Oops, no, that was Ray Stevens back in his funny-man days. Okay, 'nuff 'o that. Just popped over to add a note to this little excerpt. THE PHANTOM PILOT IS NOW ON BARNES & NOBLE AS WELL AS AMAZON. Whoo hoo! One more place where I can go and gaze upon that lovely cover. Understand--I had nothing to do with the cover aside from asking for shades of yellow and choosing the awesome artist Anne Cain. Did I tell you she's at work on the cover for the sequel, The Phantom Student? Yep, so I'm told. I can hardly wait...all right, I'll get out of the way now and let you read. Hope you enjoy the tale...
Afterthought: Don't go see The Grey. Blech. Should've remained a short story. Liam Neeson is great, but talk about a depressing movie...no, on second thought, let's not talk about how depressing it was!
THE PHANTOM PILOT
It was the late 60s: the Beatles had washed across America like a British tsunami, Vietnam was a grainy, green and black dose of unreality on the evening news, a bunch of hippies had taken over San Francisco, and there was a heck of a rainstorm pouring down on Woodstock. But I didn’t know all that then.
I was a little bit lost, looking for something. I swear I didn’t go looking for a ghost . . . well, okay, maybe I did. But I didn’t expect to find one. Heck, I was just a kid. I didn’t expect much of anything.
I was twelve years old, standing knock-kneed in pigtails and ripped denim in front of a haunted house, trying to dig up enough courage to go inside. But I was terrified. I’d read the books and I’d seen the movies on Shock Theater. No matter what, you don’t go inside the spooky old house. No matter who dares you, no matter what lures you. You do not go in.
Hand trembling, I opened the door.
The warped wood screeched when I pushed it. I expected that. But I didn’t expect the dusty floorboards to moan with my every step. I tried not to think about it. I was in. I’d lived around the corner from this house all my life and today I’d finally garnered enough willpower to walk inside.
The light was dim, murky with dust motes and cobwebs. The curtains were little more than yellowed rags hanging in tatters. The windows themselves were so filthy the light coming through was leached of its goodness by layers of grime.
I’d been in the grocery store buying a loaf of bread for supper. The store was only a block from our house. They knew me there almost as well as they knew my Gramps. On my way to the check out, I saw old Mr. Pearcy in the frozen food section, reading labels. Probably trying to figure out which one might taste the most like his wife’s cooking. It had been only a couple weeks since I’d seen Mrs. Pearcy’s obituary in the newspaper.
I read the newspaper almost every morning over breakfast. I loved reading of any kind. As a joke, Gramps once wrapped my new cereal box in duct tape so I couldn’t read it at the kitchen table. I could tell you the nutrition information for almost every kid’s cereal known to mankind. Reading’s just my thing. It always has been.
“Get the smothered steak,” I whispered as I walked by Mr. Pearcy. “It’s yummy.” I hurried on and got in line to pay for my bread.
“Thanks, Stevie-girl,” I heard him reply.
When I glanced back over my shoulder, I saw that he’d stuck his head back inside the stand-up freezer. The open door facing me had fogged over, but I could make out his silhouette. As I watched, he backed out and held the flat rectangular box in front of his face so that I could see it. He’d replaced the turkey and dressing with the steak. I raised my hand to give him a thumbs-up as he lowered the box into his shopping basket.
All the breath suddenly drained from my body. Mr. Pearcy was gone. On top of his plaid shoulders sat an oozing skull. Wisps of thin gray hair clung to the patchy flesh.
I closed my eyes and sucked in air. When I looked again, it was just Mr. Pearcy standing there with his hand raised, looking at me as if I’d slipped a cog.
“You okay, honey?” The voice came from the woman next to me in line. “You look awfully pale.” She laid her hand on my shoulder as if to steady me. It was obvious she hadn’t seen anything unusual except for me pale and shaking.
“I – I’m okay,” I replied. “Dizzy for a second.” I smiled my best white-liar’s smile. “Just got over an inner ear infection.”
She nodded the sympathetic nod of a grandmother.
I paid and hurried toward home keeping a sharp eye out for Mr. Pearcy, but I didn’t see him again. Must’ve been my imagination. Or a trick of the light. Maybe it was just a reflection off the frosty door.
Now, looking at the steep, dark staircase in front of me, I inhaled slowly, feeling my lungs expand all the way down, moving my diaphragm just like Mr. Morrow, the music teacher, said we should. The image of Mr. Pearcy’s raggedy skull kept trying to creep into my mind, but I wouldn’t let it.
“Lalalalala,” I sang under my breath. Singing always calmed me down and made me feel better. Besides, I knew I hadn’t really seen anything. Stopping here on the way home had been in the back of my mind ever since Gramps had asked me to run down to the store. Just the idea of going in the haunted house was probably the reason I’d seen that awful thing. Over-active imagination, that’s what Gramps always said.
I started forward again. The house was deserted. No one had lived here for ages, and that made it spooky, as if it were holding in a breath, waiting for something. But what if someone else was here? Someone, or something, living upstairs where no one could see? A bum, or a bandit hiding out from the law? I knew it was possible because my Gramps was a semi-retired cop. He said the worst monsters were not under the bed or in the bedroom closet. Instead, they walked among us. I believed him. Gramps was all I had left. I had to believe him. Guess that’s why I didn’t really put much stock in things like ghosts. I was too smart for that, too worldly. But man, was it spooky!
Whaaaa. The floor cried like a baby as I put my foot down a little too solidly. I jerked it back up to balance on one leg like a blue-jean clad flamingo. Carefully, I lowered my foot and inched backwards toward the door. That was enough. I’d proved to myself that I was brave. Besides, the landing at the top of the stairs was wreathed in shadows and even the creepy light from the windows was fading fast. Thinking of bums and bad guys had convinced me I shouldn’t be there.
Dark streaks wafted across the room. That’s nothing but the shadows of trees outside the window, swaying in the breeze. That’s all. I might not believe in ghosts and monsters, but I did believe in intuition, that feeling that tells you when it’s time to book, and right now, my intuition was strong. It took all my will power not to turn and run, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this without panicking, so I held my breath and continued creeping backwards, afraid to take my eyes off that stairway. That’s when I heard it—a sliding sound. Like shoes across a sandy floor.
That was it. That was my undoing. My willpower was all used up. I twisted around to run and crashed right into a tall figure in a soft blue shirt.
I shrieked and began pummeling the figure with my loaf of bread.
“Hold up!” The figure laughed. “You’re killing me!”
“Jase!” I shoved both my hands against his chest and ducked under his arm. The plastic bread sack slithered from my grasp. “What are you doing here?” My breath was raspy. I was furious with him for laughing. And for scaring me.
Easily fending off the attack, Jase caught the bread before it hit the floor. His thick blond hair fell over one eye as he handed it back to me. “What am I doing? What are you doing?” He looked around the dilapidated manor.
I puffed out my chest, prepared to tell him it was none of his business, but we’d stirred up a cloud of dust. I began to sneeze instead.
“Are you—are you—" Ahhh-choo!
“Gesundheit! Am I what?”
Dashing outside, I sneezed again and again until I was finally able to take in a few breaths of fresh air. “Are you following me?”
Jase leapt off the porch. He was tall—the tallest boy in our class.
I made it a point to walk down the steps. The yard was weedy in some places, bare dirt in others. It was getting on toward five o’clock, and the light had taken on that funny hue that meant sunset was not too far away. It reminded me that even the Indian summer was just about gone. The day had that orangey kind of feel to it, like autumn leaves.
Jase sat on a rusty iron bench that encircled the base of the oak tree shading the front yard. The tree and the deep pockets of shade it provided made the old house even creepier. “I wasn’t really following you,” he said. “I saw you come out of the Piggly Wiggly, and I was just going to catch up to you to see what you were doing.”
Still standing, I propped my feet, first one and then the other, on the bench beside him so I could retie the laces on my red Converse high-tops. I wasn’t sure what to say. We weren’t friends, just classmates.
Jase leaned back against the tree trunk. “I saw you come in here.” He looked up at me, but I could tell the slanting rays of the sun kept him from really seeing me. He shaded his eyes with one hand. “Do you come here a lot?”
That made me laugh. “Yeah, all the time. Didn’t you see the brave way I raced up the steps and charged right inside?”
He laughed a real laugh, not a making-fun laugh. “Yeah, I did see that.”
Realizing how late it had gotten, I started toward the gate. “Gotta get what’s left of my weapon home for supper.” I held up my bedraggled loaf of bread. “My Gramps is probably wondering what happened to me.”
Jase folded one long leg up and caught the edge of the bench with his own sneakered heel. I noticed he wore some kind of track shoes. He laced his fingers together around his knee. He looked comfortable, as if he might just sit there all night with the sunlight and shadows playing chase across his friendly face. But he didn’t. As soon as I started through the gate, he stood up.
“Guess I’ll see ya in school tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” He smiled. “See ya.” Then he walked back up on the porch and pulled the creaky door shut with a bang. In our haste to get out, we’d left it standing wide open. I thought that was something, brave or stupid, I wasn’t sure which. I was pretty certain I couldn’t have made myself go back up there and close the door. Something, a hand or an arm or a claw, might reach out and grab me.
I let my gaze travel toward the upstairs window. A shadow twitched the edge of the ragged curtain before melting away into the gloom.
Jase shivered, shrugging his shoulders as if wishing for a jacket. I didn’t think he’d seen anything. He wasn’t looking up like I was. Had he felt something? He turned and hurried out the gate, but I was already halfway down the sidewalk. I glanced back just as he flipped his hair off his forehead and cut north across the open yards. After a few steps, he began to jog.
I was home in two minutes. My house was close to everything in Crossroads, our small Texas town. The school was four blocks north, the store a block south, and the Police Station where my Gramps was now the daytime dispatcher was just a few blocks south and east. One block west is where my ex-best-friend, Karla, used to live. But at the end of school last year, Karla’s dad joined the Marines because he lost his job and the military was taking every able bodied man they could find. So this year he was in Vietnam and Karla was in California living with her mom and grandparents.
I tried not to walk west if I could help it. It made me really sad to pass Karla’s house with someone else living there. Besides, the old Taylor Mansion was the other direction, sort of behind the Piggly Wiggly, and that’s the reason I went there, because the last time I’d heard from Karla, she said her dad hadn’t written in a long time. They were really worried about him. I thought if I could make myself go into the “haunted” house—something Karla and I had often dared each other to do but had never actually worked up the nerve for—it would give me something to put in my next letter. Something to make her feel better, take her mind off her dad.
Truth-be-told, I thought maybe if I was brave enough to do that, it would somehow help Karla’s dad to be brave. Sometimes, I wished my own dad had gone to Vietnam. At least then my Mama wouldn’t have been looking for him, and maybe then she wouldn’t have had the wreck that killed her. Oh, I shouldn’t have thought that. I take it back, I take it back, I take it back! I wouldn’t wish Vietnam on anyone, please and thank you and cross my heart and hope to die. I made an X over my heart, closed my eyes and kissed my thumb.
It was the only thing I could think of to undo my horrible thought. Vietnam was a bad place. I really wouldn’t wish it on anyone, not even my sorry excuse for a father. He’d left one evening after receiving a phone call from parts unknown, and then he’d pulled the old disappearing act.
“And I didn’t even know he was a magician!” Gramps said after we’d landed on his doorstep in the middle of the night a couple months later, broke and evicted ‘cause Mama didn’t have enough rent money.
I learned all about the war in Vietnam from watching the six o’clock news, the soldiers in green and black camouflage crossing muddy rivers with their rifles held high above their heads. Sometimes they would have jungle leaves and vines stuck on their helmets. Gramps said that was camouflage. I was pretty sure that someday we would see Karla’s dad on there, crossing a river. He was one of the oldest guys in his outfit. He would be easy to spot.
Gramps took the bread and wrapped a few slices in foil to heat. It didn’t have to be heated. It just made us both feel better if the bread was warm, as if Gran was still here to bake it herself. But she’d died from a stroke about three years ago and we both missed her terribly. We told each other we heated the bread because it stayed soft and the butter melted better, but I knew the truth. I’m sure Gramps did, too.
He held up the plastic bag. The bottom was full of crumbs. “What happened? Did’ja drop it on the way home?”
I shook my head. “Had to hit a boy with it.” I popped a strand of spaghetti in my mouth to test for doneness.
“What’d he do to deserve a beatin’ with our supper?”
I giggled. “Just startled me, that’s all.” I didn’t want to admit I’d been in the old Taylor place. We’d never talked about it, but I was fairly certain it would be off limits if he knew.
“Keep ‘em on their toes, kid,” Gramps replied. “But, Stevie . . .”
I looked up because the tone of his voice had changed.
“You’d tell me if anyone was really causing you trouble, right?”
I laid my head against his shoulder. “You know I would, Gramps. I didn’t mean to hit him with the bread. He didn’t do anything but say boo.”
Not quite convinced, Gramps said, “Okay, just let me know if anyone ever does need a beatin’. Deal?”
“Deal.” I held out my hand so we could shake on it.