The Lost Girls

YARN alum Elizabeth Maria Naranjo offers up a wonderful creepy, bittersweet tale, which was one of the runners-up chosen by Rin Chupeco for last year’s Halloween Contest. Enjoy! 

By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/kVv8AvoKJ7g

He’d never been to the ocean and didn’t know what the waves sounded like when they broke against the shore, but Timothy knew they didn’t sound like the voices of girls. Sometimes the voices from the smooth pink mouth of his conch shell cried, and other times they screamed, and yet other times they spoke words but he couldn’t understand what they were saying. The sounds were muffled as if heard through a wall. His sister’s room was next to his upstairs, and when she was on the phone with her friends or having a slumber party he heard sounds like that—far away and watery.

Timothy was seven years old but he was six when his sister Fay gave him the shell. He remembered it clearly because it was last Halloween and the first time he’d gone trick-or-treating without his parents. They’d left Fay in charge. She had turned fourteen that May and taken a babysitting course over the summer. So his parents had started dating again and going to special places for dinner while his sister watched him. And that Halloween they’d gone to a party, although it seemed like his dad really hadn’t wanted to go.

“It’s one thing for Fay to watch him here,” his dad had said. “But out to trick-or-treat? That’s too much responsibility.”

“Oh come on, Jim,” his mother said. She’d had her regular two glasses of wine with dinner and was applying a fresh coat of red lipstick. She’d dressed up like a pirate wench—with a black bodice trimmed in red lace and a silky black and red skirt that fell to mid-calf in the back and rose to mid-thigh in the front. Her boots had spiked heels three inches high. She finished applying her lipstick and leaned into her husband, grinning. He took her by the shoulders and held her at arm’s length.

“I don’t feel like going, I told you,” he said. “Let’s take the kids out trick or treating. We’ll have plenty of time for Halloween parties in a few years, when Timmy’s older.”

She pouted. “But I won’t be able to wear this in a few years. I’ll be too old and fat.” She blinked at him, waiting, and he sighed.

In the end they had gone to the party.

 


 

When their parents drove away, Fay smirked at Timothy and said, “You better not be a sissy tonight.”

He didn’t say anything. Fay’s best friend, Stacie, showed up about a half hour later.

“Ooh, we get to baby-sit?” she said. Stacie was tall with frizzy black hair that she always pinned on one side with a big purple bow. She liked to touch Timothy—she patted his cheeks and ruffled his hair and squeezed his arm, but not so hard that it hurt, like when Fay did it.

“What are you going to be for Halloween, Timmy? Where’s your outfit?”

“He’s going as a baby,” Fay said.

Timothy told himself he wouldn’t cry. “I’m not a baby,” he said.

“Of course not,” Stacie cooed, glancing behind her to glare at Fay. “Girl, what’s the matter with you? It’s Halloween!”

“Yeah, and we’re stuck with the brat.”

“I’m telling Mom you said I’m a brat,” Timothy said, feigning bravery.

Fay darted over so quick that he shrieked, and Stacie stepped in front of him. “Come on, Fay, quit it. It’s no fun watching you pick on him.”

“You don’t know what it’s like having a little bratty brother,” Fay snapped. “You got sisters. But whatever, I don’t care. You get him dressed then. I’ll get the wine.”

Stacie took Timothy’s hand and led him to his bedroom, where she pretended not to notice the scarecrow costume hanging neatly from the doorknob of his closet. She pulled open the bi-fold door and began rifling through his clothes, saying, “Hmm” and “I wonder where Timmy’s costume can be?” Timothy, accustomed to her gentle teasing but never quite knowing what to say to her, came over and silently pointed out the patchwork overalls and oversized straw hat.

“Oh, isn’t that cute!” Stacie said brightly, and he smiled a little.

She helped him with the outfit, covering her eyes dramatically when he stepped into the denim pants but looping the straps over his shoulders and snapping them into place. Then she led him to the bathroom and applied the paint for his black nose and rosy cheeks. “First red,” Stacie murmured, pressing her thumb firmly on his cheekbone and rubbing it in a circle. “And then black.” She dabbed his nose with her pointer finger. The greasy paint, which smelled like crayons, made Timothy’s cheeks itch. “Don’t rub or it’ll smear,” said Stacie, not unkindly.

Fay appeared in the doorway then, looked stonily at Timothy in the mirror. She held two tall glasses of red wine. “Come on,” she demanded. “We’ve only got a few hours. Let’s get this party started.”

 


 

Timothy sat on the sofa by the front door, swinging his empty candy bucket—a jack-o-lantern with bottomless black triangle eyes and a gaping black mouth. The girls sat in the kitchen, drinking his mother’s wine, their laughter growing louder and louder. They’d dimmed the lights in the living room and shut off the one outside so kids wouldn’t stop for candy. Timothy could hear the laughter and shouts of children as they passed, and he felt bad for being one of the lonely dark homes on the street. He set his jack-o-lantern down and sifted through the big ceramic candy bowl, picking out the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and eating them one by one.

Fay had said she was too big to dress up in an actual costume, but she and Stacie spent a lot of time fixing their hair and makeup. When they finally crashed into the living room, shrieking and laughing wildly, Timothy thought how pretty they looked. Shimmering arcs of lime-green shadow swept over Stacie’s eyes and her lips were glassy pink. She’d wrapped a bright lilac scarf loosely around her neck. His sister was dressed in a denim skirt and a black leather jacket. She’d painted her lips a color that looked both black and red, and teased out her dark hair like a rock star. On her feet she wore baby blue ankle socks and the ruby slippers from last year, when she’d dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

Fay stood over him, smirked and said, “Time to go, farm-boy.”

 


 

Timothy held the slim black strap of his bucket nervously in both hands and tried to remember to say his “Trick or treats” and “Thank yous” at each house. The girls wouldn’t go with him up the driveways or across yards; they stayed on the sidewalk, making silly hooting sounds and waving their arms like ghosts when other kids walked by.

He tried not to be scared, but some of the pathways were too dark—lit only with tiny orange bulbs—or the ground seethed with billowing gray fog, like a graveyard. One porch was circled by a low stone wall lined with jack-o-lanterns. The candles inside them flickered so that their eyes looked alive. Phantom music drifted from unseen speakers, slow strings punctuated with high staccato piano. Timothy stood halfway across the yard, unsure.

“Hurry up, T,” Fay jeered. “Don’t be such a sissy.”

He didn’t want to be a sissy, but anything could jump out from behind that stone wall, where candlelight danced and beckoned from the shadows.

Timothy summoned his courage and took three giant steps. The toe of his shoe had just met the cement lip of the porch when an ear-splitting cry pierced though the hypnotic music, and Timothy cried out too. He stepped back and tumbled hard to the ground, his candy spilling out over the lawn, and then he burst into tears. Stacie was there in an instant, grasping him from under the arms and trying to haul him up, but she was laughing uncontrollably, and he heard Fay from the street, breathless with her own laughter.

“Oh my god, holy shit, that was funny!” Stacie said, and she knelt and hugged him, trembling with giggles. “I’m sorry, Timmy. Really I am, but it was funny, holy hell, you’re not hurt are you, sweetheart?”

Timothy blubbered that he was not hurt but all he wanted to do was go home.

“It was just some scary music,” Stacie said, picking up stray pieces of candy and plopping them back in the bucket. Timothy managed to get to his feet, feeling more foolish than anything. “Here.” She handed him his bucket. “Let’s have some of your candy. That’ll make you feel better.”

She led him to where Fay sat, smoking, at the edge of the property on the same low wall. His sister patted his shoulder amiably. “No worries, T,” she said. “Years from now, you’ll look back on this and laugh. Hey, can I have a candy too?” Timothy chose a sweet for each of them and peeled open a bite-sized candy bar for himself. Once the chocolate hit his tongue he really did feel better.

Fay was straddling the wall, her skirt hiked up to her panties. She leaned far back and swayed. “It’s so beautiful and perfect out here at night. I feel free, like no one owns me anymore and I can do anything, go anywhere.”

Stacie snorted. “You talk such shit.”

“Fuck it. Go anywhere.” Fay leaned over and vomited into the yard, and then her voice bubbled up through sudden tears. “I fucking hate my life. Everything.”

“Girl, you got it good, come on.”

“You know what. Maybe this is it. I’ll disappear tonight like those missing girls from Brayle.”

Photo by Andrei Lazarev on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/SaR-gt6A4uA

“Don’t talk about that, you’ll scare Timmy.”

“You’re not scared, are you, T?”

He didn’t know what to say, then Fay swung drunkenly toward him, nearly knocking him down. She slung an arm around him and pulled him close. “That’s my brother there,” she said. “He’s tough, man, and he ain’t scared of nothing. Right, T?”

Timothy could feel the gallop of his sister’s heart, and he said, “I’m not scared.”

Fay slid down the wall and sat in the grass. She tugged Timothy’s hand and he sat with her, shivering from the cold. A thin jagged cloud speared through the center of the moon. “Years ago,” said Fay, “two girls from Brayle Middle School were out trick-or-treating in this very neighborhood. And they came to a haunted house on the lawn—like one of those you get from the Halloween store. Only this one looked homemade—plywood and cardboard and black paint, with dead leaves scattered around and spiderweb strung everywhere. The strange thing was no one lived on the property then, just like no one lives there now. It’s that old abandoned house on Thistle Street. No one lives there, and no one knows who set up the haunted house the night those girls vanished. But it’s gone up every Halloween since—every Halloween—daring anyone to enter.”

Timothy knew the house Fay was talking about. It was two stories high with a pointy roof and lots of windows, but none of the windows had glass, so when you passed by it looked as if it were staring at you with its empty black holes. Staring.

“The haunted house stretched halfway across the yard and had all sorts of twists and turns so you could get lost easy, and there was no light at the end of the tunnel, right? Because it was night, Halloween night on a new moon. One of the girls was too scared to want to go in there, but the other girl kept pushing her to do it. So they went in. And they never came out.”

“Where’d they go?” Timothy said, afraid he was asking the wrong question and the girls would laugh at him. But neither girl laughed.

“No one knows,” Fay said ominously. “They just disappeared, and they haven’t been heard from since.”

Now Stacie did laugh, but at Fay. “What a bunch of bullshit. Don’t listen to her, Timmy. The only thing scary about that house on Thistle is the stoners who party there every Halloween.”

“No, I’m serious. This really happened; it was like three years ago, before you moved here.”

“Whatever. Urban legend crap. Those girls ran away, and everyone knows it. Can we go now?” Stacie stood and wrapped her arms around herself. “I’m freezing. And hungry. Timothy, you got enough candy, right?”

Timothy had enough of everything. He was miserably cold, and his stomach was erupting in flames with all the candy he’d eaten. His head pulsed with the image of the abandoned house on Thistle Street; he could see the black cloth stapled hastily to the walls of the haunted house flapping in the wind. He could hear the screams of the girls forever trapped inside of it, swallowed in time.

“Yeah, let’s go,” Fay said. “You know what. We’re gonna go check that house on Thistle Street.”

Now Timothy’s stomach turned to ice.

“Girl, you crazy?” Stacie said. Her eyes had flown open wide, and she was shaking her head vehemently. “No way, we gotta get your brother back—”

“I’m going,” snapped Fay, “with or without you. I’m done with this trick or treating baby shit. The real party’s over there. Come on, T.” Fay pulled Timothy roughly up to his feet, and his candy bucket knocked over. Stacie knelt and scooped the candy back in once more, muttering. Then she straightened up, glared at Fay, and said, “Fine. But this is the stupidest idea you’ve ever had, and that’s saying something. That party’s bound to get busted, you know.”

Fay didn’t answer her. Timothy, not having a choice in the matter, followed his sister, praying for his parents to show up. They’d drive back early and see the three of them walking the wrong way, too far away from home, and make them all get in the car and then he could be safe in his bed and sort through his candy (counting the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and setting aside the Lemonheads for his mother, her favorites).

He remembered last year, when he’d dressed up as Darth Vader and carried around his green light saber. Even though he knew Darth Vader used a red one, green was his favorite color. His mom had held his hand and walked him up to every porch and he hadn’t felt scared at all, except maybe at Mrs. Baker’s house when Mr. Baker had jumped out from behind the hedge dressed head to toe in black and holding a real chainsaw. His mother had screamed and then her screams had turned to laughter—high and hysterical—and Timothy hadn’t even had time to realize he was scared before that laughter made everything okay.

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/BdsYLQKk71w

Timothy shuffled his feet quickly, trying to keep up with Fay. They passed by fewer and fewer groups of kids trailing parents, and more kids that looked almost like grown-ups, some in costumes and others in street clothes. Fay and Stacie spoke to some of them and soon their group of three turned to half a dozen, and then a dozen. The girls pulled at his costume and exclaimed over him the way Stacie sometimes did, and then they forgot about him. He began to fall behind. And then they were there, at the house on Thistle Street.

A thrill of fear shot through Timothy’s heart at the sight of the haunted house. It was a ramshackle construction of posts and cardboard, tarpaulin and sheets—unbalanced and derelict like the house itself. Scattered around the property were older kids in small groups, smoke curling up from all of them. The smoke, which was both familiar like his father’s cigarettes yet strangely sweet, wafted thickly over Timothy and the newcomers. No one was particularly loud, and the mood seemed almost somber; the loudest sounds emanated from around the haunted house—a gothic mix of creaking doors, moaning winds, ghostly laughter and echoed howls. Timothy shrank back and whimpered aloud despite his best efforts not to do so.

Fay heard him. “Oh come on, T,” she said. “It’s just some stupid Halloween CD.” She turned to Stacie. “Let’s go get a drink.”

Timothy watched the girls cross over onto the dilapidated lawn, following trails of smoke, toward one of the larger groups. He sat on the cold sidewalk, drawing his knees up to his chin, not wanting even his toes to touch the edge of the property. He watched as heads turned toward his sister, warily, and then someone pointed in his direction and Fay turned. She called out to him: “T, get over here. Now.”

He stood and walked over, shivering and clutching his candy bucket. The sounds of shrieks and shaking chandeliers and staccato laughter grew louder, and Timothy became aware of a dull hot ache spreading from his heels to his eyeballs. He spoke for the first time in an hour: “I’m tired,” he said. “Can we go home now?”

One of the boys laughed and blew a jet of smoke at him. “Hey,” he said to Fay, “why don’t you take your brother through the haunted house? That’ll wake him up.”

As if on cue, a real scream—high-pitched and terrified—ripped through the night, and two girls and a boy dressed in a grim reaper cloak came tearing out of one end of the haunted house. Fay threw her head back and laughed. She was holding a paper cup and amber liquid sloshed over the rim. Timothy took a step away from her, but she reached out quickly and snatched his hand.

“I don’t want to go!” he said. “What if we get lost like those girls…” All of the kids were laughing now, except for Stacie, who gazed at him vacantly but with an oddly sad smile. She took a deep drag off of a fat cigarette and then passed it to the girl next to her, who wore fairy wings and a lot of drippy makeup. This girl said, “Aw, he’s afraid of the lost girls. I heard they actually ran away and all that other shit is made up to scare little kids. Hey, kid, it’s just a stupid story. Those girls were fucked up, man, and they took off on Halloween night, that’s all.”

But Timothy knew better, and as Fay dragged him toward the haunted house on the lawn of the house on Thistle Street, he heard his own screams mingling with the girls’ inside and knew he would never escape and he would be trapped with them forever.

 


 

Photo by Kamil Feczko on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/BdlDv9YychU

Shrieks. The buzz of a chainsaw. Pounding feet. Laughter. Darkness.

The shrieks were his. And then they weren’t. He didn’t know if he wanted to be found.

Timothy had managed to break free from his sister’s grip but he hadn’t been able to find his way out. He could hear her calling to him but he didn’t know from where. He’d tried crawling through the passageway, but he couldn’t see anything, and when his cheek brushed against a wispy thread of spider webbing his bladder let go.

Timothy curled into a ball and cried. He shut his eyes because whether they were open or shut the darkness was the same. He wondered if this is what it would feel like for eternity. Because he knew he wasn’t leaving. He’d done something wrong and this was his punishment.

A heartbeat pulsed in his throat, and then pounded in his head, and then surrounded him—his whole body—boom boom boom. More screams. More laughter. Timothy slept, his body curled around the smiling plastic pumpkin bucket halfway filled with candy. He slept and dreamed of a river of blood that carried him home.

 


 

Later that night, after a half-hysterical Stacie had pulled him from the haunted house and carried him home, after he’d fallen asleep in his scarecrow costume with the red paint mixed with tears smearing his pillow, Timothy dreamed of the haunted house, and his own cries were strangled and silent as he stared down endless black tunnels of space, where he caught drifts of girls’ hair sweeping around corners and heard the buzz of a chainsaw and grinding sounds and splatters and the pounding of heavy feet chasing, in front of him, behind him.

At one point he woke to Fay in his bed, her face inches from his own and also streaked with dirty tears. “I’m sorry, T,” she whispered. Her breath was sharply sour with alcohol and vomit, and her hair hung in strings around her face. “I know I’m a bad sister. I’m bad all around. You love me anyway though, don’t you?”

He whispered that he did, and this was true. She laid her head on his thin chest and began to cry, and he patted her hair and fell immediately back to sleep.

He woke to Fay pressing something hard and sharp into his palm and his hand automatically closed around it. He opened his eyes. “The shell of light,” she said in a slurred voice. “I named it that because I used to think it glowed like the moon. I thought it was a magic shell. But now it’s yours. When I was little, oh, I was little too you know.” She squeezed her hand around his fist and he winced at the pain as the points of shell dug into his palm. She was hurting him but he knew she didn’t mean to, he knew that. “When I was little I used to try and hear the ocean coming through it. Did you know that, T? That you can hear the ocean in seashells?”

He nodded. “I knowed that but I never had one.”

“Now you do, T.” She leaned over the bed and threw up, and he felt bad. He’d been sick last winter with the flu and then it turned to pneumonia, and he’d thrown up a lot. It burned and you felt like your heart was on fire. Fay laid her head on his pillow and closed her eyes. “The shell of light never worked that way for me. I heard other things. But you keep listening,” she mumbled. “You keep listening for the ocean, because that’s where I’m going soon. The ocean. And then when you hear the waves in your shell you’ll hear me. You’ll know that’s where your sister is.”

“Okay.”

They slept.

 


 

Fay wasn’t there when he woke up the morning after Halloween. Instead, his father slept in a chair in the corner of his bedroom. Timothy watched him for a moment, his head fuzzy, trying to work out why his father would be sleeping in his room. Then Timothy remembered the shell. He blinked down at his hand, which was still folded around it, and saw that it was a very pretty shell—the color of pearl unfurled from a deep salmon pink. He brought the shell up to his ear and was horrified to hear not the waves of the ocean but the screams of the lost girls. He started to shriek, over and over, and then his father was there, his warm hands cupping Timothy’s face and a look of utter devastation on his face, as if he were in pain. That scared Timothy more, and he dropped the shell and cupped his hands around his ears and cried, “What’s wrong, Daddy? What’s wrong with me?”

His father held him and murmured that nothing was wrong with him, that Daddy had made a mistake, that was all, it was Daddy’s fault and he shouldn’t have left him alone with Fay.

Timothy stopped crying, remembering, and he said, “Fay throwed up.” He leaned over the bed searching for the proof of this, but the carpet was clean.

His dad said, “I know, honey. Don’t worry about your sister, she’ll be fine.” But Timothy thought of Fay crying and saying how she wanted to disappear, and he wasn’t so sure.

The following Halloween, Timothy chose a pirate costume, and his father fitted the eye patch and helped him adjust the wig of natty hair. Timothy’s mother went out alone. When his father finished circling Timothy’s eyes with thick black liner and said it was time to go trick-or-treating, a voice called from the top of the stairs.

“Wait. I want to see T.”

His father peered stonily up the staircase. “You’re not going to upset your brother.”

“I just want to see him a sec. Come on, T.”

Timothy wrested his arm from his father’s grip and dashed up the stairs. His sister led him to her room and sat on her bed facing him. She hadn’t dressed up this Halloween at all. Her dark hair was freshly cut, lopped off to her shoulders, and she was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans as usual. Her window was open and the room smelled faintly of sweet smoke. “T,” she said, putting her hands firmly on his shoulders. “You still have my shell, don’t you?”

Timothy nodded, deciding not to correct her in that it was his shell now, she’d given it to him fair and square, but he figured she knew that.

“What do you hear when you really listen?” she asked.

He hesitated, wondering if she knew. Then he said, simply, “Screaming.”

This seemed to startle her, and then she sighed and looked toward the window. “Yeah,” she said softly. “I guess that does make sense.” Then she did something strange; she pulled him to her and kissed him, right on the mouth—one firm, quick kiss, and then she hugged him. “Not even Stacie comes around anymore,” she said. “And Mother hates me. That’s okay. Because you love me, don’t you, T? You always loved me no matter what.”

Photo by Aaron Mello on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/BdlDv9YychU

Timothy nodded, because this was true. He always would love her, although he would never see her again after that night. She disappeared on Halloween, the same as the lost girls of Brayle—vanishing like a phantom with the new moon, leaving no trace for anyone to find her.

But whenever he brought the shell up to his ear and listened—really listened— he could hear his lost sister in the echoes of that faraway fold in time where the screams had turned to the sound of waves breaking against the shore.

 


Elizabeth Maria Naranjo is the award-winning author of “The Fourth Wall” (WiDo Publishing, 2014). Her short fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in “Brevity Magazine,” “Superstition Review,” “Hunger Mountain,” “Hospital Drive,” “The Portland Review,” “YARN,” “Literary Mama,” and several other places. She lives in Tempe, Arizona, with her husband and two children. Find more of Elizabeth’s short stories on her website: www.elizabethmarianaranjo.com.

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