the garden so that I’d sweat it off. Billy Ray didn’t come to the table. I figured that he’d eaten earlier and gone on to bed. When I asked, Uncle Eddie chuckled said that he reckoned that Billy Ray would eat when he was hungry.
After dinner, we played board games, and I laughed so hard that my stomach hurt. My relatives were really fun! I even laughed at Billy Ray, who ran into the room at one point, jumped up on the table where we all were playing, and blessed us with a sour, green fart. My uncle shouted, “Billy Ray! That smells like a skunk crawled up your butt and died!” At which point my aunt started laughing so hard that she blew the soda she was drinking out of her nose, which made me laugh so hard that I actually fell out of my chair. Later, as we watched a rerun of some old show about a mountain family, the sound of shower drifted from down the hallway. James said that he would go and turn it off.
“Billy Ray is taking a shower,” Uncle Eddie said. I asked why James had to turn the water off, and Janey said that Billy Ray never turned off the water after he’d turned it on. Billy Ray didn’t join us for the rest of the show.
I figured that Janey and I would stay up all night talking, but we were so tired that we were ready to sleep when we dragged ourselves to bed. Everyone yelled goodnight to each other from their bedrooms, just like that old TV show about the mountain family.
“Goodnight, Mama and Daddy!”
I joined in, “Goodnight, Billy Ray!”
I was answered by a scream of rage from down the hallway. The abruptness and anger of the cry made me jump, and I lay there, waiting for someone to correct Billy Ray. If anyone did, I fell asleep too quickly to hear it.
The next morning, we all helped in the garden. It seemed like a million weeds had come up overnight, and it took the whole morning to pull them. It was actually kind of fun, although Janey said that I wouldn’t like it if I had to do it all summer. The work was eased by my aunt and uncle, trading sarcastic banter and bursting into song. They both taught school, so they were home for the summer. I told James that it must be great to have his parents home for summer vacation, and he just rolled his eyes. Billy Ray came and went while everyone else worked, usually knocking over a rake or hoe that leaned against the deer fence as soon as someone propped it up. At one point, Uncle Eddie told him to stop knocking stuff over, but his command was ignored. Later, we had veggies from the garden for lunch. Billy Ray refused to come to the table.
After lunch, James, Janey, and I played Dungeons and Dragons for a couple of hours. Aunt Linda and Uncle Eddie needed to do some planning for an upcoming teacher’s training, so they suggested that we kids go into town for some ice cream. I had learned through Janey’s letters that people in Mississippi could get their driver’s license at fifteen, so she would drive us. We headed out to the car, and Janey abruptly stopped, patting her pockets.
“Wait, I don’t have the keys.” She turned and went back into the house. After a minute or so, she stuck her head out of the window. “James! Come help me find the keys!”
James rolled his eyes at me, and walked inside. I stood by the car for a minute, then drifted towards the back of the yard and the pond. Billy Ray was standing on the far side of the pond.
“Hey, Mel! Come back here! This is so cool!” He turned and ran before he finished speaking. Janey and James hadn’t come back out of the house, so I drifted in the direction where Billy Ray had run. I caught sight of him again as he jumped the creek.
“Where are you taking me, Billy Ray?” I called after him, jumping the creek where I’d seen him jump. It was too wide, and I landed in the mud on the bank. As I pulled my foot out, my shoe stayed in the muck. Cursing, I pulled it out, getting the mess on my hands.
“Mel, come on!” Billy Ray shouted from the thick brambles ahead. There wasn’t a path. I took a few steps toward his voice, taking care not to step on anything sharp or gross with my bare foot. When Billy Ray came into my view, I saw a large, concrete disc on the ground beside him. The cover of the old well, I realized.
“Billy Ray!” I shouted, trying to sound like a big sister, “You need to come away from there! You know that your mom doesn’t want you near that well!”
“Linda don’t tell me anything,” replied Billy Ray, in a soft, singsong voice. Fine, then, I thought. I’ll have to go pick up the little turd and carry him back to the house. I tried to move towards him, but the brambles tore at my legs.
“You’re going the wrong way,” he said, pointing to my right. “The path is there.”
I didn’t see a path, but I was able to move in the direction where he’d pointed without getting shredded.
“I got’cha where I want’cha; now I’m gonna eat’cha . . .” Billy Ray drawled as he watched me struggle to find a way to him. “A little more to your right,” he said. I carefully moved my bare foot to the right, my mind on camouflaged snakes and giant thorns.
“No! Mel! Stop right there!” My uncle’s voice suddenly smacked me in the back of the head. “Don’t move at all! Just stand there until I can get to you.” I looked at him over my shoulder, and he began moving towards me, slowly, with his arms out in front like he was trying to stop someone from jumping of a bridge. “Don’t move at all . . .” he whispered, almost like a prayer.
Uncle Eddie reached me, taking me by the shoulders. “Now,” he said in a shaky whisper, “take a baby step to the left, and then a big granddaddy step straight back.”
Utterly confused, I did what he said. When I finished taking the step backwards, I saw what had put that panic into Uncle Eddie’s eyes. I had been one step away from the gaping opening of the old well, the cover of which was on the ground next to Billy Ray, at least three yards away from where I stood. I felt like my heart was in my throat, and little stars blinked in my vision. Billy Ray laughed his little boy giggle, and ran through the brambles, between Uncle Eddie and me, and towards the house. As he ran, he shouted, “Mel put the keys in her pocket. I saw her!”
Dumbfounded, I reached into my pocket, and felt the unfamiliar shape of my cousin’s keys. Not believing all that was happening, I pulled them out, and held them up in front of my face. How had Billy Ray managed to get the keys into my pocket without my noticing it? My uncle took a deep breath, and leaned over, his hands on his knees. Then, he snapped upright and smiled, although his voice shook when he spoke.
“You have the keys! Great! They turn up in weird places all the time.” As we walked back toward the house, with me trailing behind, muddy shoe in hand, my uncle quietly tossed over his shoulder, “Don’t ever go near that well, again, Mel.”
Despite, or maybe because of, the incident, we decided not only to go to town for ice cream, but to also go to a movie. Aunt Linda put some antibiotic cream on my shins, and loaned me a pair of shoes. She said that I must have put the keys into my pocket and then forgotten. I knew better than to point the finger at Billy Ray, who was probably already in a lot of trouble for going out back near the well, even though there was no way he could have uncovered it, himself.
“We need to figure out who keeps moving that well cover,” Uncle Eddie said to Aunt Linda as I left the room.
We had a great time in town. I had cell coverage there, so I caught up with texting and calling my friends in Houston. Janey kept taking the phone away from me to talk to them. She had them rolling as she turned her Mississippi drawl up to eleven. Some of my cousins’ friends were wandering the little downtown area, and we all hung out until time for the movie. They made fun of my “city-fied” accent, but not in a mean way. Mostly, they were all super chill and not at all what I had expected when I’d imagined Mississippi teenagers. The main town square was neatly set around the looming courthouse with its big columns and tree-covered grounds. We got our ice cream at an old drugstore that had a real soda fountain where they mixed the soda water and syrup by hand. The ice cream was scooped out of the tubs of ice cream makers, and the woman who scooped mine proudly told me that they only served ice cream that they made in-house. I never knew that a small country town could be so entertaining. The cherry on top was the movie theatre, which was in a restored theatre that had been on the Orpheum circuit. So cool! As we took our seats, Janey told me that both the theatre and the old drugstore were haunted. I asked her why.
“Well, they just have to be, don’t they?” She laughed as the trailers started.
We got home well after dark, happy and tired. My aunt and uncle had sandwiches ready for us, and we each gave them a review of the movie as we ate. After showering and getting ready for bed, I crouched down to look under my bed. Billy Ray wasn’t there. I climbed into bed, and fell to sleep before Janey finished getting ready for bed.
Sometime in the night, Janey and I were jolted awake by the door slamming three times.
“Dammit, Billy Ray!” Janey shouted from her twin bed, throwing an extra pillow towards the door. As she lay back down she mumbled, “I wish he would quit doing that. All the freaking time he does that.”
“Billy Ray, stop slamming that door!” My uncle shouted in a goofy voice from the living room. I heard my aunt telling him to “do something about that”, but I never heard them actually chastise Billy Ray, who definitely should have been asleep at that hour. So spoiled, I thought, snuggling back down into my pillow. Janey was already asleep again.
The next day, we kids slept really late. It was a dark, gray day, so, after we were up and about, we opted to devote the day to Dungeons and Dragons. We got bored after a few hours. James braved the drizzle and cut through the woods to his friend’s house, and Janey and I decided to watch movie on TV. As it turned out, the TV satellite system didn’t work well in rainy weather, so Janey loaned me a horror novel, and we each lay down on our respective beds and opened our books. We had just gotten settled, when Aunt Linda stuck her head in the door and asked us if either of us had taken the laundry out of the dryer. We both said that we hadn’t, and she left, shaking her head in confusion. Janey said that Billy Ray may have taken the clothes out. She said that he did that sometimes.
“Not all the time?” I asked, grinning at my cousin.
“Nope, just some of the time,” Janey answered, adjusting her pillows.
I don’t know who fell asleep first, but I woke first to the sound of fingers drumming on the footboard of my bed. I looked down, and Billy Ray was pulling himself up from behind the board. He rested his chin on the footboard, grinning that crooked little grin of his.
“In the dark, dark woods. There was a dark, dark house. The girl walked towards it, and she heard a voice saying, ‘I got’cha where I want’cha; now I’m gonna eat’cha . . .” Billy Ray continued drumming his fingers on the wood of the footboard.
“Yeah, Billy Ray, I know this one. She followed the voice into the dark, dark house; all through the dark, dark rooms, down a dark, dark hallway, and into a dark, dark closet. In the closet she saw a kid looking at a booger on his finger, saying, ‘I got’cha where I want’cha; now I’m gonna eat’cha.’ Dude. I’m taking a nap.” The little boy grin disappeared, replaced by a crooked sneer.
“No,” said Billy Ray. “That’s not what happened. When she walked into the house, the door closed behind her. A man had closed it, there was another man in the house, too. They were men who liked to hurt girls, and they were very, very hungry.” Billy Ray went on to tell the most gruesome story I’d ever heard. He seemed to savor each gory, degrading detail of what the men did to the girl. His mouth actually watered, the spittle spilling over his bottom lip. I opened my mouth to speak, or to try to raise Janey, but Billy Ray’s story had me absolutely petrified. I could see, feel everything he described, yet I couldn’t find my voice or move. The story finally drew to a close. By then, my heart was a jackhammer, and my limbs were filled with ice.
“And then, one of the men looked at what was left of the girl, and he said . . . Do you know what he said, Mel?” His eyes held mine. I didn’t want to look into his eyes, but I was afraid to look away. Afraid to blink. As if looking away or closing my eyes for a second would open me up to some kind of horrific attack by my eight-year-old cousin. He stared at me, waiting for me to speak.
“I got’cha where I want’cha . . .” I whispered, not wanting to finish the sentence. I snapped back to myself. Sitting up, I said, “Billy Ray, baby. That was a terrible story. Where did you hear it? Did a big kid . . . an adult tell it to you? You need to tell your mama and daddy who told you that story. It’s not . . . right for you to know a story like that.”
Billy Ray stood upright, and threw his head back, laughing that little boy laugh. He turned and skipped out the door. As he went, he started singing, “Mel, Mel, got dirty drawers. Blood all in her underwear!” He sang, over and over, all the way down the hall, through the kitchen, and out the back door, which he slammed so hard as to shake the house.
Janey turned over in her sleep, her book falling onto the floor. She mumbled, not really waking up, “Billy Ray. It’s getting ridiculous.”
At that moment, I desperately wanted to talk to my mom, to hear her voice and ask her to talk to my aunt and uncle about their obviously disturbed youngest child. But, seeing as she and my dad were probably on some mountain communing with nature, far away from any phones, I had to take action, myself. I put my book on the nightstand, and stood, determined to rat out Billy Ray for the horrible story he’d just told me. Aunt Linda should get to the bottom of it.
I had taken one step when a familiar pain doubled me over. I had always had terrible cramps with my period, even fainting on a couple of occasions from unfiltered agony. My mom and doctor had begun throwing around terms like “cysts” and “endometriosis”. If this sudden pain was signaling the beginning of my period, it was a sure omen of debilitating cramps over the next few days. Cursing to myself, I crossed over to Janey’s bed, gently shaking her awake.
Janey had all the supplies that I needed. I explained to her that I had just finished my period a few days before arriving in Mississippi, so I didn’t understand why I was having one now. Janey said that it could be the change in my diet or the time difference between Mississippi and Texas. Aunt Linda gave me some ibuprofen, and the pain eased up, somewhat. I didn’t tell her about Billy Ray’s disturbing story from earlier in the day. I’m glad, now, that I didn’t.
Around dinnertime that night, James found the missing laundry under my bed. Uncle Eddie said that Billy Ray must have put it there. Winking at me, he told Billy Ray to cut it out, but Billy Ray ignored him, and kept running around the living room. He was wearing the Houston Dynamo kit, again. At least the brat had good taste in soccer teams.
Billy Ray settled down after a little while, skipping down the hall and slamming the bedroom door- three times, of course. Aunt Linda and Uncle Eddie gave each other a look, but neither of them got on to Billy Ray. Everything was quiet for the rest of the night, with nothing more exciting than watching TV and my aunt telling me about our plans for the next day.
The plan that my aunt described had been for all of us to go to an art fair in town. I woke up feeling fine, but by the end of breakfast my cramps were so bad that I ended up losing my scrambled eggs and bacon in the bathroom. Even with four ibuprofen, there was no chance of my being able to go. Aunt Linda said that they would all stay home, waving her hand and saying that the fair was no big deal. I knew better, based on how much they had talked about it the night before. I also knew that they had pre-purchased tickets at twenty bucks a head. Truth be told, it was a gray day, cool for July in Mississippi, and I longed for quiet and sleep. But, they wouldn’t budge about staying home.
“Mel, honey, what if you get sick again, or need something? We’ll be gone all day.” Said Aunt Linda.
Billy Ray spoke up, “What about your cellphone, Mel?” That was actually a good idea.
“My cell. Take it with you. There’s coverage in town, so I can call you if I need to.” Billy Ray held up his hand for a high-five, but jerked it out of the way as I tried to slap mine into his, causing me to knock over a juice glass and making a mess. Finally, my relatives agreed to compromise by waiting until after lunch to go to the art fair. They agreed to take my cell, since none of them had one (really!), in case I started feeling really bad.
Uncle Eddie made soup from the tomatoes in the garden, and we ate lunch out on the back porch. By the time they left, the sky was the color of a battleship, and my eyelids were heavy. Aunt Linda found a heating pad for me, and made sure that I had a blanket, pillow, and remote control on the couch. I went to the window to wave goodbye to all of them as they got into the car. Billy Ray was climbing up on the hood of the car as the rest of the family seemed to be having a serious discussion about who had dibs on shotgun.
Even though the sky was overcast with the wind picking up, the satellite TV was working perfectly. I channel surfed for a while before settling on a Friends marathon, then I lay down on the couch, placing the heating pad on my abdomen, and pulling the blanket up to my chin. I was asleep almost immediately.
Chandler and Monica were sitting on the couch in the coffee shop, and Rachel was bringing them two giant mugs of coffee, while complaining that Phoebe embarrassed her when she ran. Quick cut to Phoebe, running through Central Park, laughing and waving her wet-noodle arms around. Billy Ray suddenly jumped into the shot, adorable and precocious in his Houston Dynamo outfit. The laugh track roared, and I realized that I was in the park, too.
“Run with me, little boy!” Phoebe shouted, and they took off down the path. I went with them. Billy Ray left the path, and disappeared into the trees, which I realized were the trees behind my aunt and uncle’s house.
“I didn’t know that my relatives lived in Central Park,” I said, and the laugh track erupted. I laughed, too. Then, I was running with Phoebe, through the trees and over the little creek.
Phoebe stopped. “We’re lost!” she shouted, and the laugh track tittered. Hands on hips, she looked around, then threw her hands up in an “oh, well!” gesture, and ran again. I wasn’t running, anymore, but I was still with her, moving over the ground as if on wheels. Billy Ray wasn’t anywhere to be found. We stopped in a clearing, the one with the little graveyard. Behind us, I heard a tap, tap, tap.
I turned, and saw a redheaded boy about James’s age in a Confederate uniform, tapping two drumsticks on a large snare drum that he wore fastened to his body by a wide, leather strap across his shoulder. On our right, I heard a rustling in the brush just outside the clearing. From it, emerged a dark skinned teenage girl in generic, stereotypical Native American dress, all buckskin and feathers. She was out of breath and crying. She looked left and right, and took off across the clearing. Suddenly, Joey, the handsome, stupid friend, appeared, tackling the girl, and pinning her down on the ground. “How YOU doin’?” he mush mouthed as he held her down, and the laugh track roared loudly enough to shake the trees.
“Joey!” Phoebe, laughed, elbowing me in the arm. “He does that all the time.” More canned laughter. The little drummer boy began doing a roll on his drum, the sticks moving so fast that they were almost invisible.
I looked up at the trees, and saw a face in the leaves, ancient and huge. As I looked, the face slid down from the treetops and multiplied, forming into the trunks of the trees, glowering at Phoebe and me. Phoebe started giggling and flopping her arms around, and ran, slamming into me. I stumbled, and stepped into air. As I fell, I knew that I had fallen into the old well.
I jumped awake to fading light from outside and an intense need for ibuprofen, a drink, and the bathroom. I turned on the light in the kitchen, and saw that Janey or Aunt Linda had left glass of orange juice and some pills on the kitchen counter for me. Two pills were set on a sticky note, which read, “Take these ibuprofen with the whole glass of juice.” I was parched, so I drained the glass after popping the two pills. Having set on the counter for a whole afternoon, the juice was warm and bitter, and the texture gritty. I ran some water into the glass and swished it around, draining it with what was left of the juice. In the living room, Ross and Phoebe argued over whether or not evolution was real, and Jennifer Aniston complained about being a waitress. I was grateful for the noise from the TV.
The light was fading further, and I couldn’t help but think of all of the cut-em-up movies I’d watched at sleepovers throughout high school. I made my way through the kitchen, living room, and hallway, turning on lights. I felt gross, so after using the bathroom, I stripped off my clothes and climbed into the shower. The combination of the hot water and steam felt wonderful. I lathered all over at least three times, then I just stood, letting the water jet onto my head. The cramps seemed to be subsiding as the water massaged my scalp. I was just turning around to put my back into the water’s path, when a sharp pain ripped into my hip.
Billy Ray was leaning into the shower, grinning up at me as he held the curtain back with one hand. With the other he held a good inch of the skin on my hip in an impossibly tight pinch between his thumb and finger. Not even caring that I was naked, I reached down and grabbed at his wrist, squeezing with all my might. At that point, he was pinching me so hard that I was afraid that he would take the skin with him if I simply tried to push his hand away. I could see the pain.
“Billy Ray! Stop it!” I cried, still trying to remove his hand. His grasp only grew tighter. The pain was making it harder to breath. The water from the shower was no longer pleasant, but an assault, getting into my nose and mouth, blurring my vision.
“Does it hurt?” Billy Ray giggled, all eyes and teeth in that crooked grin. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of answering. I focused his hand, letting go of the wrist and grasping at the two vice-like fingers, trying to pull them apart. I couldn’t, and he managed to pinch even harder.
“I said,” Billy Ray shouted, his face now hardening, eyes filled with hot anger. It wasn’t the face of a child. “Does . . . it . . .hurt?”
“Yes . . .” I choked, beginning to cry. I didn’t want to admit it, but I needed him to stop. “Billy Ray, that hurts!”
He let go, and stood back, dropping the shower curtain into place. As I stood there under the cool water, unable to stop crying in stupid, pathetic gasping and moaning sobs, I sensed Billy Ray leaving the bathroom. He didn’t slam the door, but I felt sure that he closed it three times.
By the time I had stopped crying and gotten into my PJs, I was feeling horrible, like I was coming down with the flu. I was acutely aware of my own breathing and heartbeat, hearing my own pulse in my ears. My legs and arms seemed too heavy. I went into Janey’s room, and managed to get down on my hands and knees to look under my bed. I was feeling too strange, physically, to consider what I was feeling otherwise, whether it be fear or anger. I pulled up the bedspread, but Billy Ray wasn’t under the bed.
It took some effort to get back onto my feet. Why was I so dizzy? My limbs were even heavier than they had been a moment before. Practically dragging my feet, I inched out of the bedroom and down the hallway, to the boys’ bedroom.
“Billy Ray?” I said, pushing the door open. I hadn’t looked into James and Billy Ray’s room before. It was a typical boy’s room, with a bunkbed and posters of athletes on the wall. There was a messy desk, covered in comic books and collectable action figures. I squinted at the room, and put my hand to my head. Something was wrong with the room. That something was somewhere in my head, but, in my growing disorientation, I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Billy Ray wasn’t in this room.
My mouth was full of cotton. I needed water. As I turned out of the doorway to make my way down the hall to the kitchen, the floor and walls suddenly did a funhouse tilt, and I staggered across the hall, hitting the doorway to my aunt and uncle’s room, grabbing onto the doorway to steady myself. I tried to call for Billy Ray, again, but all I could produce was a garbled whisper.
Under the voices of the friends chattering in their impossibly large New York apartment, a phone was ringing. Through the increasingly thick cloud that was taking the place of my brain, I realized that it wasn’t a phone on the TV show, but the kitchen phone. The hallway stretched out in front of me, impossibly long, and tipping from side to side. I made my way there by holding alternating arms out to brace myself against the hallway, which was now tilting steadily from side to side like a small boat on a choppy sea.
Somehow, I reached the phone. I couldn’t seem to put the thought together to command my hand to pick up the phone, but it did so. My own cell number was on the caller ID, and for a moment I felt a complete disorientation. How could I be calling? Uncle Eddie and Aunt Linda had taken my phone, I remembered, bringing the phone up to my ear.
“H’llo?” I slurred, and the floor tilted. I saw the empty glass and note on the kitchen counter and remembered the pills and the gritty juice.
“Hey, Mel!” my Aunt Linda chirped. “How are you feeling, sweetie?”
I was sitting on the floor by this point, putting all of my energy into holding onto the phone, and trying to form words with a tongue that felt swollen and muddy.
“An-Linna . . .” I managed, the world swirling and turning gray around me. “Pills . . . er . . . t’srong.”
Silence, and then Aunt Linda’s voice, this time serious and tinged with fear, “Mel, I can’t understand you, honey. What did you say?”
I was dying, I realized. The gray closing around me was death. I wasn’t ready for this. Drawing in a deep breath with all my strength, I said, as clearly as possible, “The . . . pills . . . were . . . too . . . strong!”
My strength was completely gone, and I fell onto my back, the phone dropping from my hand onto the kitchen floor. I heard a giggle from the living room. Through the gray, I saw Billy Ray, grinning a smile of pure bliss as he walked into the kitchen. He was doing this, I realized, through the fog. He was the reason I was dying. My little eight-year-old cousin.
“Why,” I managed to whisper. “Why . . . do . . . this . . . to me?”
The smile faded from Billy Ray’s face. In that moment, he looked like a perfectly normal child. The look on his face was genuinely thoughtful. He was, I realized, honestly trying to figure out the answer to my question, as if he’d never stopped to consider it before. After a moment, he looked into my eyes. His eyes looked sad, and very, very old.
“You know,” Billy Ray said, in a voice that was not that of a child, “I really don’t know.”
Then, Billy Ray was smiling, again, and climbing, up the wall, across the ceiling. He smacked the light fixture as he crawled past it, making it swing. He crawled down, across the kitchen cabinets, onto the counter, and down lower, so that his face was just above mine. I sank down into the gray, feeling a level of terror that I had never imagined, despite years of reading hardcore horror.
“I got’cha where I want’cha!” He squealed. This was real, and I was dying. My world went from gray to black as the canned audience laughed in the living room.
I didn’t die, obviously, since I’m telling this story and, as far as I know, I’m not a ghost. At least not yet.
I woke up in the hospital. My relatives had sped home after our phone conversation, such as it was. They found me on the kitchen floor in my pajamas, my head in a puddle of vomit. Aunt Linda and Uncle Eddie had rushed me to the hospital, while Janey and James stayed behind to try to figure out what was wrong with me. I’d mentioned pills when they’d called, I was later told, so they went straight to the medicine cabinets. Uncle Eddie had an old bottle of oxycodone from some oral surgery he’d had a couple of years earlier, and it was missing from his cabinet. Janey found it under my bed, empty. Uncle Eddie couldn’t remember how many he’d taken, and how many were in the bottle, but I knew that there had been at least the two that were on the counter, and however many Billy Ray had put into the orange juice. I was given naloxone and charcoal, and I lived.
I was in my hospital bed, with Janey in the chair beside me, watching TV when Uncle Eddie called to tell me that he’d reached my parents in Santa Marta, and that they’d be with me in a couple of days. I was so happy that I cried.
Later, James, Aunt Linda, and Uncle Eddie all joined Janey around my bed. They looked at me kindly. Aunt Linda finally spoke.
“Mel, honey, why did you take those pills? Have you ever taken something like that, before?”
No longer caring whether or not they wanted to spoil the baby of the family, I told them that Billy Ray had tricked me into taking the pills. They still looked at me kindly, but I could see frustration on Aunt Linda’s face.
“Now, Mel, you know that isn’t true. Stop playing, and tell us what happened.”
“It was him, I swear.” I looked back and forth at all of them. They all looked at Uncle Eddie, who cleared his throat.
“Well, now . . .” Uncle Eddie, chuckled uncomfortably. “Billy Ray is our trickster, but let’s not get carried away.”
“He’s not a trickster,” said James. “He’s a Confederate drummer boy. Or a Choctaw girl who ran away to escape an arranged marriage, right Janey?”
“No,” said Janey, obviously relieved for the interruption in the intervention. “I don’t think that, anymore. Now I think he’s a nature spirit. An elemental. He’s never been anything close to human.”
“Y’all!” My aunt said firmly. She looked at me, “Now, Mel. You know that we just blame Billy Ray for anything odd that happens in the house.”
I couldn’t wrap my brain around what I was hearing. Then, like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle clicking into place, I understood what had been off about James’ bedroom. It was the room of a thirteen year-old boy. There were no toys, or little kids’ games: none of the things that an eight year-old boy would have. In fact, I realized, I hadn’t seen any toys in any part of the house. Billy Ray wasn’t the baby of the family. Billy Ray . . . wasn’t.
“But,” I said, “The door slamming three times. The stuff moving around.”
“Well, the house is on a bit of a hill, and the contractors, they used the cheapest materials they could find to build it. We actually threatened to sue them, truth be told,”
said Uncle Eddie, who looked like he wanted to be anywhere else. “The door isn’t hung properly, and that hallway is drafty. The door, well, it just slams on its own.”
“Well . . .” I went on, still not believing. “He took a shower. Remember? James had to go and turn the water off and you . . . you said that . . .”
“Mel,” Aunt Linda said, now visibly annoyed. “There’s a problem with the water pressure in our bathroom. The water comes on a bit, and we have to turn it off.”
James piped in, “We used to call him Mr. Nobody, but that was too creepy. So we started calling him Billy Ray.”
“So, he’s a ghost,” I said. Aunt Linda let out a frustrated puff of air and closed her eyes. Desperate, I looked at Janey, willing her to back me up. “Janey, you told me yourself that the house was haunted. You said it was haunted!”
Janey looked from me to her parents, and then back to me again. “Oh, Mel. Weird things happen in the house, but, we’re so far out in the country and it’s so quiet. I mean, every sound seems louder and scarier out there. I like to say it’s haunted, with the graveyard out back and everything. But, Mel . . . come on. All that stuff . . .”
I finished for her, “Happens all the time.”
I didn’t bother trying to prove my point after I saw the look on Janey’s face shift from concerned to suspicious to annoyed. I didn’t protest when the therapist came to see me in my hospital room to talk to me about the dangers of opioids. I didn’t defend myself when Aunt Linda gave me a speech about teenage drama and the need for attention. I didn’t even bother to show anyone the deep red and purple bruise on my hip. They’d probably think that I’d done it to myself. I couldn’t take seeing anyone hearing me speak and then giving each other knowing looks and nods.
My parents showed up and took me home. My senior year went as most do, full of college applications, dates with some very nice boys (and some not so nice ones), arguments and reconciliations, promises written in yearbooks, none of which would be kept for very long. I started taking birth control for the horrible cramps, and it really helped. In between all the normal stuff, there was lots of therapy, a lot of crying and avoiding going outside, and many nights spent in my bedroom with the lights on, or sleeping on a pallet on my parents’ bedroom floor. I finally figured out that I could sleep in my own room if I had my mattress directly on the floor. That way, nothing could hide underneath.
GFMom and Aunt Linda don’t talk much, anymore. I wrote a few letters to Janey, but she only wrote back once. My mom said that she must have been very busy and not to take it personally.
My freshman year at college is going well. I like my classes, and my roommate, although she sleeps way too much. I’ve learned when the showers in my dorm are the busiest, and I always shower then, so there’s no chance of being alone in the room. I don’t have to work, so I have plenty of time to study, which I do all the time, or so my roommate tells me.
I keep busy. I’m okay as long as I’m busy.
When I’m not busy, that’s when I’m not okay. That’s when I’ll find myself shaking, first deep inside my chest, and then all over. When I’m not busy, I’m liable to see a face with dark, tousled hair and a snaggle-tooth smile peeking from behind a tree, or in through the window of a classroom door. Or I’ll catch a glimpse of a little boy in a Houston Dynamo kit disappearing around a corner. When I’m not busy, I start to cry every time a door in the dorm slams, certain that the one slam will be followed by two more. When I’m not busy, I think about the bruise on my hip, and how the marks matched exactly where my fingers would be if I had pinched myself.
Sometimes I lie in the small bed in my dorm room, listening to my roommate’s snores, and the muffled noises in the hallway, and, behind my closed eyes, I see Billy Ray.
A little boy in a soccer jersey.
A Confederate drummer boy.
A Choctaw maiden.
An elemental spirit.