The Cupcake: Tennessee Halloween Story

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Tennessee Halloween story of a creepy old woman giving strange treats to neighborhood kids, including one you may not want to eat! Written by Harris Tobias

Springfield, Tennessee, 1995. All Hallows Eve. It was a freer time. You could let your kids go door to door unsupervised and you knew who your neighbor was. Or did you?

“Trick or treat!” the eager young face of little Terry Whipple called. Old Mrs. Parker beamed her kindest smile at the elaborately costumed seven year old.

“Aren’t you just the cutest thing? And what are you supposed to be?” Mrs. Parker asked, straining to keep her pleasant demeanor.

“I’m a witch,” replied the little girl who, with her wig and pointy hat, looked like a cartoon version of the Wicked Witch of the West right down to the hairy mole on her chin and miniature broom.

“You don’t really believe in witches,” the old lady asked. “Do you?”

Terry shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Well, you’re so cute, I’m going to give you a special treat,” Mrs. Parker said as she reached around and handed Terry a cupcake. “I baked these this morning especially for us witches.” She slipped the cupcake into Terry’s goody bag. Mrs. Parker chose one of the little cakes from a tray that must have held a dozen of them. They all had orange frosting and a face made of candy and sprinkles. The expression on little cake’s face matched that of Mrs. Parker’s – a person not used to smiling. Terry thanked her and went to the next house on the street.

Halloween Cupcakes With Bats

Ever since Mrs. Parker moved in to the old Spencer house, strange things had been happening in the neighborhood. First the Spencer family were all afflicted with some bizarre allergy and were forced to sell their house and move to Arizona. Mrs. Parker bought their house the very day it went on the market. The Whipples became her next door neighbors. Terry had been introduced to Mrs. Parker when her mother brought her a plate of cookies and welcomed her to the neighborhood.

“It’s so sad about the Spencers,” Terry’s mother said. “We’d been neighbors for such a long time. It’s so strange them getting sick like that.” Mrs. Parker just smiled her not-quite smile and said nothing.

Then the Bartlett boy disappeared. The police were still looking for him.

Now it was Halloween and Terry was allowed to visit her neighbors and ring their doorbells all by herself. Terry knew all the families up and down the block and they all knew her. Everyone gave her something, mostly it was candy but sometimes coins. When she got to the Bartlett house she hesitated, wondering if it was okay to disturb Mrs. Bartlett what with Billy being missing and all. But after some small deliberation, she rang the bell. Mrs. Bartlett answered. There were dark circles under her eyes, it was obvious she had been crying. “Trick or treat!” called Terry, sorry she was there.

“Well, aren’t you the cutest thing,” said Mrs. Bartlett making an effort to be happy and handed Terry an apple. The Bartletts always gave out apples on Halloween. They believed that sugar was bad for children. Then, quite unexpectedly, Mrs. Bartlett burst into tears and had to close the door.

When she had been to every house on the block, Terry returned home and dumped her loot out on the kitchen table. She had an assortment of miniature candy bars, thirty eight cents in coins, Mrs. Bartlett’s apple and Mrs. Parker’s cupcake. Terry liked cupcakes. What kid didn’t? She examined it closely. The face looked different. The candy mouth was open and its little sugar teeth were pointy. It didn’t look that way before, did it? She figured the cupcake had gotten squashed in her bag. She didn’t like the looks of those teeth.

Putting the cupcake aside, she reached for the apple. That was one snack her mother wouldn’t mind if she ate. She was about to take a bite when she noticed that the apple had already been bitten into. The apple’s white flesh was already turning the color of dried blood. She didn’t remember the apple having a bite missing when Mrs. Bartlett handed it to her. She threw the apple in the garbage. Maybe Mrs. Bartlett was too upset to realize what she was doing. That must be it, poor woman. It must be hard to lose a child like that. One minute he’s playing in the street and the next he’s gone.

Terry looked at the cupcake again. Now the face was smiling, a nasty satisfied smile, the kind of smile you get when you’ve done something bad but it feels so good. This was too much. Terry picked up the cupcake and tossed it in the garbage. She noticed a blob of orange frosting on her hand. She licked it off reflexively without even thinking. It tasted sweet but also vaguely odd like hamburger cooked very rare. It gave her chills.

She washed her hands, brushed her teeth and got ready for bed. She slipped into her pajamas and kissed her parents good night. She lay in bed for a long time before sleep would come, and when it came it was restless and filled with nightmares. She dreamed she saw the Bartlett boy, his skin blue and frozen. When she touched his shoulder he turned toward her, his mouth contorted in a silent scream. He had no arms.

She screamed herself awake. Her parents came running. They put on her light and dispelled the darkness her mother stroked her hair and comforted her until she could speak.

“That’s what comes from too much candy before bed,” her mother said.

“I didn’t have any candy,” Terry said in a tiny voice.

“What’s all this then?” Terry’s dad said pointing to an orange stain on her pillow. It was the frosting. Now Terry was really scared. She tried to explain about the cupcake and the terrible dream but it all came out garbled and didn’t make any sense. Terry made her father check under the bed and in the bedroom closet but he couldn’t find anything. When her parents finally said goodnight and returned to bed, Terry tip toed into the kitchen and looked into the garbage pail.

The cupcake wasn’t there.

-THE END-

Harris Tobias lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of The Greer Agency , A Felony of Birds and dozens of short stories. His fiction has appeared in Ray Gun Revival, Dunesteef Audio Magazine, Literal Translations, FriedFiction, Down In The Dirt, Eclectic Flash, E Fiction and many other publications. His poetry has appeared in Vox Poetica, The poem Factory and The Poetry Super Highway. You can find links to his novels at: http://harristobias-fiction.blogspot.com/


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Our Ghosts

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Help Wanted: The Rosebud Street library is looking for a new ghost. Apply during twilight hours. An original ghost story by Tim Westover.

The new library on Rosebud Street in Grayson, Georgia couldn’t be opened to the public without its own ghost. In the 90’s, the city council built several libraries around town that didn’t have ghosts, following the general tide of the times away from the old superstitions. Those libraries were filled with rainbow colors, comfy chairs, little stuffed animals, smiling faces—all to attract visitors, as if a library was a cafe or coffee shop!

But the city council later regretted its errors. The visitors to those libraries complained that something important was missing: the cold finger that draws itself along one’s neck when one steps into the stacks, the mist of silence that veils the periodicals. Such feelings turn a book-filled room into a real library. At great expense, the city council rid itself of the rainbow colors and comfy chairs and tried to install in their place appropriate ghosts, but the atmosphere was never quite right. The shadows that should have played in the dark corners weren’t dark enough, and the footsteps that should have paced the empty corridors could hardly be heard.

Hoping to avoid another catastrophe, the city council hired me. I had been among the most vocal of the concerned citizens when the ghosts were omitted from the earlier libraries, and I knew the ghosts of our town better than anyone else. Only I could interview the various candidates and choose the most fitting for the new library on Rosebud Street. It was not only a matter of equipment, which I possessed—the tape recorders, magnetometers, and time-lapse cameras—but a matter of acclimation and expertise. I could keep my wits and therefore approach the task with the necessary dispassion.

Gillete Library, Library of the Castle

The ghosts of our little American town are nothing like the ghost of the Old World. Our eldest spirits are from the 19th century. Compared to the dwellers among the English stones or German forests, 19th century ghosts are only children. It’s true that once, in the slice of land that our town now occupied, there were Native Americans with ten thousand years’ ancestral spirits, but the first settlers drove away the natives and the ghosts, expelling them to the mountains or to the western reservations. None of the old ghosts stayed behind, or if they did, they didn’t survive into the modern age. Anywhere they could have installed themselves was plowed down into cotton. This is a great misfortune; our little town could use more diversity to shake off our provincial prejudices.

More than half of our town’s ghosts are soldiers killed during the Civil War. They sit on their gravestones in the Old Cemetery and gamble on dice, or they complain about the hard tack and pine tea, or they play idle music on harmonicas and cheese hoop banjos. The ghostly soldiers rarely leave their earthly encampment, but they vigorously defend it against invaders. Once, a drunk wandered from the Hail Mary sports bar into the Old Cemetery. He had a mind to turn over some tombstones as a amusement. That, of course, was an aggression not to be tolerated, and the ghostly soldiers conspired to turn over a tombstone onto the drunk himself. It was a little menhir, a spire six feet tall that commemorated a particularly noble horse (who, I have discovered, is only partially buried in our town; his tail is here, but his limbs and head and other horseflesh is ten miles up the river). The toppled monument pinned the drunk’s leg against the cold earth, and the pitiable fellow spent the night crying out as the ghostly soldiers bounced long-rotted sunflower seeds off his wriggling form. None of the nearby inhabitants paid attention to the drunk’s pleas—they were accustomed to the generally debauched atmosphere among the soldiers in the Old Cemetery and gave the noises no special mind.

For my search for the Rosebud Library ghost, I set up a little office next to the historic courthouse and sent announcements along the usual spiritual channels. Applicants were requested to arrive during twilight hours for interviews. I was a little too old to make it to the witching hour, straight midnight, without falling asleep.

The first to visit was the ghost of Edward Owens, who lives in the abandoned train station in the valley. Edward was ten years old in 1885, when he put a fat metal screw on the railroad tracks. He wanted the train to flatten it; it would be a novelty. He’d seen others put out pennies on the tracks, but Edward did not have a penny to spare. The five o’clock express to Atlanta rushed past, and the fat screw became snarled in the wheel works. Sparks jumped forth and brakes engaged, but the momentum of the rear cars was too great. The train crumpled against itself, and the cars jumped the tracks. Six passengers and three cows died. A grain storehouse and two water towers were destroyed. The rail line was closed for ten days, postponing the delivery of tobacco, gravy, and beer that were the lifeblood of the local economy. For all this death and delay, and because Edward could never hope to repay what was lost, he was hanged outside of the train station. The gallows were normally built outside the courthouse, but this was a special occasion. As is customary, it was not the accidentally killed passengers that had their spirits imprinted on the land where the rusted smears of tracks are still visible. Instead, it was the little boy, suffering his own catastrophe of sudden guilt and untimely violence, whose spirit remained.

I decided that Edward Owens was not a good candidate for a library ghost; the simple fact was, he couldn’t read, and that seemed to be a poor thematic and moral lesson.

The next interviewee was Molly Maltbie, whose husband was a famous drinker in the Eagle Tavern on Pike Street. The tavern opened in 1911 against the objections of the local temperance committee; the local workers and farmers made it a great success. Every night Maltbie spent his strength, time, and money in the Eagle, consuming legendary quantities of beer and of a homebrew that was also renowned for its efficacy in removing paint. When the Eagle Tavern, later transformed into the Eagle Pool Hall, was renovated to become the Hail Mary sports bar, the new owners stripped away 70’s-era vinyl and found hash marks on the original woodwork that seemed to recount a particular liquor contest from almost a hundred years before. One storm-wracked night, while Maltbie was at the tavern, his wife could not longer be restrained. She made her famed March on the Eagle, carrying a hook and a broom. She opened the tavern doors with her boot; lightning illuminated the wrath on her face. “With this broom, I’ll give this place such a cleaning!” she cried, breaking every bottle and glass, upending tables, splintering the great mirror above the bar, shredding the indecent pictures, and defending herself against the counter-attacks of the clientele. In truth, after her assault, the tavern was much less clean, by the traditional use of the word. She placed her hook beneath the collar of her husband’s shirt and dragged him into the street, through mud puddles and thorn bushes, until they reached their beloved and peaceful home. On stormy nights, one can still see her white form making the March up Pike Street, and from the Hail Mary, there will be incidents where waitresses accidentally upend pint glasses of lite draft.

But after a long conversation with Molly, I decided that she, also, was not the right candidate for the library. She died as an old woman and was not very attractive—a round, plump woman with a mustache and big ears. That sort of ghost would not be approved by the public, who would want someone more beautiful. Her spirit-forming event, too, was a loud and raucous one, which would be unbecoming in a library atmosphere. And finally, I will admit to a personal bias. The ghost tours that I lead, commencing in September and running three times weekly until the first week in November, would be much less rich without the story of Molly Maltbie. I needed her at her current station; she was a necessary, punchy, up-beat figure in a litany of ghosts that would otherwise be too maudlin.

Next was Mike Callums, who occupied a place at the one-time Rhodes Hotel. Mike trained as a boxer and in 1933 won a high title at a regional championship. He returned to our town as a hero, and a grand spectacle was mounted for him in the courthouse square. The party burned long into the night, and as the women and children wandered homeward and the evening became heavy and boastful, Mike offered to face any challenger. He bested thirteen, but the fourteenth was the wheel man at Watson’s Mill, and his work had imbued the sinews of his arms with more strength than any boxer’s training. Already worn and battered, Mike Callums could not beat him. Immediately, the air of the place changed. The cheers and shouts stopped, and the high title lost its worth. Mike’s fiery temper was snuffed out. That same night, the Rhodes Hotel burned, and Mike Callums died.

I decided that he, too, was inappropriate for the library ghost. He was an angry and tormented spirit. At the Rhodes Hotel (rebuilt in the 80‘s and now hosting lawyers’ offices and a sub-par Italian restaurant), he terrified visitors with cries, blows, and hurled furniture. I was afraid that he would be insufficiently subtle for a library. The fire that had killed him had also left him with certain grievous wounds that could not be cured in a bloodless body. His face would be more fitting for a horror movie or nightmare than a glimpse reflection in the windows behind the circulation desk.

But when almost every hope for a suitable candidate was lost, Amelia Bloom arrived in my office. Her blue eyes, perpetually half-filled with tears, blinked below her wide-brimmed hat. Amelia was born and raised in a large white house, set back aways from the main street of our town, and her family was well-respected. Her pleasant face ornamented Fourth of July Parades, and she sang sweetly and harmoniously in the choir. Every young man in town wanted to be her beau, and there was more mourning than celebrating when she announced her engagement to Jack Thompson, a handsome and clever calvary officer. Their days were happy and bright, but, alas, too short! Heartrending was the hour that he was called up to the great campaigns of the Civil Wars. From the moment of his departure, Amelia stood sentry at the window of her family’s house. But after two years, three years, her young face was lined with hopelessness. Passers-by saw her at the window and thought her a ghost, though she was not yet dead. After her passing, her demeanor and appearance changed little, except that she was somewhat more flighty and transparent. I was surprised that she was willing to surrender her watch and take up a place at the library, but even ghosts, I suppose, can get bored.

A more ideal candidate for the job I could not hope to find. Amelia was young and beautiful and therefore certain to be more popular and inspirational than the ghost of an old woman. She was intelligent and literate, but not a dusty professor that would sink into the books and forget that her chief role was to interact with the visitors. She died in a quiet but pure and pitiable way—heartbreak. She was not a crazy or savage ghost who would freeze the blood of steely-nerved adults, but she would give to the library the essential and delicately perceptible aura of something strange.

The city council immediately approved my recommendation, and on the day before the ribbon cutting for the Rosebud Street library, I introduced her to her new home. The books stood in neat rows, like soldiers in file. Amelia comments on this in a sad voice. I suggested that she could shuffle the books a little, put them in a slight disorder. It would be best if she rearranged them only subtly—put volume H after F, and M after T, so that her presence should be eerie and not overt. She should leave books open to random pages; visitors would find for themselves some significance in the revealed text and credit Amelia with clairvoyance. On stormy days, it would be her job to flicker the lights haphazardly. If a piece of paper were left on a table, she should decorate it with curious symbols and invented words; it was unimportant if these words have any sense behind them.

Amelia nodded her understanding. Happily, she didn’t ask why a ghost was required to do these things, because I didn’t have a ready response. It was the behavior demanded by visitors. It fit with the ghosts of film and literature and campfire stories. It is odd, I think, that they expect such conduct from ghosts, because in my experience ghosts are neither random or capricious. They stalk the same places for centuries and remain fixed on the same obsessions. There are some so regular that one can set his watch to their moans and wails.

In front of a crowd on Rosebud Street, the city council cut the red ribbon and turned the golden key. And when the visitors entered the library, they felt a cold finger run down their necks, and they felt the mists of silence wrap their ears and hearts. The memories of those warm, modern libraries were lost, and everyone recognized that the Rosebud Street library, properly provisioned with a ghost, was good and correct.

But Amelia was even more clever than I had anticipated. For several weeks, she fulfilled her role as a library ghost splendidly. She rearranged and opened the books at random, she flickered the lights, she scrawled words and symbols. But at night, when the visitors were away, Amelia read. Strange conduct for a ghost! They are not much for entertainment or self-improvement. She read everything that the Rosebud Street library offered on the Civil War. First, she read the basic histories, then the historical annals of our town, which held the records of enlisted and casualties —the list of ghosts. After she had finished these, she left requests that the library should send away to other institutions for further documents: maps, collected letters, battle plans, lists of burials at battlefield and prison camps. The librarians obeyed; perhaps they felt it their duty to serve a client, supernatural or otherwise, or perhaps they didn’t want to anger a ghost.

Then one day, when I entered the library, no cold finger ran along my neck, and sneezes and snoring and whispers dispelled the mists of silence. Amelia had left behind a letter addressed to me. In her refined antebellum hand, she wrote: “I’ve gone to Jack. He’s waiting on his tombstone in Virginia. I won’t let him wait at the window for all his life after death.”

What could I do? Sometimes, ghosts are not like books, whose stories are fixed to the page.

  • THE END –

Like this story? Order Tim Westover’s fantastical Southern novel “Auraria” from Amazon!


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The Moonlit Road.com Ghost Story Radio Show

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Southern ghost story radio show performed by The Moonlit Road.com storytellers: Veronica Byrd, Thomas E. Fuller, Kodac Harrison, Babs Bagriansky and Jim McAmis. Hosted by Thomas E. Fuller. Music by Hair of the Dog. Featured on WABE 90.1 FM Public Radio’s program The Spoken Word.

Directed by Craig Dominey, recorded and soundscaped by Henry Howard. Performed before a live audience at The Georgian Terrace Hotel, Atlanta, GA.

Scroll down the page to see each performer and follow along with the stories!

Storyteller Veronica Byrd at the Atlanta History Center

Veronica Byrd tells I Don’t Feel Dead Yet, an African-American ghost story from Louisiana about a poor widow who wants to get on her with her life – if only her husband would stay dead!

The Moonlit Road.com Storyteller Jim McAmis at Atlanta History Center

Jim McAmis tells The Maco Light, the famous North Carolina ghost story about the “Maco Light,” a paranormal phenomena along the local railroad that has fascinated ghost hunters for years.

The Moonlit Road.com Storyteller Kodac Harrison tells story at The Moonlit Road.com studios.

Kodac Harrison tells The Promise, a Louisiana ghost story about two childhood friends who make a mutual promise that must be kept – even beyond the grave!

Storyteller Babs Bagriansky at Borders Books Halloween Event

Babs Bagriansky tells The Boo Hag, a Georgia folktale about a man who suspects that his beautiful new bride might be a witch – the Boo Hag!

Storyteller Thomas E. Fuller Moonlit Road Radio Show

Our host, Thomas E. Fuller, tells The Hall Of Wonders, a Civil War creature story amidst the ruins of post-Civil War Charleston, where a mysterious apothecary builds a marine attraction like no other.

Music performed by the wonderful Hair of the Dog (Atlanta):

  • THE END –

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Uncle Andy and the Fire Breathing Dragon: Circus Ghost Story

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Circus ghost story for the kids about an aspiring trapeze artist searching for her famous Uncle Andy in the depths of a strange, ghostly circus. Written by Kathy Warnes.

Shadows lurked at the edge of the circus camp spread around the black mountain of the Big Top pitched beside Shady Creek in a field outside of Sarasota, Florida. The evening cooking and warming fires of the circus people mingled bacon smells with wood smoke and waves of warm air. The railroad tracks marched across a distant meadow with the circus train stretching out on them like a pencil line. One of the shadows materialized into a gypsy wagon with rickety wheels, chipped red and blue paint, faded orange letters, and a scattering of white stars circling a black crystal ball decorating its weather worn sides. Madam Cecelia sat in the oval doorway of the wagon holding the original black crystal ball in her hands. She turned the evening cool, smooth crystal ball over and over and she held it up to the light from the small fire burning in front of her wagon and admired the patterns of the flames as they danced across the crystal ball’s surface.

Then the texture and temperature of the ball changed. It began to warm up gradually like a frozen hand thawing out in a mitten. Soon the crystal ball became too warm for Madam Cecelia to hold and she dropped it on the seat beside her.

“Ouch, that was hot!” Madam Cecelia exclaimed. She leaned over so far that her yellow turban slipped over her eyes and the sleeve of her green and purple striped robe completely covered the crystal ball. She pushed her turban back on her head, pulled her sleeve off the crystal ball and stared into it. Then she asked the cool March air, “Why are you here, Bettina?”

Madam Cecelia stared into the crystal ball and she saw Bettina doing a back flip at the dinner table back at her home.

“I’m going to find Uncle Andy and join the circus!” Bettina proclaimed to those at the table.

Bettina knew exactly where to find Uncle Andy. She read in the Sarasota Spectator that circus owner Robert Ringling had done something different this war year of March 1944. Instead of following the usual custom of dress rehearsing his show in New York, Robert Ringling decided to try out his company right here in Sarasota, Florida. He called his production staff, performers, and musicians to the circus winter quarters and rehearsed and practiced them for weeks. Bettina had read about it in the Sarasota Spectator every day for the past three months. Today, March 26, 1944, the Sarasota Spectator reported that the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus had performed without a hitch and all of the proceeds were going to charity. This would be the last night in town for the circus. It was heading north to New York and then on to Hartford, Connecticut in July. Bettina had recently learned that her Uncle Andy had been an acrobat with the circus for six years.

Bettina couldn’t believe when she came up out of her flip and saw Uncle Andy sitting in the seat of honor next to Papa. Uncle Andy smiled at her. “So I finally get to meet my niece, Bettina. Wonderful flip, just wonderful. You can show me the rest of your act after dinner.”

Bettina’s eyes lit up like she had swallowed a firecracker. She choked on the tea that she had begun to sedately sip to please Papa.

“Papa, can Uncle Andy and I practice acrobatics after dinner?”

Papa set his tea cup into its saucer so hard that tea sloshed over the edges unto Mama’s white lace tablecloth.

Papa seemed to stare straight through Uncle Andy, which Bettina found odd. After all, Uncle Andy was at least twice Papa’s size with red hair that clashed with Papa’s brown hair, and bushy red eyebrows resembling a burning bush. Papa’s glare rested on Mama. “Helen, I forbid you to encourage that child in her absurd fantasies! Circus acrobat, indeed!”

“Dreams aren’t absurd, dear. It takes faith and imagination to dream,” Mama said.

Glaring at Bettina, Papa said, “I forbid you to wear anything but white dresses and pink hair ribbons, and I order you to keep both of your feet on the ground at all times!”

Mama hurried to the kitchen to get a tea towel as Bettina stared at her Papa, shocked at his sudden anger. She dabbed her lace tablecloth with it. “I’m sorry, Helen,” Papa said, grabbing the other end of the towel and dabbing at the tea stain that invaded the tablecloth like a fire licking the edges of a piece of paper. He dabbed at the stain with his end of the towel. “I’ll get you another lace tablecloth, Helen.” He continued to ignore Uncle Andy.

Mama patted his hand and gently worked the dish towel out of it. “Kenneth, why don’t you go into the study and relax while Bettina and I do the dishes?”

Bettina watched Papa walk to the study, Uncle Andy trailing behind, still unnoticed. Papa looked and acted like he was walking into freezing water.

In the kitchen, Mama handed Bettina the dish towel with one hand and a pair of patched brown knickers with the other. They once belonged to her older brother Frank, who had left for Army service months ago.

“You patched Frank’s knickers, Mama. Oh, thank you!”

“Now, if I can just calm your father down enough for you to practice,” Mama muttered as she and Bettina did the dinner dishes. By the time they were finished, Mama had an idea to calm Papa. She told Papa she had a “rose problem” and since Papa liked roses so much, he went to the rose garden with her right away.

Wondering why Mama and Papa were ignoring Uncle Andy, Bettina put on Frank’s patched knickers and one of Papa’s shirts and rushed back into Papa’s study. Uncle Andy showed Bettina the fine points of somersaulting, back flips, and hand stands. It seemed to Bettina that all Uncle Andy had to do was show her the acrobat moves and she was doing them. She flew through the air, she turned and twisted. Bettina was flying!

Bettina was so happy with her acrobatics and Uncle Andy was so happy with his teaching her that neither of them noticed Papa until he stomped through the door and grabbed Bettina in mid somersault. He sat Bettina down on the floor so hard that her teeth chattered. “Go upstairs and take off those knickers at once!” Papa shouted.

“But me and Uncle Andy…” Bettina protested.

“Don’t you mention his name in this house again!” Papa roared.

Uncle Andy turned and rushed out out the front door, slamming it behind him. Bettina then went into the hall closet and got out one of Frank’s old baseball caps that Mama had put there. Bettina put on the baseball cap, marched upstairs then carefully climbed down the rose trellis that Mama had put up outside her window. Using her newly practiced crab crawl, she climbed down two stories, careful to use the toeholds in the trellis. Then she hurried toward the circus grounds on Sherwood Avenue, looking for Uncle Andy.

Circus Tent

Madam Cecelia stared into the crystal ball and she saw Bettina running toward the Big Top.

“Bettina, why are you here?” As Bettina ran closer, the crystal ball again changed temperature from warm to so hot that Madam Cecelia dropped it and waved her hands in the air to cool them off.

“How did you know my name?” Bettina asked the strange looking woman in the green and purple striped robe and yellow turban who looked more like a clown than a spooky gypsy fortune teller. “How did you recognize me when I’m wearing my knickers and my baseball cap?”

“I know all. I see around knickers. I see under baseball caps. I see into the future,” Madam Cecelia intoned.

“Your turban is on crooked,” Bettina told Madam Cecelia.

“My crystal ball is straight looking and talking,” Madam Cecelia said. “And it’s telling you to go home. Girls don’t run away to join the circus.”

“Most girls don’t join the circus but I’m not most girls. I wear knickers and turn somersaults and I’m going to find my Uncle Andy and I’m going to join the circus with him,” Bettina said.

“Come inside, then,” said Madam Cecelia, beckoning to Bettina. Your Uncle Andy is busy carrying water for the elephants, but we can wait for him here and maybe fix him some supper.” She patted the wagon seat beside her.

At first Bettina hesitated, but when Madam Cecelia looked at her like she was a timid girl, Bettina climbed up beside her on the wagon seat. Madam Cecelia handed her the crystal ball. “Hold this while I go inside and get some sausage to fry for supper,” she said to Bettina.

Madam Cecelia disappeared inside the wagon for what seemed like hours to Bettina. Darkness had tucked itself more firmly around the wagon during the time Madam Cecelia was inside, and the fire in front of the wagon nearly went out. When Madam Cecelia saw the embers, she said sharply to Bettina, “Quickly, quickly, go to the woods across the field there and collect more firewood.”

Bettina stumbled across the dark field, her feet tripping over roots and the uneven ground. Once she stumbled into a rabbit hole and had to struggle to get out. Her ankle ached, but she kept running. Finally, she reached the edge of the woods. The wall of trees, as solid as the black bulk of the Big Top, seemed to rush to meet her, their branches reaching out to grab her and pull her into their thick scratchy arms.

Although she was wearing her knickers, Bettina shivered like she had seen her girlfriends Sally and Janet shiver when they were afraid. She also had seen her cousin Frank whistle when he was afraid, so she shivered and whistled both, as she took three steps into the woods. She could see twigs and small branches on the ground and she quickly gathered up an armful and turned to run away.

Then she saw it – a bright red glowing light coming toward her and growing larger and larger as it drew nearer. Bettina stopped whistling. The glowing red light was a red dragon with fire shooting from its nose and claws, flying faster than she could run.

Grasping her firewood closely to her chest, Bettina ran for the edge of the woods, with the fire breathing dragon chasing her. Bettina thought that the dragon wouldn’t follow her out of the woods, but she could feel the dragon’s breath on her neck as she raced across the meadow. The fiery breath of the dragon singed her hair and she did several somersaults to get further ahead. Bettina was so out of breath she couldn’t even shout for help as she ran past the cooking fires of the circus people camped for the night.

Still clutching the firewood, Bettina did one giant somersault and landed in front of Madam Cecelia’s campfire. She stood up from her somersault, dropped the wood in front of the fire, and panting and wheezing, she pointed to where she had last seen the fire breathing dragon.

“There!” she gasped. “There!”

“There’s no one there,” Madam Cecelia said. “Thank you for getting the wood. And Andy is here!” She pointed to her crystal ball.

Bettina stared into the crystal ball, but she didn’t see anything but her own reflection.

“I want to see Uncle Andy! Uncle Andy’s an acrobat! He flies through the air on three trapezes and does somersaults in the air between them. He’s the best acrobat in the world, and I want to be just like him.”

For a minute Bettina had forgotten about the fire eating dragon, but the blazing of Madam Cecelia’s fire as she threw on the firewood reminded her and she looked over both of her shoulders. She didn’t see the dragon, but before she could say anything about it, a man with shoulders like barrels came up to the fire. Staring at Bettina, he said, “The elephants need feeding, watering, and bedding down NOW!”

The man with the shoulders like barrels pulled Bettina along by the arm and then into a nearby barn where two elephants stood flinging hay into the air. He handed her two buckets. “Fill these with water from the creek near the Big Top while I feed them some carrots and toss some hay for their beds,” he said.

Bettina carried the water buckets past the campfires of the circus people and soon she saw Shady Creek, so small that she was tempted to somersault across it, running past the Big Top. Instead, she knelt on its banks, and filled the water buckets. As she stood up and picked up the water buckets, Bettina’s eyes rested on peak of the Big Top. She then saw a thin line of fire spread across the canvas like water soaking into a sponge.

Bettina hauled her buckets of water to the doorway of the Big Top and stood on tiptoe, trying to throw water on the fire.

“What do you think you’re doing?” The man with shoulders like barrels stood beside her and grabbed a bucket from her hand.

“I’m trying to put out the fire. Don’t you see it?” Bettina waved frantically at the top of the Big Top, but there was no fire, just a smooth expanse of canvas.

“You need to get that water back to the elephants and stop playing tricks,” the man said. “Now git along with you!”

Bettina refilled the water buckets and hurried back to the barn. She heard the elephants trumpeting as she got nearer to the barn, and she put the buckets of water in front of the elephants and watched them take long slow drinks. Suddenly, one of the elephants took a long drink of water in its trunk and squirted it at the other elephant. Bettina laughed as the other elephant retaliated and both of them squirted water at each other. She kept laughing as she traveled back and forth to the creek for five more buckets of water so the elephants would have enough water to drink and squirt.

After she had finished watering the elephants, Bettina went back to Madam Cecelia’s gypsy wagon. She had to find Uncle Andy and if the crystal ball could tell her where to find him, she would pester it until it told her.

The wagon door was closed, but Bettina talked to it anyway. “Madam Cecelia, I’ve seen the strangest things around here tonight. First, a fire eating dragon chased me across the meadow, but I hung on to the firewood. Then I saw a flame run across the top of the Big Top, and when I told the man with barrel shoulders, he said he didn’t see it and he told me to keep hauling water for the elephants. What’s going on?”

Madam Cecelia didn’t open the door. Bettina stared into the shadows. Suddenly, she felt afraid. What if the fire eating dragon came charging at her from the other side of the fire?

Bettina folded her hands and cracked her knuckles. She could somersault away from the dragon again if she had to do it! She tried not to be afraid. After all, Papa had told her many times, his voice dripping with scorn, that girls and women were timid creatures.

Bettina jumped up and did a back flip. She knocked on the closed door of Madam Cecelia’s gypsy wagon. She shouted, “Madam Cecelia, are you coming out?”

Madam Cecelia stepped out of the wagon and sat on the front seat. She stared sternly at Bettina.

“The circus train is pulling out early in the morning,” Madam Cecelia said. “You will not be on it.”

Bettina stared back just as sternly. “I will be on the train with Uncle Andy.”

Madam Cecelia beckoned to her. “Come and sit and look into the crystal ball. Listen to the crystal ball.”

“I’ll sit and wait for Uncle Andy,” Bettina said, climbing up on the seat. She sat and waited and waited, but Uncle Andy didn’t appear. Finally, Bettina said, “I’m going to look for him.” By this time the campfire had died down into glowing embers and darkness had settled its heavy black folds around them. “Do you have a lantern?” Bettina asked Madam Cecelia.

“The crystal ball glows in the dark,” Madam Cecilia, said, handing the ball to Bettina. Bettina took the crystal ball in her hands and light shone through it and colored her skin like the moon shining behind the clouds. The crystal ball lit the faces of all of the circus people she walked by, but not Uncle Andy’s.

By the time she returned from her searching for him, the sun had begun to send fingers of light across the sky. All of the circus people had doused their campfires, packed up their gear, and boarded the circus train. The trainers had loaded all of the animals, including the two elephants. Bettina felt more afraid than she ever had when the fire breathing dragon had chased her. She felt so sad that she didn’t even want to turn somersaults nor do back flips. She just wanted to find Uncle Andy.

Suddenly, the crystal ball stopped glowing. It went completely black and felt as cold as Bettina’s hopes. Slowly, she walked back to Madam Cecelia’s wagon, but Madam Cecelia, too, had gone along with her horse and wagon. The only sign that remained that she had been there was trampled grass and the black circle where the camp fire had burned.

Bettina heard the train whistle in the distance. “What do you want me to do with your crystal ball?” she shouted. The mournful whistle of the train answered her question.

Bettina took the crystal ball home with her and hid it in her closet underneath a pile of pink dresses. She felt its magic smoothness as she listened to Papa’s scolding. After he had calmed down, they sat by the fire in the evenings, and Papa shared stories about when he and Uncle Andy were boys. Andy was always an acrobat and Papa, the serious and responsible person.

“You’re a lot like him and you’re a girl. That’s why I’m so hard on you,” Papa said. He started to say something else, but his voice choked up and he jumped up and hurried to his study. Bettina knew that he was standing by the window blowing his nose. She could hear him.

The next morning was Saturday, so Bettina didn’t have to hurry off to school. She went into Papa’s study. She knew he would be sitting in his arm chair reading the Sarasota Sentinel. Papa was indeed sitting in his arm chair, the Sarasota Sentinel folded across his knees. He held his blue and white polka dotted handkerchief to his nose and blew loudly, his eyes moist.

Bettina ran over and threw her arms around Papa’s knees, and the paper fell to the floor.

“Papa, why are you crying?” she said, picking up the newspaper and handing it to him.

Papa handed her the newspaper and pointed to a paragraph on the front page that he had circled with a black crayon.

Bettina read the paragraph, and her eyes widened in shock. For the paper said that the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus was honoring Andrew Yonkers, formerly an acrobat with the circus, who had died when his tent caught on fire two years before. He had bravely saved several audience members before meeting his certain death in the flames.

Bettina stared at Papa. “But Papa…”

“I didn’t like it because I thought he got more attention from my Mama and Papa than I did. I didn’t like it because you wanted to be like him. I wanted you to want to be like me.”

“But Papa, I saw him.”

Papa was sobbing so hard that he couldn’t answer her. Bettina sat in Papa’s lap and hugged him until he stopped crying. From that day on, Papa had Bettina practice her acrobatics in his study.

For days at a time, Bettina forgot about the crystal ball hidden in her closet. Then, on the night of Thursday July 6, 1944, after she had spent the day practicing somersaults like Uncle Andy did and after she had bathed and changed into her night gown, Bettina saw a glow through her closed closet door. She got out the crystal ball and rubbed it. The ball began to vibrate with a faint tinge of light, like the sunrise over the ocean and then it glowed a deep, fiery red like the fire breathing dragon. Bettina saw the Big Top and this time instead of a narrow ribbon, the Big Top blazed with banners of flame that waved in the wind and spread across the canvas. Bettina saw an acrobat turning flips and cutting doorways in the Big Top canvas so that frightened children and their parents could escape from the burning tent.

The next day, Bettina went to the meadow at the edge of the woods where the circus had spent the winter. Madam Cecelia’s wagon stood parked in its old place and Madam Cecelia, wearing a green and red polka dot turban, sat on the seat, smiling at Bettina.

“I brought back your crystal ball,” Bettina said. “It helped me find Uncle Andy.”

Madam Cecelia hugged her. “It will be here when you need it again,” she said.

Bettina turned somersaults all of the way home.

-THE END-

Read about the actual 1944 Ringling Brothers fire in Hartford, CT.


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Waltzing In The Moonlight

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Ghost of a wrongly executed convict searches for the love of his life – and supposed victim – in this North Carolina ghost story written by Richard J. Paracka.

My eyelids closed and darkness took me. Lights out, dead-end, Taps; you name it – the show was over.


Beyond the viewing window in the next room members of a small audience began to leave in ones and twos. Despite the beginning of a new day twenty-one minutes before, everyone looked tired and worn out. Every face was devoid of emotion. A man dressed in black with a thin white-collar around his neck was the last to leave. He mumbled quietly to himself, turned and headed down a long empty corridor. As the echo of his footsteps died a uniformed guard looked around the room to make sure it was empty, then closed and locked the door; the sound of its metallic latch snapping with a grim finality.

On the other side of the window, in a tiny chamber with pea green walls, a hollow body lay on a narrow table. A steel door opened and two figures dressed in green surgical gowns entered. One filled out forms on a clipboard and the other disconnected tubes and wires from the body. When each member of the team completed their appointed tasks they wheeled the table and its pale rider to the loading dock in the rear of the building where a small vehicle waited. Its driver stood nearby shivering in the cold night air, a cup of hot coffee steaming in his hand.


That’s the way it happened. I can tell you that with a certainty because I was there. Saw the whole thing. Well, most of it anyway. I remember my eyes closing and the next thing I knew I was over there in the next room with the audience. I was a little confused at first until I realized what they were looking at. They were staring at my dead body back in the execution chamber.

I didn’t do it, but what do you care? What difference did it make to anyone at that point? The circus trial was over, appeals made and lost, and I’d had a lethal dose of the state’s best killer cocktail pumped into my veins. I hadn’t been a saint, but I wasn’t a criminal or a hypocrite either and I hadn’t lived a very long life before they took it away from me.

It had been a good-looking body at one time and I admit that I enjoyed using it. Now it lay beneath a red velvet blanket all full of poison, empty and still. Strangers now owned what had once been mine. I hovered over it, watching as they loaded it into the back of the vehicle like cast off furniture. If I’d had tears I would’ve cried a river. The green team finished transferring the body, the driver signed the release forms and minutes later the vehicle passed through the prison gate heading out along a lonely stretch of state highway. It’s destination, my hometown in Snow Hill, North Carolina.

The two men in green turned and headed back into the warm bowels of the building. One of them held the clipboard with the last records of my life etched in blue ink on its pages. I surged toward him and knocked it out of his hand with all the pent-up frustration and anger I could muster.

“Clumsy,” his partner said. The first man wasn’t so sure, having felt the energy of an unseen hand as it forced the clipboard from his grip. He stooped to pick it up and looked around. Seeing nothing he retrieved his paperwork and continued on into the building.

“Feel better?” a voice asked.

“No I don’t,” I said as I sailed off into the night in pursuit of the only body I’d ever had.


Morgue

I stood next to the mortician and watched as he pumped the fluid out of my body, washed and dressed it for burial. He did a real good job. When he was done, the remnants of my earthly presence looked nearly as good as it ever had. I heard Aunt Ethel say so when she and Mom came to see it during viewing hours. Late at night when no one was around I tried to get back into it, but it was no good. I couldn’t ‘get beneath’ it. There was nothing to grab onto, to hold me in. I can’t describe it any other way. It was like trying to get a grip on running water. Later on I did manage to move it a couple of times, just a little and from the outside, like the clipboard.

None of my family or friends came to visit, only Mom and Aunt Et. Poor Mom had to hire six guys to carry the casket to the cemetery, but before that happened I had a little fun. Ida Framer, that was her real name, came to gloat the last day that daylight fell on my cold pale face. She was a local TV journalist and had single-handedly encouraged the feeding frenzy that railroaded me into prison and that date with the executioner. She lived up to her name.

Nobody came to the funeral except Mom and Aunt Et. They were sitting together waiting for the minister to arrive when Ida sailed through the door and marched over to the casket. She stood there looking down at my body like a vulture about to dine on road kill. That’s when I decided to wipe the self-satisfied smile off her face. I passed through her, positioning myself between her and the casket. The movement gave her a chill. She shuddered and glanced about as if to discover the nature of the disturbance.

“Don’t do it,” a voice said.

I didn’t care. Mom was weeping and Aunt Et was holding her hand in consolation. Neither of them saw what I did next. Ida turned back for a look at the body and when she did I moved its right hand. The idea was to make it wave at her, but it was too stiff. I only succeeded in creating a little jerk or spasm. It was good enough. Ida saw it, gasped and put her hand over her mouth. It caused a massive emotional reaction. I knew it because I could see the veins standing out on her neck, throbbing like crazy. Little beads of sweat appeared on her forehead. One more ought to do it, I thought.

The minister arrived and his entrance startled her. She acknowledged the man with a nervous nod. I could see that she was shaking visibly and when she turned back to look at my face I provided the coup de grace. I opened the eyes of the corpse. God almighty it was beautiful, a real piece of work. Ida wet her pants, screamed and passed out cold on the floor. If I could have laughed I would have.

Because of Ida I nearly died a happy man; nearly, but not quite. I was still incomplete somehow, something still undone, a piece unmade. An unseen hole inside the invisible me allowed no peace. Aunt Et and the minister rushed to Ida’s side and as I looked down at her lying there on the floor I knew that although I would miss my body at least I’d given it a good send off.


I was pretty restless and after the funeral I hung around the grave for a while. They say that the spirits of the dead inhabit a cemetery, but it turned out to be a pretty lonely place. Every once in a while I thought I saw another ghost out by the hillside, but I could never be quite sure who it was. I didn’t know what to do or where to go, so I just floated around. I had no sense of the passage of time, but it must have been a while because I remember when the leaves fell in the fall and when the snow covered the ground. It was a peaceful place, but there was still a hole in me somewhere and I couldn’t appreciate the beauty around me. The snow came and went many times.

The leaves fell again, and one night during a full moon some kids came by to challenge their own fear and the shadows of the night. I had a mind to put a scare into them, but I heard a voice tell me to leave them alone and so I did. Winter arrived and I was still drifting around all alone among the tombstones when I spotted a familiar name carved into a slab. It was the name of the girl I had been accused of murdering; Samantha Taupin. Hers was the ghost that kids dared to glimpse. Hers was the story they told.

When the moon waxes full
and the evening is still,
in a long satin dress
she’ll glide o’er the hill.

They called her Lady Samantha.


Sam and I grew up together in that little town. She was the first girl I’d ever kissed and the only one I can say I ever really loved. We were joined at the hip in a manner of speaking. People used to joke with us and ask us in a comical way to be sure to remember them on our wedding list. We used to like to go out to the hill by the cemetery together. It was pretty and it was private and it was all our own whenever we were there. That’s where I got Samantha pregnant.

That was also about the time Ida rolled into town. One of her first big pieces was a story about teen pregnancies. She even mentioned Sam in her story. Not by name mind you, but after she put Sam’s picture on the TV everyone in six counties knew what had happened and who she was. Sam’s family was mortified and persuaded her to get an abortion. She nearly died from the procedure. Of course everyone blamed me for it, including Ida who did another story with my picture out there for God and everybody to see.

They wouldn’t let us see each other. Not ever and not at all. Someone was always with Sam and if we happened to bump into each other out in town, they would say nasty things to me and lead her away. We did manage to see each other though, after a fashion. As often as I dared, I’d sneak out at night and go over to her house. I’d toss a pebble against her window, she’d open it and we’d talk quietly for a long time. She didn’t blame me for the trouble, probably the only person on earth that didn’t besides Mom and Aunt Et.

The night-time visits worked for a while until her father caught me. Next day he fixed her window so she couldn’t open it. After that I’d go over there and toss a pebble at the window just like before. She’d just stand there and look out at me. I’d sit on the ground down below and look up at her. There wasn’t much else we could do. It was sad, really. When it was time to go I’d blow her a kiss and walk away. Even from a distance I would look back and see her standing there in the window. I don’t know if she saw me or not.

The night of the murder I made my usual quiet approach to Samantha’s window. Sam’s father and a deputy sheriff were waiting in the shadows. There was a big scene out in the yard, lots of screaming and yelling. Accusations and foul names flew back and forth. Sam was there crying and pleading on my behalf. Her father threatened my life. The deputy just took notes. Sam’s mother came out and threw last year’s Christmas present in my face. It was a long satin dress that I’d given to Sam in happier times and it fell into the mud at my feet.

I ran away, nearly twenty years old and crying like a baby. I ran. I was quite fit in those days and I ran miles before a side stitch made me stop. I climbed the hill below the cemetery and rested near our favorite spot. The moon was full and in the distance I could see Sam’s house. The light was on in her bedroom and I thought I could just barely make out her form in the window. I watched for a long time until the light went out. Hours passed. The night was warm and quiet and I fell asleep watering the grass with my tears. When I woke up the sun was in my face.

My stomach was empty and growling as I made my way home. I couldn’t think of anything except Sam and plotted in my mind how many ways we could escape the town together. When I arrived I found the place surrounded by police cars, a TV van, angry confused neighbors, the sheriff and Ida. The next thing I knew I was spending my last days on death row.

Samantha had been killed that night and it was my fault. Ida told them how she thought it went down and the jury bought it. The only ones who believed in my innocence were Mom and Aunt Ethel and they both took a lot of flak for their faith in me. I didn’t know if there was a hell, but if there was I wanted to be there to stoke the blaze for Ida’s arrival.


Cemetery Crypt

When I discovered Sam’s grave it brought me back like an old song on the radio. I realized that the angry pitiful hole at the core of my being was actually a missing part, the part of me that should have belonged to her. Life had deprived both of us the satisfaction of completing the spirit in one another. All that remained were jagged shadows of naked tree limbs cast upon rows of ice capped headstones up on Cemetery Hill. I couldn’t weep, for I had no tears and I couldn’t wail for I had no voice. Cold lifeless winter winds blew across the hill and I couldn’t even feel that. I had no heart, but I felt its broken pain. Samantha and I and had been true soul mates and now there was nothing left except a single wandering soul, alone and without purpose.

My dwelling became the hillside where Samantha and I had spent so many precious hours together. Somehow it felt better to be there instead of up top among the lonely markers and leafless winter-dead trees. Spring came and the snow ran away down the hill. The valley below blossomed with new life. In the distance I could see Sam’s old home. Flowers and crops sprouted and the moon waxed full above the green hillside once again.

In the silver light of a warm spring evening, Samantha came to me. Gliding over the hill, dressed in that long satin dress that I’d given her so many Christmases ago, she looked as wholesome and gracious and lovely as ever I’d remembered her.

“Where have you been?” I asked, too happy to really care for an answer.

“With you always,” she said. “I was with you in prison when your eyes closed in death, when you knocked the clipboard out of the technician’s hand and when you frightened Ida at the funeral.”

“Why didn’t I see you?”

“You did once or twice, but you weren’t really ready to find me then.”

“But we’re together now, aren’t we?”

“Yes we are,” Sam said. “Nothing and no one can separate us now.”

Our laughing and singing and celebrating lasted all night. Sometimes we playfully chased each other through the trees and sometimes we danced around the hillside as we had once done in life. We talked and laughed and took all the time we wanted to appreciate the view and one another’s company. Spring breezes blew across the hill and carried away last year’s leaves along with the remnants of our worldly pain. The two lonely ghosts became one and knew peace.


In the years that followed, a town legend said that anyone who ventured to walk upon that hillside would hear laughing and soft whispers even in the daytime. The ground itself seemed to always feel warm and restful and every now and then some adventurous kids would dare to climb Cemetery Hill to catch a glimpse of Lady Samantha and her young man waltzing in the moonlight.

-THE END-


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