There Goes Them Ghost Children
I’m writing to ask you for your forgiveness. The truth is that I haven’t ever stopped thinking about you. How I failed you. What I let happen to you.
I’ve known what I’ve needed to do for a long time to get my words to you, but I’ve just now gotten the courage to do it. Now that your mama’s gone and it’s just me drowning in all this loneliness. All this guilt.
I hope this all isn’t for nothing.
Maybe it’s crazy. Maybe it’s more than crazy. But I need you to know my side of what happened that night.
Please read this letter, Bon. Please.
You have to understand, when you refused to get out of the car after we pulled under that shiny new carport frame that connected to this here house and property we’d gotten such a good deal on, I thought you were mad at me and your mama for uprooting you from your friends.
We couldn’t believe you were acting the way you were for anything other than you not wanting to let them girls go.
When you told us it was because you were seeing mean little ghost children in the windows and running around the trees, we sure didn’t believe you.
We didn’t see a thing. Hear nothing either. Nothing. Not so much as a shadow or a whisper.
You probably remember us all sitting there for the longest time in the station wagon, me and your mama trying to convince you to get out and come inside the house with us. How you wouldn’t help us unload the trailer we’d barely managed to get hitched up. How you wouldn’t even undo your seatbelt. How you were just yelling, terrified of sorts. “I ain’t getting close to them ghost children! I ain’t getting close to them ghost children!”
It was the biggest mess of nonsense me and your mama’d heard in our lives.
We watched you as you wrestled yourself deep into your vinyl seat, hugging that little stuffed bear you had so tight against you, like it was your own soul that you were pushing back in your body.
I didn’t ever tell your mama this, but I see you that same way, all scared like, cowering and big eyed, when I close my eyes for sleep that rarely comes.
I have since that night, Bon.
The truth is that me and your mama had never much seen you act that way. Like a silly, foolish child is how we thought you were acting.
We didn’t know what to do with you, so when we told you to just keep on while we took the boxes inside, we thought that was fine enough.
We thought you’d cave in and help us.
I think we both hoped so.
But you didn’t, of course.
I know you have to remember, but you just sat out there crying and fussing.
We were done so plumb flustered by the time we’d gotten everything inside by ourselves that we thought we’d just let you sit out there and stew long into the night.
We were wrong, Bon, for thinking such a thing, especially with your mind full of spirits. We were so wrong.
Please forgive me. Please, darling.
We watched you when we were inside. Your mama peeked through the bedroom blinds and got a good look at you after we tore open that first box full of broken plates. Seeing them plates like that made her remember what being really frustrated was.
I remember her putting that box down and sitting on the floor. She was talking real soft, saying something about how you were probably acting like you were because you were sad.
That made us both feel kind of sorry for you, but it isn’t easy to apologize once you’re set in your ways. Even when those ways are wrong. Maybe especially when those ways are wrong.
Do you know your mama was watching you most of the evening?
Every ten minutes or so, she’d tell me to carry on unpacking, and she’d go to the back bedroom and look out at you, the porch lights catching you at just the right angle.
She’d come back and give me a full report.
Same thing each time, too. You with your tear-streaked face, carrying on like something wild.
She told me we should go out there and get you. She told me that.
I ain’t proud of what I did, but I told her no.
It’s my fault, Bon. I’m sorry to say it, but it is my fault.
I told her we’d wait until the boxes on the counter by the stove were unpacked. Then we’d do it. “We’ll go out there together,” I said. “Give her just a little more time to pout around. She’ll sleep better because of it.”
I can hear myself saying those exact words.
I said it all joke like. Even did a little chuckle at the end. I can still hear that stupid sound I made, too.
If only I’d listened to your mama.
And your mama, she just shrugged her shoulders and carried on.
Wasn’t no point in arguing with me. She knew as much.
You have to understand, I hadn’t ever seen any spirits. I didn’t believe in those kinds of things. I didn’t know anybody else who did either.
What you were spouting just wasn’t possible to me.
That’s why I didn’t believe you. I know I should’ve, but I just didn’t. That’s why, Bon.
When your mama got busy with unwrapping all the paper towels we’d put around her teapots, I told her to keep on. I told her I’d go take a look at you.
After all them times your mama’d come back and reported you were fine, I believed my eyes were just tricking me. I remember blinking them a dozen times at least.
No matter what I did, it wasn’t helping.
I could see the light on in that old station wagon. Wasn’t no questioning that. But the door was open, and your seat was empty except for your bear.
As bad as I wanted to be wrong, I knew. I could feel in my insides that something wasn’t right. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought a thing in the world about you sitting out there in that car. I swear it. But when I saw that door swung back, I felt my stomach sink to my knees.
I came around that bedroom door and took off down the hall. Shouting. Yelling. Whatever you want to call it, I was doing it.
Your mama didn’t even have to ask me what was going on.
Somehow, she knew.
She dropped one of her teapots and took off after me out the door.
Both of us barefooted.
We were yelling something awful.
Carol and Tim, those were our neighbors at the time, they turned on their own porch lights and came out and helped us look for you. Those people just had to ask your name once, and they knew it as good as their own. Carol had her hair in rollers and was wearing her housecoat. Tim was in nothing but his boxer shorts. They didn’t seem to think a thing about how they looked to us either. They were out there calling just as loudly as me and your mama. Maybe louder, thinking back on it.
We all were looking for you. Carol told us to keep on, and she’d call the neighborhood watch. She did, too, and they came. Fast. Panicky. Seemed that way at least, even then in that moment. About the whole neighborhood. Forty folks or so. Half dressed and all kinds of ugly.
We were looking, Bon. All of us.
Those folks didn’t know us from Adam, but they kept asking to see your picture.
I undid my wallet and showed them the one you’d had taken in school the year before. I tried to turn that image of you toward the light whenever anybody asked.
Wasn’t probably going to be any other little girl just roaming around by herself in the dark, but I showed them. Every time, I showed them.
We looked everywhere.
Honest. I swear it. On your mama’s soul, I swear it.
The police showed up. Sirens blaring. Fire trucks came too.
Everybody was asking questions and looking at that photo of you. We kept on throughout the night, till after the sun had come up and was warming us the next morning.
All those folks, dirty and breathless, slowly went on home. Even the cops eventually excused themselves because they were past due for a shift change.
Carol and Tim stayed around until the last soul left, and then Tim grabbed my shoulder and gave me the biggest squeeze I’d ever felt. He stared right directly into my eyes, and I still remember his words. Won’t ever forget them. He said, “I should have told you the place was cursed when I saw you and your wife out looking to buy, but I didn’t know you all had a little one.” Him and Carol both looked like they were about to cry when he said it. He wasn’t finished, though. I could tell it by the way he’d cut himself off. He took a deep breath—a real big one, Bon—and then he went on. “Hurts my heart to say as much, but your girl ain’t coming back.”
You know it isn’t in my nature for me not to have anything to say, but I was speechless.
Honestly, neither one of us said a word. We couldn’t, Bon. We just turned and went back on with our searching.
I know this doesn’t make up for what happened, but do you know that while your mama was still alive and able that we didn’t stop? She’d spend all day out. Looking everywhere. Researching missing kids from the years before. At the dinky little library. Reading old books. Trying, and failing, to make contact with their families. Making trips across the county. Getting hung up on and doors slammed in her face. When I’d get home from my shift at Sammy’s Auto, she’d be ready for us to head out before I had the time to wash off good. Before I’d even had a bite of dinner. There was always, according to her, another rock to overturn.
I believe it’s that searching that kept us together, too. I know she had to blame me, but the hope that we might find you must’ve been stronger than that anger.
We went to every river, ditch, and patch of woods for miles. For miles, and we didn’t uncover a thing. There was no trace of you at all except that toy bear just sitting there as pretty as it pleased in your seat in the car.
We hated everybody in this neighborhood. This whole town, really. We did. All of them. Even after they came out that night, we couldn’t help but hate them. After it first happened and they insisted on leaving us casseroles on our porch, we let the ants eat them. If only we would’ve known, Bon. If only they would’ve told us.
We didn’t ever leave because, for the longest time, we kept that hope going that you might come back.
As crazy as it sounds, that’s the truth.
I prayed day and night that you would return to us.
I even prayed that those ghost children you saw might come back, too. That I could see them. Just once. Just once, Bon, so I’d know for myself that they were real. To see for myself that they could’ve taken you.
A couple of months before your mama passed, she was dreaming more and more. I’d stay awake and listen to her. She’d say, “There goes them ghost children! There goes them ghost children! There goes them ghost children!” Just repeating those words for hours upon hours.
Even then, she was trying to find you. I know she was.
Truth is, now that your mama’s gone, I’m tired. Of searching. Of holding onto this guilt.
I can’t take it no more either.
I know I won’t see you again. It’s been hard for me to accept, but I know it’s the truth.
I’m leaving this property for good, leaving this whole place behind.
Finally decided it.
Already sold it to a nice couple. They have two kids. A boy and girl. Wild little things. Maybe I should have told them about you. About what happened to you. About how it had to have been the ghost children. But I ain’t.
And I won’t.
I can’t, Bon. I’m sorry for it, but I can’t.
Maybe that silence makes me just like everybody else in this Godforsaken place. I can’t argue with that.
But I need you to read this letter. More than anything, I just need you to know how sorry I am.
If it’s true and you’re with them now, which I have to believe you are, you’ll come back. Leaving these words is the only way I know how to reach you.
You have to understand how sorry I am. For all of it, Bon. For all of it, I’m sorry.
I ask that you forgive me. For what I let happen to you. For the two other kids I didn’t protect. For all of it.
P. S. If you’re a member of the Donaldson family and are reading this letter, I’m sorry for what’s happened to your children. I ask your forgiveness much the same.
Bradley Sides is the author of Those Fantastic Lives: And Other Strange Stories. His recent fiction appears at BULL, Ghost Parachute, Psychopomp, and Superstition Review. He lives in Huntsville, Alabama, with his wife. On most days, he can be found teaching writing at Calhoun Community College. For more, visit bradley-sides.com.