Darkness began to close in around me as the edges of my vision went black. If I didn’t figure something out fast, I was as good as dead.
I tried to focus all of my willpower into moving my right arm, but it was useless. The woman – or her ghost or whatever she was – had me. She was going to kill me.
I opened my mouth to scream again, or maybe to plead with her, but it was no good. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t make a sound. I was going to die alone in my bed. Father Sebastian had never taught me how to deal with a ghost. The thought of dying terrified me, but there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t stop her.
Without warning, a sudden scratching sound came from right outside my door. It sent ice through my veins. Was it her? Was she going to attack someone else after she killed me?
A meow accompanied the scratching a moment later and washed those thoughts away. It was Toast, our cat. She must have known I was in trouble.
I tried to call out to Toast, but my voice still wouldn’t come. As she continued to scratch at the door and cry, though, the pressure slowly eased up on my throat. I didn’t understand why, but I didn’t have time to think about it, either. I sucked in a big, greedy lungful of air and coughed.
The air helped to invigorate me and I was finally able to turn on my side as the pressure on my chest vanished. I couldn’t stop coughing even as I fell out of my bed and staggered toward my door. Without wasting a second, I threw it open. Toast, the beautiful tortoiseshell cat, stared up at me with dark eyes. I stepped into the hallway and scooped her up into a hug. She had just saved my life.
Movement caught my eye at the end of the hall as I cried into Toast’s fur. I sat her down and grit my teeth as I stood up, terrified but unwilling to be caught helpless again. There, several feet away, was a short figure with black hair that reached down to her slumped shoulders. Something wasn’t right. She didn’t look a thing like the woman in my dream.
The girl looked over at me as she moved toward the door to the common room. Her dark coat was in perfect contrast with her pale skin. When our eyes met, she cringed, and I finally realized who she was. Meryl. The new girl. I’d never talked to her before, but that didn’t matter; I was desperate to be around another living person.
I all but ran toward her. As I did, she went rigid and looked like a rabbit ready to bolt.
“Please,” I whispered as I got close to her, my cheeks still wet with tears. “Please, don’t leave me alone.”
Meryl nervously glanced around the area and brought a finger up to her lips to shush me. She stared at me for a moment and then reluctantly turned and pushed the door to the common room open. “Come on,” she whispered as she stepped through it. “We can’t let anyone catch us. You can talk outside.”
I nodded and followed close behind her as she led the way through the common room toward the front door. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the woman was just around the corner waiting for me to let my guard down so she could strike.
As we made it to the front door and Meryl moved to open it, my body tensed. I wanted to grab her and pull her away from the door. The woman was behind it – waiting. The minute we opened the door, I knew we’d be face-to-face with her.
Before I could move, Meryl pulled the door open and stepped outside. No one else was there. Cautiously, I followed her out and closed the door behind me. We were safe for the time being, but I couldn’t relax. Just because the woman hadn’t shown herself yet didn’t mean she wouldn’t.
“Are you OK?” Meryl asked as I followed her out into the front yard toward the driveway.
I could only shake my head. “I-no.”
She glanced at me for a second and then looked away. “What’s wrong?”
I took a slow, steady breath. I needed to collect myself before I could talk about what had happened. “Sorry. I just-I can’t talk about it yet.”
She slowly nodded as we neared the driveway. “That’s OK. I get it. I’m miserable, too.”
“Why?” I asked.
As she looked over at me again, I realized her face was pinched with sadness. Even so, she didn’t look like she was going to cry. Her sorrow was deeper than that; it went beyond simple tears. “Because my dad is dead and now I’m in an orphanage.”
I studied the ground as a mixture of emotions warmed my face. It had never really occurred to me that someone wouldn’t want to be at Saint Helens. It was the only home I’d ever known. I’d killed the woman in order to stay. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. You’re here, too.”
Before we reached the driveway, Meryl turned right and headed for the woods that surrounded Saint Helens. As I looked at them, I felt a desperate fear swell up in my chest. The woman. She was in there. If we went into the woods, we wouldn’t come back out again. “What are we doing? Where are we going?”
“I’m running away. You can follow me as long as you want, but we need to go into the woods. If we don’t hide, somebody will see us.”
I wanted to ask her why she was running away but, more importantly, I had to keep us as far from the woods – and the woman – as I could. “Everybody’s asleep. We don’t need to go in there.”
“I don’t want to—”
I touched her shoulder and stared at her desperately. “Please. We don’t want to go in there.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“I – please, just trust me.”
She stopped walking and stared at me. Then, after a short moment, she nodded. “All right. We’ll stay away from the trees for now.”
I felt my shoulders relax a little as some of my tension subsided. “Thank you.”
She didn’t say anything as she began walking toward the driveway once more. We marched on with only the cricket’s chirping to accompany us for what seemed like forever. Finally, when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I opened my mouth and broke the silence. “Why are you running away?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.
“Sorry,” I mumbled as I stared at the ground. The last thing I wanted was to upset her and have her leave me or run into the woods.
She closed her eyes and slowed down considerably. Then, after a moment, she opened them once more. “I-I’m sorry. Nobody has even tried to talk to me since I’ve been here. This – talking – I’m not used to it anymore. There’s something I really need to tell someone, though. Can you keep a secret?”
“Yeah, of course. It’s not like I have anyone to tell, anyway.”
She considered that for a moment and then gave a slight nod. “I told you my dad died and that’s why I’m here, right? Well, he was a hero.”
“What do you mean?”
“He found out some people were going to attack a mall and stopped them.”
I stopped walking for a moment and looked at her. It was dark, but the moonlight was bright enough for me to see how vulnerable she looked. “I’m sorry. Is that why he died?”
Meryl didn’t answer right away. Her eyes and face began to turn red and her mouth quivered for a moment. I thought she would start to cry at any second, but somehow she seemed to get her emotions under control. “No. He-he told me about what he did and disappeared the next day. I didn’t know where he went, so I stayed home and didn’t go anywhere.”
“How long was he gone?”
A tear leaked from her eye and down her cheek, but she took a deep breath and forced the rest of them back. “I never saw him again. I didn’t go to school, so the police came to our house. When they found out my dad was gone, they took me away.”
“So he could come back and take you—”
“They said he left a suicide note,” she said, interrupting me. “I-I don’t know why, but he killed himself.” Finally, she lost control and covered her face with her hands.
I didn’t know what to say, but I knew I needed to do something. Slowly, I reached my hand out and touched her shoulder.
She looked up at me as tears continued to stream down her face. “I just wish I knew why. My mom died when I was little, so we were all each other had. I’m so lonely. Why did he leave me all alone?”
“I-I don’t know,” I said as I looked away. “I never knew my parents. I’ve been here for as long as I can remember.”
“Why? Did something happen to them?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
“What’s going on, then? Why were you so scared in the hallway?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something white move at the edge of the tree line. I couldn’t keep from shuddering. It was the woman’s nightgown. She was there watching. We needed to keep moving. I wouldn’t let the woman come for me. Not again. “Let’s keep walking,” I said as I started off again without waiting for Meryl to respond.
I didn’t slow even after we’d put a little distance between us and the woman. I did, however, take a slow, deep breath. “If I tell you what happened, will you keep it a secret, too?” I asked, forcing the words out as I opened my eyes again.
She nodded. “Yeah.”
“I-there’s a ghost that’s after me. She almost killed me tonight.”
“What? A ghost? How—”
“I’m not making it up, I swear.”
“What does she look like? What did she do?”
“I can’t even describe what she looked like. She was bloody and crazy and she attacked me. It felt like she sat on my chest and then started to choke me. I couldn’t breathe.”
“Do you have any idea why she wanted to hurt you?”
I looked away. There was no way I could tell her I’d killed the woman. “No, but she was a real person. I’m not crazy.”
Meryl shook her head. “No, I-I didn’t mean that. It’s just, I’ve never met anyone who’s seen a ghost. Did she say anything to you? Could she talk?”
“Yeah, but she just said stuff about how she was going to get me and how she wanted to hurt me.”
It was her turn to put her hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry.” The look on her face didn’t match her words, though. She looked fascinated. In fact, there was even a glint of hope in her eyes.
“What is it?” I asked. Just thinking about the woman had exhausted me. I wanted nothing more than to go to bed, but I knew it wouldn’t do any good. If I went back to my room alone, she’d be there – waiting.
Meryl slowed to a stop and pulled me to one, too. “If she wants to hurt you, we have to get rid of her.”
I looked at her wide-eyed and tried not to get my hopes up. “Aren’t you leaving?”
She stared back into my eyes earnestly. “If you saw a ghost – if one talked to you – maybe she can give me some answers about my dad.”
“I don’t think her goal is to be helpful.”
Meryl didn’t avert her gaze. “I have to try. I have to know what happened to him. If the woman won’t help, maybe I can at least help you deal with her.”
“How? What do you have in mind?”
“I don’t know yet, but I’ll do some research and figure something out. If we can figure out how to talk to her without having her attack you, maybe it will help both of us.”
I slowly forced myself to nod. I wasn’t sure what else to do. Talking to the woman seemed like a bad idea but, if Meryl was willing to help, I couldn’t turn her down. I’d just have to try and convince her to look for another route later. “All right. We can give it a shot. If she starts choking me again, though, you have to stop her.”
“Deal,” she said.
With that, we turned around and made our way back to Saint Helens. As we did, movement caught my eye in the woods every so often. The woman. She was still following us. Before I could point her out to Meryl, though, she was gone every time.
When we finally reached Saint Helens’ front door again, Meryl stopped and looked at me. “Can you do me a favor?” she asked.
“Don’t tell anyone I was going to run away, OK? I don’t want to get in any more trouble than I’ve already been in. That’s why I was going to run away in the first place. The Sisters are so strict and no one here likes me. If I have to be alone, I might as well do it without being yelled at.”
“I like you,” I said as I looked away. “I’m sorry I never talked to you before tonight. You’re really nice. If you stay, maybe we can be friends. That way neither one of us have to be alone anymore.”
Tears welled up in her eyes and slowly began to roll down her cheek. “Thank you.”
Before I could say anything else, Meryl opened the door to step inside. As she did, she jumped backwards and let out a soft scream. A woman’s figure stood right in front of us.
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