One Page Stories – Third Web

Women

Trina sat with the police officer who had come to the gas station; she had called the police after escaping the group of women on the road.

“They surrounded the car?” the police officer asked, her pen poised over the notepad on the counter. “Did they hurt you?”

“No,” Trina assured her. “They were just all … standing there. They didn’t move, or say anything, or blink. They just stood there, until I drove away, and then I saw behind me that they had all made a circle around the cop.”

“Did you see the officer’s name badge?” the officer asked. “Or the number on the car?”

Trina shook her head. “No,” she said. “He had just gotten out of the car to come to my window. And then all the women showed up, out of nowhere. And he told me to come here and get help.”

The officer had sent a separate car down the road where Trina had been pulled over, where she had left the poor policeman behind at the mercy of the strange group of identically dressed, long-haired women. Why would they all dress the same? she wondered. Why would they all look alike? It seemed, in the dark, as though it was the same woman, copied seven or eight times. Suddenly she felt a little less spooked – maybe it was some kind of projector, some kind of elaborate hoax. Maybe the policeman would be okay, and everyone would have a good laugh about it.

A panic-stricken voice crackled over the officer’s radio. “Jordan!” the voice shouted. “Tony’s out here! He’s … he’s dead. He – it looks like he was strangled.”

The officer’s eyes had opened wide. “What do you mean, dead?” she barked into the radio. “Did you see anybody else?”

“No,” the voice replied. “But there are lots of footprints here – mud prints, or … or maybe blood. It’s hard to tell in the dark.”

The officer started issuing urgent instructions into the radio, about back-up, and keeping people clear of the crime-scene, and scouring the area for the women Trina had reported. She glanced piercingly at Trina. “You’ll need to stay with me,” she commanded, obviously considering Trina a suspect in the death of the other officer.

“O-okay,” Trina agreed. She thought about the officer who had pulled her over, about how she had left him there – at his instruction! – to be killed by those women. I’m sorry, she thought, tears in her eyes. She sat quietly for a long while, until the officer was ready to escort her to the police station for questioning.

*   *    *

Officer Tony Prescott’s dash-cam recording exonerated Trina, but she was required to spend some hours answering endless questions. All around her, the police station was frantic with unusual activity; it was a small town, after all, and crimes like this just didn’t happen. The dash-cam recording had captured the women, a total of nine women all wearing the same floral dress and the same dark hair swept down over their faces. But at the point when the women had surrounded Officer Prescott, the recording had cut out, showing only static for a few moments and clearing up only after the women had vanished.

“Do you recognize the women?” Jordan asked. “From before tonight, I mean.”

“No,” Trina said, shaking her head.

“I do,” a voice said behind her. “That looks like Madeleine Jackson.” The owner of the voice was one of the detectives; he sat down at the table next to Trina and peered at the dash-cam footage.

“Who?” Jordan asked. “That name isn’t familiar to me.”

“She disappeared about a year ago,” the detective explained. “She had been driving over here from Silton to see a friend, and she never showed up.”

“Silton?” Jordan repeated. “She probably would have been on that same road.” She shook her head, frowning. “But if she’s been missing for a year, then how did she end up there tonight? And who are the other women?”

“Maybe it’s some kind of projector,” Trina offered. “Some kind of trick.”

“But why?” Jordan wanted to know. “Why would anyone want to kill Tony?”

More time went by, and Trina felt like she had answered every question at least three times. It was now after sunrise, and even though the detective had given her all the coffee she could ask for, it wasn’t really helping her stay awake at this point. But even though she was increasingly exhausted, she also wanted to be here, following everything the police were finding out about what had happened to Officer Prescott. Surely someone, especially now that the darkness was fading, had found some trace besides muddy footprints of the women. Despite her best efforts, though, she found herself starting to doze off.

“Jordan!” the detective called loudly, startling Trina awake. “I got something!”

“So do I,” Jordan said, coming over to the detective’s desk. “They found another body in the ravine, about half a mile from the road where Tony died. It’s been there a while.”

“A while?” the detective asked. “How long is a ‘while’?”

“It’s almost just bones,” Jordan said. She scowled. “These women who killed Tony,” she said. “They’re dressed like a woman who’s been in the ravine forever. Why? If they knew about the woman in the ravine, why didn’t they report it? Unless they killed her too.” She squinted at the detective. “Do you think it’s your Madeleine Jackson?”

“It could be,” he answered. “I got a call a few weeks ago about a body found under a tree twenty miles up the highway; we thought it might be Madeleine, but it turned out to be a girl from Colorado Springs who was driving through on her way to college – a girl named Tamara Lengle.” He gestured toward his phone. “Tamara had a tuft of hair clutched in her hand; they just let me know they found a match for the hair.” He paused as though he didn’t particularly want to say what he had learned. “It was Tony,” he said finally.

“What was Tony?” Jordan asked. “You – you don’t mean Tony’s hair was on this Tamara girl?”

The detective nodded. “They matched the DNA,” he said. “Tony’s was on file.” He sighed, glanced at Trina who still sat quietly on a nearby bench, and leaned closer to Jordan. “What if he killed Madeleine, too?” he asked in a low voice. “What if that’s why whoever killed him tried to look like Madeleine? Like … revenge?”

Jordan didn’t waste any time being shocked at what she was hearing. “Why not just turn him in?” she asked. “If they thought he had killed these women?”

“Maybe it was Madeleine,” Trina said softly. Her eyes were swimming with tears. “Maybe she … maybe she saved my life tonight.” The woman – all the women – had come out of nowhere. The video had gone to static – wasn’t that one of those things that meant it was a ghost? Wouldn’t that explain why there were so many copies of the same woman?

She looked at Jordan and the detective. They were looking back at her with a mixture of disbelief and nervousness, as though they shared the thoughts she had spoken aloud but didn’t want to acknowledge it. “I think you need to get some sleep,” Jordan said after a moment. She rubbed her forehead. “I think I do too.”

The detective nodded. “We do,” he said. He glanced again at his phone. “But the whole thing just got a lot more complicated. And I’m not sure how to feel about Tony.”

“Yeah,” Jordan agreed. “Me either.” She sighed. “We investigate Tony’s involvement with this Tamara girl,” she decided. “We investigate these remains from the ravine. We investigate Tony’s murder. We do all those things. And you,” she added, giving a small half-smile to Trina. “Can go home and get some rest, and if we have more questions, we’ll get in touch with you.”

Trina blinked away her tears. “Okay,” she said, climbing stiffly to her feet. “But … but I really do think Madeleine saved me tonight.” She drained the cup of coffee the detective had given her, pulled her purse strap over her shoulder, and made her way silently out of the police station.

She thought about the policeman – Tony – and how he had pulled her over on such a deserted road, so late at night. How he had leaned so close into her car window. How frightened he was, even though he had a gun, when he saw the woman in front of the car. He must have recognized her – recognized Madeleine, that he had left dead in a ravine.

Thank you, Madeleine, Trina thought. I’m pretty sure you saved my life last night.

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The Thing I Like About …

Lake Mungo [spoiler alert]: the fact that she’s in all the photos.

In Lake Mungo, a girl seems to be haunting her house. As we learn about the weeks leading up to her death, we discover that she had strange dreams, that she was troubled by an apparently supernatural encounter at a sleep-away camp, that her parents have seen ghosts of her in her bedroom. We also see, by the end of the film, that her parents may have been seeing a recording haunting of things she did before she died, that her dreams may have been prophetic in nature (as well as the supernatural sighting), and that her brother – in his grief, trying to make sense of all of it and comfort his family – has hoaxed pretty much all of his video “evidence”.

And then, at the end, when they’ve gone through the difficult process of grieving and letting go, and the family is leaving the house, we are shown all the photos again … and there she is, off to the side, tucked into the shadows, hanging out next to the hoaxed “her”. It turned out the haunting was real … but not the one that everyone was looking at.

Why do people believe in ghosts? Some say it’s because we want to believe in life after death. Some just use it as a catch-all term for the-weird-stuff-that-happens-that-we-can’t-explain.

Why don’t people believe in ghosts? A lot of them say it’s because they don’t believe in things they can’t explain scientifically, or in things that seem irrational or illogical. Some just don’t want to think about the possibility that scary stuff can exist.

But most of us are stuck in between: we believe in ghosts, and we don’t believe in ghosts. We want to believe in life after death, but we don’t want to believe that scary things can exist. We want to see magic … but we’re afraid to see magic. We put our energy into creating the illusion of magic for others, but never really believe it ourselves … but it’s actually really still there.

The magic is really still there.

It may be right behind you, right now.

The Thing I Like About …

Sinister: the part where he says, “We need to leave. Now.”

Most films – horror, drama, science fiction – have a character (or two) who is stubbornly addicted to his way of doing things, usually to his own peril and to that of those around him. He is also often a “her”, but in Sinister it is, in fact, a “he” … and he is an “author”. Being an author myself, I could understand how seductive it would be, to find artifacts and evidence of a real-crime topic so incredible that, if he could write it well, he would be rich and famous forever. It may not have been wise for him to hide evidence from the police, but I could understand the temptation, and the giving in. It wasn’t like it was the sort of evidence that would prevent the crimes from happening; they had happened long ago. He just needed to write it down. He just needed to collect the data, and fib to his wife, and placate his children, just a little bit longer, just a little bit longer.

Plus all that supernatural stuff he thinks he’s seeing is just hokum anyway, right?

Almost more than in any other story I’ve seen, Sinister’s Ellison (the stubborn “he” described above) is the most sympathetic destructively-stubborn character. His motives are so clear, and so close to what anyone might be tempted to do. His relationship with his wife is so open and straightforward that it’s the envy and goal of every couple in the audience; we see through their conversations that the impact of his stubbornness isn’t nearly as destructive as other characters’ actions in other stories.

Of all the times I’ve watched the stubborn character lead others into near-certain or certain doom, Sinister made me think least that anyone would see the truth in time to save the day. And then, just when the supernatural bad-guy makes his move against Ellison – and I realize that Ellison needs to come to his senses now or the whole situation’s gonna go really bad (and I sit back thinking, “Well, here comes the really-bad, where evil wins because Ellison’s stupid … yep, seen it a dozen times”) – that’s the moment that Ellison’s eyes glaze over, and he walks resolutely out of the room, the way all the stubborn characters do when they’ve gone too far to come back from doom.

And he sets all the evidence on fire and tells his wife they need to leave now.

Ellison may be the only character I’ve ever seen do that … and it gives me hope, not just for future stubborn characters everywhere, but for all the stubborn people in the audience too. People do so many stupid things – long after we’ve realized they’re stupid – simply because we don’t want to admit we were stupid in the first place. But if Ellison can do an about-face against all literary odds, then real people in the actual world can take a deep breath and say proudly, “I was stupid … and will be stupid no more forever!”

And much good will come of this.

Thank you, Ellison. I’m not surprised by much, but I was surprised by you, and I will carry your example in my pocket.