That summer, all anybody could talk about was the ghost of little Ellie Clark.
She was everywhere. If you had seen her then you had a story to tell, and if you hadn’t – well maybe you had a story to tell anyway. Maybe you’d heard from a neighbour, or a friend of a neighbour, about how they had woken in the middle of the night to hear something at their window. A gentle tapping perhaps. Maybe it was a couple of degrees colder in the room than it should have been, and you – or your neighbours friend – started to peel back the duvet. The curtains were closed, but that tapping, you had to investigate, right? So you swung each foot out of the bed, stood up slowly, and started to walk over to the window. Except something wasn’t right in the darkness. The curtain wasn’t hanging like it should. There was a bulge in the fabric that started about waist high and continued to the ground, and there, where the curtain met the carpet you could just make out two pale feet. Maybe you – or your neighbours friend – froze at this point, or maybe you ran. Whatever you did, the tapping stopped and the curtain began to open. A small white hand guiding it across the rail, peeling it back, revealing her. Ellie Clark. Dead, and in your bedroom.
I’m sure our parents wondered what the big secret was. I know my Mum did. She cornered me one day as I came bounding down the stairs, making a line straight for the front door. No breakfast in me, nothing.
“What’s the big hurry, Mr?” she asked. She was using that voice she used, playful, light, yet demanding an answer. And what could I tell her? That we were all seeing a ghost? That I’d just read a text from Brandon S saying that he needed to see us right away because last night something had crept in through his bedroom window and whispered into his ear?
“Emergency,” I told her and weaved beneath her arms, flashing a grin and a wink, like it was her and I that shared a secret, “You wouldn’t understand.”
That summer, like all summers, the parks and the alleys became our classrooms. The school stood silent and stoic in the centre of town, a concrete reminder of September, but for the most part we ignored it. Our friendship groups blew wide open, no longer constrained by class sizes, and the gossip mills kicked into high gear. Word of Ellie spread fast. She tore through social barriers and united us all. Jimmy T, the goth kid, who just a year before was the laughing stock of the entire school – something about trying to hide his stash of weed by feeding it to his family dog – held court in the park. He sat on the first rung of the climbing frame, sipping on a bottle of cider. A group gathered around him listening.
“It was the night before last…” he said, and we all leaned closer. The leaves in the trees started to rustle.
Jimmy and the park. That must have been July. I didn’t see Ellie until much later, but we’ll get to that.
Every ghost needs an origin story. Without a traumatic death or some unfinished business then what’s the point? It isn’t the ghost that scares us, it’s the idea of being stranded, cast adrift amongst the living. What do they want? What will they take in order to set themselves free?
So we asked ourselves, how did Ellie Clark die?
And there were no answers, or there were a million answers but no right one. My favorite was that she had died in a fire. In March that year the small grocery store on Enfield St had burned to the ground. Ellie had been upstairs in a small one bed flat that she shared with her Mother. The mother had been fired from her job, and hadn’t been able to pay the rent. By the time the fire started they should have vacated the place three weeks ago, but there was nowhere to go. Ellie’s mother knew the landlord had no plans to renovate until later in the year so she had a spare key cut, and as soon as they had moved out, they slipped back in. She left the light off when she could. She told Ellie to walk on tiptoes whilst the grocery store was open. So when the fire started, nobody knew to look for them. They stayed upstairs, hiding until the floor became hot, and by then then it was far too late.
I shared this version of the story with Tammy Lovett. She was wearing a Nirvana t-shirt that she had cut open at the neck. As I told her the story of the fire my eyes kept dropping to the skin there – her clavicle and the top of her chest. Kurt Cobain caught my eye, pensive and judgemental behind his fringe and I looked back up. Her eyes were wide with excitement and she gripped my hand. Tammy Lovett is gripping my hand, I thought. Ghost stories were ok by me.
“I heard the same thing,” she said. And the funny thing was, maybe she had. The stories circulated amongst us for weeks. The fire, the hanging, the drowning. Each of them sent a shiver through you as you lay in bed at night waiting for Ellie to visit, but none of them seemed quite right.
Ellie was our ghost. She was an icy finger brushing against Pamela T’s neck in the shower. She was the shadow that stood behind George P’s sister. She was an experience to be shared, but not understood. None of us had known about Ellie before that summer. Before she was a ghost, she just… wasn’t.
Nobody had really died in the grocery store fire, at least not according to the newspapers. And nobody had drowned in Starks Pond either. There was nothing to suggest that a little girl called Ellie Clark had ever died in our town, but that didn’t stop us. We were looking for answers, and how could anyone blame us? We were haunted after all.
Tammy Lovett and I went to the cinema. We were actually in a group of seven but the way I think about it now, it was just Tammy and I. She wore a Green Day t-shirt, but the artwork was from their latest album, which just wasn’t as good as the earlier stuff. I didn’t say anything of course.
Outside the cinema she slipped her hand into mine and pointed across the road. There was a woman pushing a trolley full of clothes across an empty car park. Tammy was a little shorter than I and she raised herself up to my ear. I could hear the click of her lips as they opened against the sticky shine of her lip gloss.
“I heard that woman used to be a lawyer,” she said “but Ellie drove her to madness.”
The space between Tammy lips and my ear was full of electricity. Even though she had finished whispering, she didn’t step back. Her breath was a deep rumbling sound and I thought of an approaching earthquake.
Someone was shouting at us from the cinema lobby. It was Carly G asking us if we wanted to share the cost of an extra ticket.
Tammy got savoury popcorn, and I got sweet. When we kissed the contrasting flavors made us dizzy. I forget what film we saw.
I do remember the empty seat though. Right in the middle of our group, the seat that we had all split the cost of. Ellie’s seat.
Another thing that happened that summer was that my Mum was killed in a car accident.
I don’t know the details. Not really. When I think about it there are parts that I can picture. I know, for example, that it was dark. I know it happened somewhere on the main dual carriageway coming into town, between the petrol station and the chain restaurant opposite the roundabout. I can see brake lights suddenly reflected a million times through raindrops on her windshield. I can see tyres not gripping the road. I can see the car flipping over completely and sliding into oncoming traffic. I can see all of that but I have no idea if it happened that way. I don’t think I ever asked.
What I do remember is coming home and finding the house empty. You already know where I had been – in the park, or behind the school building – sharing stories and hunting little Ellie Clark.
The house was dark, which was unusual. I had expected the kitchen light and the shadows of Mum and Dad behind the blinds. They always cooked together, apparently they loved it. Mum called it dancing, and when you watched them you could see why. Lately I had been rolling into the house two minutes before dinner, but on the rare occasion that I was back early I would sit at the dining table, and even though I’d be texting friends, I would always have one eye on them as they weaved around each other.
I didn’t call out for them. It was obvious they weren’t at home. So instead I checked the answerphone – nothing, and sent Mum a text. Later, when Dad and I turned her phone on, the text was sitting unread on her homescreen. ‘Hey Mum,’ it said, ‘where you at?’
I had no idea what to do with myself. I paced through the house a few times, opening and closing doors, checking and rechecking my phone. At one point I found myself in the bathroom looking into the mirror on the cabinet door trying to catch a glimpse of Ellie Clark.
Eventually I decided that I had forgotten a conversation, and that they were out at dinner, or something. They didn’t get much time to themselves and I decided not to pester them with phone calls. Instead, I made myself a sandwich and fell asleep in front of the television.
I woke to the sound of the front door. The light had changed, the darkness was thick. I couldn’t see the clock over the fireplace but it was obviously late.
“Hey, where you been?” I called out.
The kitchen light flicked on and I heard footsteps. When my Uncle Terry appeared in the doorway my heart started to flutter. I didn’t stand up, I just sat there staring at him. Terry lived about fifteen miles away and we only saw him twice a year. I tried to ask him what was wrong, where my parents were, but I couldn’t. The look on his face made my legs shake.
He took a breath, about to say something and I wanted to rush across the room, to slap my hand across his mouth and shut him up. How dare he come here to say whatever he was about to say?
“Hey,” he said. “You need to come with me. It’s your Mum.”
Not everyone that saw Ellie Clark that summer was surprised by her. Some of us conjured her up. Here are just some of the ways that you could call Ellie.
- Gather with a small group at Starks Pond. Take off your shoes and socks, hold hands, and step out into the shallow water. If you did this right then Ellie would appear, eyes wide open, staring at your from just beneath the surface.
- Whisper her name three times in a mirror.
- Get into a small closet or wardrobe and close the door so that you’re alone inside. Then knock gently on the back of the door. When you heard a little girl ask “Who is it?” you could open the door and she would be standing in the room.
- Stand outside the old grocery store at night and hold a match or a lighter up to the blackened window frame.
- Write a question for her on a piece of paper and fold it beneath your pillow. In the morning the paper would be gone and you’d find the answer scrawled across your bedroom wall – often in crayon, but sometimes in blood.
There were a thousand other ways. At the time it was hard to believe that our little town had not been the focus of a national news story with all the sightings, but why would it? We were stupid kids chasing shadows. We chased them so far and so fast that we got all tangled up and lost somewhere. Nobody cared that we were seeing a ghost because none of it was real.
“Are you okay?” said Tammy Lovett the next time I saw her. She had been waiting around the corner for me to leave the house. When I didn’t reply she said, “That was a stupid thing to ask, sorry. Obviously you’re not ok.”
I didn’t know if I was ok. The only thing I knew for sure is that my body temperature was all over the place. The house was too hot. It was so hot that I only wore shorts and no t-shirt. I took too many showers in order to cool down, and it worked, but only for a moment. By the time I’d thrown my shorts back on and walked downstairs to the kitchen I was sweating again. So I would head outside, and instantly I was too cold. The sun was shining and the street was full of howling children running up and down, but to me it felt like I’d stepped out into the arctic. I tried a coat, but it wasn’t enough. I stood with one foot in the front door and one foot out. Which was better I thought, to be too hot or too cold? But of course it wasn’t ok to be “too much” of anything.
My Dad was not ok. He stopped going to work and some days he didn’t leave the bedroom. Uncle Terry came to check on us in the evenings every night for two weeks after it happened. He cooked us dinner and we ate in front of the TV, letting the idle chatter of game show hosts and soap characters fill the silences.
One evening Uncle Terry bought us some extra vegetables and two chicken breasts.
“I can’t make it tomorrow” he said, “I have a late meeting. I hope you’ll be ok.” Dad nodded his thanks and put the bag of food into the fridge.
The next night I came back from the park. I think I’d been crying. It’s hard to imagine me not crying, anyway. Dad was eating the chicken breasts and the vegetables. When he heard me come in he looked up in surprise. For a second I could see that he didn’t recognise me, either that or he just really hadn’t expected me to come home.
Tammy Lovett stayed over one night and we got into a fight. I don’t remember what it was about now, but I know it ended with her locking herself on the bathroom.
After a few minutes I crept along the upstairs landing to the closed door. I felt awful, I wanted her to come back out. I wanted to feel her breathing in my ear again, I wanted her to stroke my hair and tell me that it was ok.
From inside the bathroom I could hear her speaking softly. I pressed my head against the wood and listened. The bathroom mirror was just inside the room, only a foot or two from the door. I could hear her clearly.
“Ellie Clark. Ellie Clark. Ellie Clark” she said.
I held my breath. I strained to hear more, the giggle of a small child or a deep and raspy response. A lot of different people had heard Ellie speaking in a lot of different voices.
The next voice wasn’t Ellie though, it was Tammy.
“Please, if you’re there. Can you help him? He needs help. I can’t do this.”
She started to cry then, and I moved back from the door. I tiptoed back to my room, avoiding any creaking floorboards and set on the bed. Later, I heard the toilet flush and the door opening. She came back along the landing, but instead of coming through the bedroom door I heard her footsteps on the stairs.
I saw Ellie Clark just before the autumn term.
It was a Sunday evening and I was alone in the house. Dad had popped his head in my door that morning and said that he was off to see a friend from work. I had been hanging half out of the window smoking a cigarette and trying my best to wave the smoke away with an old postcard. He looked at me, and he looked at the cigarette, and then he left.
The day passed. I played a video game and watched a film but my mind kept wandering to my phone and the lack of messages on it. Where was Tammy Lovett? What new scheme had Brad T cooked up to trap the ghost? Was Paige F still dating Terry N? I didn’t care about any of it, but I cared that they didn’t keep in touch. I guess they didn’t know how to behave around me. I couldn’t blame them, I didn’t know how to behave either. Several times I unlocked the phone and started to write something.
Hey, it’s me.
Wanna hang out?
But I couldn’t press send. I placed the phone back down on the bed and picked up the video game controller.
I played until the sun was low and the light through the bedroom window was a deep amber. And then I saw her. Just like that.
There was a movement, caught from the corner of my eye. Something loose and flowing. I turned my head fast enough to cause a shooting pain in my neck and watched as a piece of white fabric disappeared through my bedroom door. It had looked like the billowing hem of a dress.
“Hello?” I said.
I placed the controller down next to me and fumbled for the remote. The television was making a series of bleeps and whistles as pixelated monsters stuttered across the screen. I hit the standby button and the room became silent.
I rose slowly to my feet and as I did I heard the first footstep. A soft but definite thud from outside on the landing. I walked slowly forward, inching across the room so that the space outside the door came into view slowly. I thought of all the stories, of all the times I’d been jealous of them. It had seemed like the whole world had seen Ellie Clark but me, and now here I was, about to come face to face with her, and I was terrified.
I reached the door and looked out into the landing. Dying sunlight cast long shadows across the walls, but it was clearly empty. There was nobody there.
I stood still in the doorway and listened to the house around me. It was full of sounds that I could not hear, things that I wouldn’t hear again. Mum laughing. Mum whistling. Mum creeping downstairs at night to smoke in the driveway.
I unclenched my hands and settled my shoulder against the doorframe. I closed my eyes, and then I heard it again. Footsteps. This time from downstairs.
“Mum?” I mumbled and felt the question twist my stomach in knots.
The footsteps started to quicken in pace as I approached the stairs. By the time I started to descend they had broken out into a run. That was when the giggling started. High pitched and gleeful, the laughter of a child without a care in the world. The hairs on my arms stood on end and I started to shake, but not with fear. I was angry. My vision started to blur, I had never felt anything like it. Whoever was down there needed to leave my house. What right did they have to intrude like this?
The noise was coming from the kitchen. I reached the bottom of the stairs and rounded the corner. The kitchen light was on, the doorway stood at the end of a short hallway. I couldn’t see anyone in there, but the noises were louder now, and unmistakable, a child was opening cupboard doors and slamming them shut. I stepped forward, fists clenched by my sides and walked through the kitchen door.
The ghost of Ellie Clark stopped running around and stood staring at me. She was younger than I’d imagined. Little older than a toddler really. She wore a white flowing dress, her bare feet and ankles were covered in dirt. Her hair was brown and messy. Her hands were clasped in front of her and she held a plastic doll in them.
We stared at each other, Ellie Clark and I, for what felt like a long time but may have been just a second. I think I was waiting for her to say something. She didn’t. Instead she started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” I said, stumbling over each word. There was a large lump in my throat.
She took a step towards me, still laughing and I held my ground, ready for her to come closer. I hated her. My fists clenched and my arms began to shake.
Just then someone screamed something from outside the front of the house and I looked up, taking my eyes off Ellie for a second. She didn’t waste any time. She took off, sprinting straight passed me and up the stairs.
I chased her. “Wait!” I shouted. “Wait!”
She was small and she struggled on the staircase. She was on her hands and knees, trying to crawl and getting all tied up in her dress. I caught her about half way up. I reached out my hand and grabbed her by the leg. I held on tight as the ghost thrashed around against my grip. I pinned her to the stairs and stood over her.
“What do you want?” I shouted. My voice was unrecognizable. It was ripped to shreds. Tears and spit and mucus rained down on her, and finally she stopped laughing.
“Why are you here? What did you do to her? Where is she?”
I couldn’t see straight, and I was losing my balance. She was writhing around like a snake and she managed to twist away from me. She flipped herself back over and stood up, ready to run, and that’s when I hit her across the back of the head.
It was fast, everything was fast. She crumbled beneath me and I heard the sharp crack – her head connecting with the wooden banister. A warm red shower sprayed across the white carpet.
I collapsed beside her and gasped for breath. The house was too hot again. Everything felt like it was burning. As the rushing of blood in my ears began to calm I started to hear the noises outside again. Someone was still screaming out there. It was a woman. She sounded desperate.
She screamed two syllables again and again into the early evening air. A child’s name. Her voice rising and falling like a siren.
At some point later someone started knocking on the front door.
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