From the author: A young boy is haunted by the memory of his best friend.
Peter first saw the girl three days after she died. She was clearly reflected in the bathroom mirror, staring at him scornfully while he brushed his unruly black hair. Peter screamed and spun around but she was already gone. Then his Mother was there; holding him, soothing him and reassuring him that it was all over now and that everything would be okay. Peter didn’t believe a word of it.
Abby had drowned right in front of his eyes. They had been playing down by the creek, which was actually akin to a deep lake. Although they were not supposed to go near the area, Peter and Abby spent nearly every hot summer day there. The lake, which he and Abby referred to as “the watering hole,” was the best place to spend an afternoon pretending and dreaming and fending off the oppressive mid-summer swelter.
Few people actually knew about the backwoods location and even fewer would fight through the wood’s thick foliage to get there. Thus, it was his and Abby’s domain. Their parents repeatedly warned them that the watering hole was dangerous and instructed them to steer clear of it but they didn’t listen. They both could swim, the lake was calm, and it wasn’t as if any alligators were lurking. Nothing, they assumed, could possibly go wrong. Then one day Abby slipped and sank down into the murky waters of the black lake. Panic had overcome her and she lost her ability to think rationally or, apparently, to swim.
Peter had been right there with her but he couldn’t remember anything that had happened. One minute she was there and the next moment she was suddenly gone. He must have tried to help her but he couldn’t remember. It was as if he hadn’t been there at all.
The doctors said he was in shock. Forgetting was one way that the mind defended itself from severe trauma, especially a young twelve-year-old mind like his. The explanation was one way to solve the mystery of how, ten minutes after Abby went under, Peter had shown up at his front door, soaking wet and slack faced. He was unable to explain to his Mother what had happened but she suspected trouble as soon as she saw his soaked swim trunks. Peter’s mother found Abby’s body floating face-down in the center of the lake.
Abby’s remains went to the morgue and Peter went to the hospital. Although he remembered nothing of the event itself, or his mother’s panicked phone call to 911, he remembered the hospital visit perfectly. By then he had come out of his shock enough to talk, and cry, and finally express dismay over what had transpired. He remembered the doctor’s questions and he had answered them numbly; mostly just repeating himself over and over. He insisted that he didn’t know what had happened or why it had happened. He couldn’t believe Abby was gone. They had been swimming, splashing, laughing and then she had just…what? Sank? Had a heart attack? He didn’t know.
The death was quickly ruled as accidental and Peter was allowed to go home that night. His Father drove along stony-faced as his Mother wept in the passenger seat and Peter stared out the back window, dazed. The mild bruises on his body throbbed; from the examination the doctor declared he probably received them trying to help Abby. That served as some comfort; he had not simply allowed his best friend to die without even trying to save her.
Peter insisted on sleeping in his own room that night. He wanted to be alone despite his Mother’s pleas that he allows either her or his father, or both of them, to stay with him. Peter thought he would be all right—until he had a terrible nightmare.
In his dream, Abby was still floating alone in the lake in the dark of night. Slowly, her body—stiff and jerky, not lean and limber as she had been in life—started moving to the edge of the lake, crawling out of the water and sliding onto land. Every detail was impeccably vivid. Her wet hair dripped tiny streams along the dirt, her pale bloodless skin shone morbidly in the moonlight; her blackened rotting finger-nails gripped the earth. The Thing-That-Had-Been-Abby slithered into the woods, along the path, toward his house. She (It) was looking for him; searching, hunting.
Peter awoke screaming and crying hysterically. Within seconds his parents were there comforting him and, as they held him and rocked him, his tears of fear turned to ones of sorrow. He already missed Abby’s smile and her companionship. She was a girl, but she didn’t mind getting dirty or playing rough or reading comics. She befriended him when no one else had and now she was gone forever. His failure to rescue her brought on overwhelming grief which he knew was his to bear forevermore.
Peter’s nightmares were relentless. Every time he fell asleep there was a continuation of the same dream. Abby’s corpse crawled closer and closer to his house. In his last dream she reached the house and tapped on his window with flaxen fingers. He awoke with a start, covered in sweat, but there was nothing outside but the night. Now that The-Bad-Dream-Abby had reached the house he hoped the nightmare would cease. Then he took a shower to relax and—boom—as soon as he emerged from the water and looked in the mirror he saw her behind him, following him in consciousness for the first time.
It terrified him beyond description to see her when he was awake and even as he screamed and stammered and told his parents insistently about what happened they simply reassured him that it was just a waking dream. Peter wished he could believe them but, deep down, he knew it wasn’t true. Abby had reached him in his dreams and now she was reaching for him in his waking hours.
Peter briefly attended Abby’s wake, but not her funeral. As soon as he looked down and saw her lying lifelessly in her stiff rectangular coffin he choked up and had to be removed. The room had grown cold and stuffy and he was both grateful and relieved when his parents took him home. Subsequently, they steered clear of the funeral, proclaiming that it was too traumatic to put their 12-year-old son through. As far as they were concerned, Abby was gone and they had to try and move forward.
What Peter’s parents didn’t know was that Abby was everywhere; Peter never got a moment’s peace from her presence. He saw her behind corners, reflected in window panes and puddles; she even stared at him from the bottom of drinking glasses. At first he only saw her but within a week she started speaking to him—calling his name and begging him to come back to her. It sounded like Abby’s voice but there was anger and menace to it, nothing like the sweet nonthreatening girl he had known. In church he was told that people went to Heaven after they died…unless they were bad. Maybe Abby had been bad and God sent her to Hell. Death had made her insane and now she blamed him. One thing was of no doubt: her ghost was after him.
It was obvious to Peter that Abby was as lonely in death as she had been in life before she met him. Now she wanted him to join her wherever she was and keep her company once again. In his mind’s eye he understood her plan perfectly; she would lure him to her and then drag him down so they could be dead together.
She was getting increasingly aggressive. He had seen her in his closet hiding and whispering to him from behind racks of clothes. One night as he lay in his bed he felt her moving under the mattress, searching for him. Although he saw her constantly, she only came after him when he was alone. Thus, he made it his mission to remain by his parents’ sides at all times. He insisted on sleeping on the floor of their bedroom. When they left a room, he followed. If he had to go to the bathroom or take a shower one of them had to stay with him. Even with his parents watching over him, Peter absolutely refused to take a bath. Whenever he was submerged in the water he felt Abby’s fingertips probing up from the drain, brushing against his ankles.
His parents—particularly his Father—were worried about his constant need for company. They took him back to the psychologists who badgered him with questions about his thoughts and feelings. Peter didn’t mind. He was safe. He still saw Abby—she often stared at him from the ornamental mirror behind the doctor’s chair—but he dared not tell the professionals that. Sometimes people who said such things got locked up in a padded cell. If he got locked up in a padded cell he would be alone…and totally at The-Thing-That-Used-To-Be-Abby’s mercy.
Peter was an only child and he enjoyed a close relationship with his parents. They were his constant companions, allies, and protectors. He never imaged Abby—or her spirit—could extend to them. But Peter was only a boy and there were a great many things he did not know.
At first it was small incidents. His Mother lost her balance and nearly hit her head on the pavement while walking back to the car after leaving the grocery store. Then, his Father’s hand slipped while he was using an electric knife to carve up dinner and he needed to get stitches. Although these things happened in close proximity to each other, Peter didn’t connect them to Abby until the car accident.
January came in full force and it brought snow in massive quantities. It stacked up four-feet high and kept coming, turning the world into a landscape of ice. Peter’s parents owned a S.U.V—something of a necessity in the winter—and the weather didn’t prevent them from going into town to do their errands. One day, as they were standing in line at the supermarket, the snow started coming down in heavy drifts. By the time Peter and his parents piled into their vehicle and headed home the streets were nearly invisible. Peter’s Mother sat rigidly in the front seat, anxiously watching the road, as his Father cautiously navigated through the near-white-out. Peter was the most relaxed one of the three as he sat in the backseat and nibbled on a candy bar. He was with his family, he was fine, he—
Abby appeared out of nowhere. She stood in the middle of the road still wearing the bathing suit she had worn on the day she died. Despite the freezing temperature she was dripping wet.
Peter’s parents didn’t see her. Before Peter could scream, she held her arms out and touched the hood of the slow-moving SUV. The car instantly spun out of control. Peter’s Father turned the wheel fanatically as the vehicle careened off the pavement and landed in a snow bank. No damage was done and no one was hurt but Peter saw Abby smiling menacingly at him through the rear-view mirror as his Father reversed the car and continued the journey home. It was then that Peter realized that he needed to face her, for his parent’s sake if not his own.
That night, for the first time in months, he told his parents that he wanted to sleep in his own room. His Father was supportive but his Mother was suspicious of her son’s new-found bravery, especially after the frightening incident merely hours before.
“Are you positive?” she questioned.
Peter assured her that he was.
That night, as the snow fell heavily outside, Peter confirmed that his parents were asleep and safe. Then he went back to his room and faced the window. Abby was outside, as usual, tapping the glass with her finger. She was so close to him that he could see the irises of her eyes. Once they had been a beautiful bright blue, now they were black and emotionless. Peter trembled with fear as he put on his warm coat and sneakers. He fully believed that he was about to die at The-Thing-That-Used-To-Be-Abby’s hands but, strangely, the idea of freezing still bothered him. Once bundled, he took a deep breath and opened the window.
He expected her to attack him right away—perhaps rip his neck out with her long fingernails and then drink up his blood—but no such thing happened. Instead she simply stood still and watched him climb out of the house. Then she turned and walked into the woods with that stiff and jerky gait of hers. Peter followed.
She led him to the lake. It was now completely frozen over but the sight of it sent a wave of terror through him. He had not been there since Abby’s accident. The-Thing-That-Once-Was-Abby walked out to the lake’s center which was right around the very spot where she had drowned. Then she turned and beckoned to Peter who stood shivering on the embankment. Tentatively he stepped onto the ice and met with his departed companion. As soon as he was next to her she spoke. He was relieved to hear Abby’s voice, not ranting or raving, but curious—maybe a bit sad—but undeniably his Abby.
“I miss you,” she declared, loneliness lacing her words.
“I miss you, too!” Peter gushed emotionally. “You were my best friend, Abby! I’m really lonely without you. I miss you every single day. I’d give anything to have you back!”
“Why did you do it?”
“Do what? I can’t remember any of it! Honestly, I can’t! I wish I could but I can’t! I don’t understand how you could’ve drowned! You were a better swimmer than me! Oh God, how could I not have saved you? I’m stronger than you were, I should have been able to take you to the shore easily! I—”
He couldn’t finish his sentence. He was tongue-tied and his gut wrenched; his words were choked and blocked by deep and seemingly ceaseless sobs.
Then Abby turned her face directly to his and Peter immediately noticed that her eyes were her own pretty light blue, not the startling black holes he had seen in the reflections. Aside from the bluish white tint to her once-tanned skin, she looked and acted exactly like the Abby he had known; not vindictive or emotionless or soulless but sweet and loyal and good. Tears streamed openly down his face.
Abby took pity on him as soon as she saw the extent of his genuine torment. “I’ll help you,” she crooned.
Gently, she slid her arms around him. She was surprisingly warm—actually everything was warm, hot, scorching. Peter suddenly realized that it was July again; the lake sparkled blue and his and Abby’s laughter filled the air.
They had delighted in sneaking off to the forbidden lake since it made them feel like rebels. Sometimes they even pretended to be Bonnie and Clyde. That’s what they had been doing on that fateful day. Abby had been playing the part of Bonnie, prancing around the muddy marsh and showing off her long legs, pretending to distract bank clerks so Peter—Clyde—could take off with all the loot in the vaults. Then she had given up and gone for a dip.
“It’s too hot for this,” she declared while submerging herself in the cooling water. “Besides, Bonnie and Clyde happened like 200 years ago. We should think of something else.”
Peter followed her into the waist-deep water and put his arms around her. To his surprise, she quickly shoved him off.
“What are you doing?!” She sounded as outraged as a hippie at a NRA meeting.
“I wanna kiss you again.”
“Why not? We did it last week! Remember Friday?”
Truthfully, Friday had been an accidental incident which actually started on Tuesday. On Tuesday they had been playing Bonnie and Clyde and after a successful robbery Peter had leaned over and kissed Abby lightly on the lips. It was a purely spur-of-the-moment action which had surprised them both, but nothing more. Quickly, they had gone back to playing as if nothing had happened. Yet, on Wednesday, they started talking about Abby’s older sister, Helen, who was an understudy for the part of Juliet in the local theater’s presentation of Shakespeare’s famous play.
“If the lead actress gets sick Helen will have to play the role and at the end she’ll have to kiss a boy!” Abby reported this information as if it was the most scandalous thing she had ever heard. “I’d be too scared, especially on a stage in front of a whole audience!”
Then the discussion had turned to wondering if kissing—real kissing—was hard to do. Somehow, by the end of the day, they had tried it. It seemed that both of them liked it because on Thursday they practiced again. On Friday they repeated the process…this time lying down on the sandy, marshy embankment. Weekends were reserved for family, at least in Peter’s household, so they didn’t see each other on Saturday or Sunday. Peter had eagerly awaited Monday so that he could touch Abby again.
Previously, Peter had regarded Abby as a tomboy from a rough family. She climbed trees, spit, and knew how to defend herself from anyone who riled her. Yet she was also sweet and funny. She was an outcast because she was poor and he was an outcast because he was skinny. They both came up against snickers and jeers and constant exclusion from practically everything. In each other they found solace. Even though their friendship was prime ammunition for bullies, they were able to withstand anything as long as they had each other to talk to. Their vivid imaginations connected and combined in the ultimate sharing of minds. They allowed each other to escape and for years that had been their only desire.
Recently, however, Peter had started to notice how pretty Abby was—her wide eyes, her dark hair, even her nice long legs. Normally her body was well hidden in the baggy hand-me-down clothes she was given by her sisters who were all older and at least three sizes bigger than she was. Yet, in the summer, Peter had instantly seen how nice her legs were as she paraded around in shorts and swimwear. And so, that Monday, he had yearned to feel her lips on his once again.
Abby shifted uncomfortably under the weight of his gaze. “We shouldn’t have done that. I think that lying down while kissing can be dangerous. Mommy’s always screaming about staying away from boys or we’ll end up like Susie. She has no idea how much time I even spend with you.”
Susie, he should have known! Abby was the youngest child in a family of seven girls. Susie, the second oldest, got pregnant when she was fifteen and now lived with her drunk husband and bratty kid in a shack on the bad side of town.
“I don’t think it’s the same thing as the baby making thing,” he protested. He was, in fact, pretty sure it wasn’t the same thing but there was an underlying connection, somehow.
Abby shrugged. “Either way, it’s better not to, just in case.”
She turned and headed toward the lake’s deeper depths and something inside of Peter snapped. He seized her and pulled her to him, roughly running his hands through her hair. “Come on, one kiss!”
“No! Let go of me, Peter, you’re hurting me!”
“Just one! We’re too young for you to be like Susie!”
“We’re too young, period! Stop it!”
She kicked at him and her feet connected painfully with his shins. Peter released his grip, yelping in agony as Abby ran deeper into the water. Cradling his injured leg, anger boiled up inside of Peter. Ignoring the throes and throbs and hurt, he swam after her. He was bigger and stronger than she was and he caught up with her quickly. They were now swimming in the middle of the lake where the water was too deep to feel the muddy bottom.
“Come on Abby,” he pleaded. “Don’t be a bitch!”
“Don’t call me that!”
“Bitch, bitch, bitch!”
Rage consumed them both at once. She took a swing at him. He retaliated by grabbing her. They struggled against each other, splashing and kicking and shouting in a violent embrace that was not at all like the pleasant cuddle he had been hoping for. They tussled for several minutes before Abby got still. Peter assumed she had given up and was playing possum. Then he realized that she was under the water. She stared blankly up at him with the same empty gaze he saw in the eyes of dead fish at the market.
He spent several minutes trying to wake her up to no avail. He was screaming shrilly. Then he seemed to tune everything out. Stony-faced he emerged from the water and started walking down the path into the woods leaving Abby’s corpse floating listlessly in the center of the water.
The doctors had been right; he panicked and set off a defense mechanism in his brain. He had blocked everything out and was unaware of what he had done. No wonder she wanted to reach him—he had taken her life himself! He had murdered Abby!
“ABBY!” Peter wailed aloud; the awful realization felt as if it was ripping his insides to shreds and he wished that he too was dead. “OH GOD, ABBY, I REMEMBER! I’m sorry, Abby, I didn’t mean to! I’m so sorry! ABBY!”
It was cold; the warmth of the world was suddenly replaced by a biting chill. The air was no longer still and muggy but gusty; its inconsolable wails mixed with his own. Peter fell to his knees and thought that he heard his Mother’s voice as a sharp cracking sound filled his ears. Suddenly he was falling, descending down into the cold and the darkness.
* * * * * *
Doctor Auburn stared down at the unconscious boy who was lying stock-still in the bed. It had been unpredictable for a while—hypothermia had set in and they nearly lost him a few times—but now he was in stable condition. The machines he was hooked up to monitored him and their readings indicated to the medical staff that he would make a full recovery.
The boy was lucky. His Mother had woken up and realized that he was out of the house. Instantly she had known where he had gone and had been level-headed enough not to leave the house without her cell phone. She had contacted 911 as soon as she saw him standing on the frozen lake. The emergency personnel arrived seconds after he had fallen through the broken ice. In the ambulance he had come to enough to declare “I did it!” repeatedly.
The boy’s worried parents huddled together next to the bed. Doctor Auburn knew that his patient was Peter, the same boy who had lost his best friend six months earlier. The poor girl had drowned in the same spot where the ice broke. Undoubtedly, the boy was traumatized from witnessing such a thing. Obviously, he had made his way out to the lake in what was seemingly a suicide attempt; a result of misplaced guilt. The poor kid probably really believed that he had killed the girl who had been his one and only friend.
The strain of the initial accident’s aftermath had reached out and affected his parents as well. Upon being brought to the hospital, his Mother insisted that Abby’s voice had woken her and told her that Peter was in trouble. Abby—the dead girl—allegedly told her to go to the lake and call for help immediately. When she checked his room and found his bed empty, his Mother listened to the voice.
The doctor was sympathetic. He gave her a Valium to calm her nerves and re-checked the boy’s chart. Finding nothing amiss, he gave the parents a wan smile, reassuring them that their son would live. On the way out of the room he reflected on the irony of fatal accidents. Death was often quick for victims; it was the survivor’s psychological strain that lingered.
This story originally appeared in Chilling Tales for Dark Nights .