Today we’re proud to offer our readers an exclusive never-before-published ghost story by Los Angeles-based author and filmmaker Katherine MacDonald.
A lifelong fan of ghost stories, MacDonald recently completed her MFA in Screenwriting from the University of California, Riverside low residency program. Her short film, “Willow Garden,” premiered at The Final Girls Horror Film Festival in Berlin, and she also portrayed the “Saw Nurse” for a national Red Cross blood drive campaign. Her non-fiction book about marketing for filmmakers will be published by Routledge next year.
Now we present DON’T LEAVE ME BEHIND…
Bev Dabner wanted to be a mother all her life and when it finally happened she was ready for the rush of crushing love, the all-encompassing obligation and the deep pride, but she was unprepared for the fear. No one warned her how terrifying it would be. Worse yet, there was no one she could talk to about the experience because it all had to remain a secret. To be fair, her daughter was not like other children, but Bev loved her all the more despite the challenges. The hardest part was that they were almost out of time.
It was a late summer night, and the air was still and thick. The trees swayed slowly in the heat, and even they seemed fatigued by the effort. Bev lingered in her idling station wagon at the foot of her driveway and listened to the CD she rented from the library. The disc was called “The Problem Child is Not the Problem — You Are.” Leaves drifted down and slapped against the windshield. Bev mopped the sweat from her neck with a fast food napkin. The car AC broke last summer, and she couldn’t afford the repairs since all of her money went into the sagging, antebellum mansion looming outside of the car.
Beverly knew she needed the house as soon as she saw it, which is why she purchased the place immediately and decimated her savings. There were no other offers. No one wanted something so overcome by its own history. For her whole life, Bev had moved through her existence in small, safe circles with nothing exciting to look forward to and nothing rewarding to reflect back on. But now she had a purpose, a calling.
“A child around seven years-old will often begin to test boundaries,” the psychologist on the CD said. “It’s crucial to recognize this and immediately assert control. Use clear, direct language to alert the child that their behavior will not be tolerated, and then re-enforce this directive with an appropriate punishment such as a time-out.”
Bev laughed to herself and shook her head. “Yeah right lady,” she said. “You obviously haven’t met my kid.” Bev looked up at the dark house through her windshield. The only light came from the attic window. It glowed red and flicked on and off in measured pulses. On. Off. On. Off. It meant that Clementine wanted her mother to come inside.
“Whatever you do,” said the psychologist in a grim tone. “Do not allow the child to see that you are afraid of her. Fear is power. Stay perfectly calm and they will respond in turn.”
Bev turned off the ignition and heaved herself out of the car. She just turned fifty this year and the passage into a new decade seemed to come with a remarkable weariness, but rest doesn’t come easily to the mother of a disturbed child. “Clementine is not the problem. You are,” Bev reminded herself. “Be strong.”
She walked toward the front door, and the chubby, stray cat from the abandoned field next door hissed and darted under the porch. “Good evening, Sebastian,” Bev said to the animal. She and Clementine had named him together one hot, southern night. He was generally skittish around the house, for good reason. Everyone knows that cats are guardians of the underworld, and it means they can see and sense things from the other side.
Bev walked into the house with determined purpose and flipped through the mail: Bills, coupon mailers and a letter from the city planner with bold, red type: “OPEN IMMEDIATELY.” She dropped the whole lot into a big basket by the entryway, which already brimmed with similar envelopes. Footsteps fluttered across the floor upstairs and Bev waited. Doors slammed shut, one-by-one across the second-floor hallway. “Come on down,” Bev said. Then, finally, something did start down the stairs, but it wasn’t Clementine. It was an object, bouncing with a soft thump before landing at Bev’s feet. She leaned down and picked up the object when it came to rest — a doll’s head, eyes carefully carved out. “I just bought that for you,” Bev said. “Your behavior is not acceptable.”
Clementine finally appeared at the top of the stairs, a wild little thing. Her snarled red hair burst out of her head like flames and her pale, skinny legs stuck out of her First Communion dress. “I liked it better that way,” she said.
“If you keep breaking your toys, I’m not going to buy you any new ones.”
Clementine narrowed her eyes and gripped the railing so tight the wood groaned all the way down the stairs. The front of her dress seeped through with a crimson stain, which grew larger whenever the girl was upset. In one fluid move, she leapt over the railing and landed in the foyer. Most mothers would have a heart attack seeing their kid jump from the second story, but Bev was never worried about Clementine’s physical safety. The worst possible thing had already happened to her.
In a second Clementine was at Bev’s knees and her face collapsed in angry tears. “I’m just so mad at Papa!”
“I know,” Beverly said in a soothing voice. “He’s not here and he can’t hurt you anymore.”
In truth, Clementine’s father hadn’t been around for over a century, but ghosts have a very poor sense of time. Beverly took a steeling breath and looked down at her twitching, bleeding daughter. “You cannot break your toys anymore. I mean it.”
“Alright momma,” Clementine said. “I promise.”
Beverly focused on maintaining her strong stance. The CDs were right and she couldn’t believe it. The girl just needed a little discipline! Beverly had tried dozens of different methods to control Clementine, but nothing worked. There was no guidebook for this. It’s not like you can order a copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Poltergeist.”
Bev turned around to drop her keys on the table and to peel off her sweat-soaked stockings when the garbled cry rang out from the kitchen. She ran into the room and found Clementine holding a desperately squirming Sebastian in her arms.
Bev gasped. “Put that cat down, right now!”
“But he’s not a toy… so I can break him, right?” “NO! We do not harm living things. You know that.”
“How come papa did then?” she said and her tiny face struggled to reconcile the reason. “He was a bad man,” Bev replied. “But you’re a good girl. I know you are.”
Clementine stared down her mom and then deposited the cat on the floor. It snarled at both of them and tore out of the house. “Set the table please,” Bev said.
The child lifted her hand and all of the kitchen drawers flew open at once. Bev wasn’t sure why ghosts always open every cabinet at the same time, but they seem to have limited motor control. She ducked to avoid her daughter’s hovering plates and hit play on the blinking answering machine. As soon as she heard the man’s voice, she bristled.
“Ms. Dabner, I’m real sorry to say… but, I got some bad news about the claim. I’m afraid it’s not going to go through. There’s just too much money left on the mortgage. I wish there was more I could-” Bev stabbed the delete button and faced her daughter who was busy stacking spoons end-to-end on the table.
“What is the gentleman sorry about?” Clementine asked.
“Nothing sweetie. Everything’s going to be fine.”
The little girl studied her mom for a long moment. “Don’t leave me behind,” Clementine said softly and her fingers shook. The spoon tower collapsed.
Bev turned away to hide her anguish and stared out at the dark pond behind the house. It was surrounded by untended grass and Mississippi willow trees that swayed and dipped their fingers in the water. They seemed to be reaching into the depths, searching the bottom. The surface shuddered and rippled, almost like something was shaking from the inside. Bev bit her lip and stuffed her emotions back inside. A choice was coming, and a mother always does what is best for her child, no matter the cost. She turned away sharply, fully aware of what she must do.
That night, Beverly dug a dusty bottle of Scotch out from the back of the cabinet and settled into the library. Ghosts, of course, do not sleep, but Clementine knows to go play quietly upstairs in the evenings so her mother can have some adult time. Bev poured herself a drink and let the liquid warm up her chest. It tasted like pain first, then caramel and then memories. She settled into a leather chair and surveyed the old mansion.
She had done her homework on the estate. The property was called “Willow Grove” and it was built by a Doctor James Andrews in 1846. He lived in the mansion with his wife and four children before the family abandoned the property in 1861 at the onset of the Civil War. The house was spared from razing and burning as Union soldiers marched through, a fate that befell many of the other homes in the area. After the war, the house spent large stretches of its life waiting for an owner and those that took up residence never stayed long — thanks to Clementine, no doubt. Before Beverly showed up, no one had lived there for many years, which was evident by the rusted pipes that shuddered inside the walls, the seeping mold in the corners and the way the paint cracked and flaked off like dry skin. Everyone else saw the house as worthless, but Beverly saw its heart, and that little heart had become her only child. The only one she would ever have. She understood that the house was strong as it had suffered and survived. But everything must eventually come to an end.
Beverly laid on her back in bed that night, a little drunk from the liquor, and watched the willow tree shadows move across the ceiling. They seemed to reach and grasp in the darkness, pulling her toward them. After a while she heard the door creak open and the temperature in the room dropped when Clementine crawled into bed.
“Goodnight mommy. Sweet dreams.”
Beverly’s dreams were not sweet that night, not at all. She dreamt of a wide, black highway that carved through the wilderness. A small girl stood all alone on the yellow lines in her white communion dress. She was terrified.
Morning arrived with the sound of the doorbell echoing through the house. This startled Bev because she didn’t even realize it still worked. She pulled on her robe and gestured to Clementine. “Stay up here. I mean it.”
Bev peeked through the curtains and saw the man in the suit on the porch accompanied by a police officer. She rubbed her forehead and opened the door.
“Ma’am, can we come in?” The officer said.
“I’d prefer you didn’t,” she replied but then stepped stepped aside to let them pass.
The man in the suit took in the house and threw his arms up in frustration. “She hasn’t even started packing!”
The officer picked up one of the many letters from the city and waved it at her. “You can’t ignore official notices lady. This property is earmarked for a highway.”
The man in the suit leaned close to her, “we’re bulldozing this weekend, whether you’re moved out or not!”
Upstairs, footsteps crossed from one side of the house to the other. Both men turned to look at Bev and she shrugged. “It’s just the mice.”
The officer narrowed his eyes at Bev. “You have forty-eight hours to get you… and yours… out of here.” Just then, the lights flickered off across the foyer and the pantry door opened and slammed several times all on its own. Both men gasped and scrambled toward the door. The officer fingered his revolver.
When they departed, Bev leaned back and waited for Clementine to poke her head between the bannisters. She smiled down at her mother, a little wicked, “I stayed upstairs.”
Bev was overcome by her love and sunk to the floor. Clementine floated down and curled up in her mother’s arms. They lay together for a long time in the front hall, saying nothing.
Beverly had met Clementine only hours after moving into the house. But it took weeks until the little ghost would dare to speak and months until she finally revealed how she died. It happened at dinner one night when the girl sat down at the table and ran her tiny, pale fingers over the beading on her dress. “Mama sewed this for me. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?
“It was for Holy Communion, but I never attended. I’m sure that’s why I didn’t go to heaven.”
“That’s not why,” said Beverly. “God doesn’t punish children.”
“Well, I think maybe you have some unfinished business. You can’t sleep.”
“Everything went poorly when mama fell sick,” the girl said. “She coughed and coughed until she didn’t wake up one morning. Papa was always angry after that. I nurst Brother with the cow milk and knit and sewed and cooked just like mama taught me. But Papa whipt me and said I was not to look at him. We had but a few quiet weeks before the fighting started. We heard the muskets from across the valley and the brothers and I hid in the cellar every night while the shells came down.”
“That must have been very scary,” Beverly said.
The child twitched and played with her dress. “There was more to be scared of inside the house. He told my brothers to go wait in the carriage and then he came after me. I tried to run away, but he caught me on the stairs. He said he was sorry, but I looked just like mama. He put me in the pond and he left me all alone.”
Without contemplating it, Beverly moved across the table to embrace the girl. What she really did was hug the chair, but both of them understood the gesture. “You’re not alone anymore,” she said and the room grew warmer.
Now, years later, Beverly intended to keep her word even though it would cost her greatly.
The night brought with it a summer storm like only the Deep South can conjure. The whole house trembled under the force. Beverly sat with Clementine in the living room with candles and read her favorite book, “The Turn of the Screw.” The child was calm tonight, maybe resigned. Bev worked hard to keep her voice steady and normal even though her heart was breaking.
When the rain finally abated, Beverly climbed to her feet and Clementine followed close behind like a timid puppy. Beverly swept her flashlight beam across the cellar while Clementine hovered in the background, observing with tremendous curiosity. The farm tools were old and rusted, but they would do. Beverly selected a spade and a hoe and trudged out into the yard. The work was easy at first, the black soil gave way with little protest. But a few feet down, it turned to sand and stone and the shovelfuls were heavy. Beverly dripped sweat through her bra and gritted her teeth against the searing pain in her back. The girl sat, cross-legged, on the lawn and watched.
Storm clouds hovered above and cloaked the night in a darkness that was fitting for the task. When the hole was finished, Beverly took off her shoes and made a neat little pile of her clothes. She waded naked into the black pond. The water was cold but shallow, and it only reached her waist. Beverly walked in deliberate rows, searching the slippery, moss-covered bottom. It took a long time, walking laps, back and forth, like she was vacuuming the floor. After nearly an hour, her toes finally hit fabric and she stopped. Beverly listened to the willows whispering their requiems and she closed her eyes and added her own. Then she sunk down under the surface and scooped the body into her arms, freeing it from the embrace of the willow trees. Beverly stood up and cradled the tiny skeleton, swathed in its threadbare First Communion dress with the crimson stain across the front. She looked down at the white bone face in the moonlight and gently pushed the wild, red hair aside.
Beverly was careful as she carried her fragile cargo to the shore and laid it down in the earth. Clementine crawled up to the lip of the grave and trembled from the memory.
Beverly very gently folded the arms of the skeleton. “He can’t hurt you anymore. No one can.”
“He left me,” Clementine said. “I watched him go. I screamed and screamed but he couldn’t hear me anymore.”
Beverly felt the grief and the rage tighten in her chest and rise in her throat. Before she could stop it, she sputtered out a wave of sobbing tears and slammed the shovel into the pile of fresh earth. “It’s time for you to go to sleep baby.”
“I’m afraid,” Clementine said.
“Don’t be. Your real momma is waiting for you. You won’t be alone anymore.” Clementine reached out and wrapped her fingers around Beverly’s hand. “You’re my real momma too.”
Beverly inhaled and closed her eyes to let the moment linger just a little longer. She knew that she would remember this all of her life and, though no one would believe her, it would be her most cherished memory. She smiled down at the girl, wiped her face and shoveled a pile of dirt into the hole. Clementine bit her lip and threw a handful of dirt into the chasm. Beverly dropped the shovel and joined the child on her knees, digging her fingers into the ground. Together they threw, and pushed and packed the earth back over the body until the work was done. Once the grave was covered, Beverly heaved her sore body back up and laid white stones in the shape of a “C.”
When she finished, she looked out across the empty yard and the pond. The clouds were gone and they left behind a sky full of sparkling stars. The water was still and smooth like glass. Beverly caught her reflection, puffy from the tears but beaming. She had been a mother, and it was wonderful.