It's funny how a room full of people can be so lonely. Standing in a silent crowd, cut off from the person next to you by a wall of unfamiliarity and atmosphere, you sometimes stand utterly alone when surrounded by people, peering over a cliff of emptiness.
There were thousands of students in the auditorium, compacted into banks of seats too small for them, watching idly as the Principle strode back and forth across the long stage with a microphone, booming in a conceited voice.
Madeline just sat transfixed, eyes trained on the podium, empty save the ghost that stood there, ignored by all except her. She blinked and looked away, but it didn't do anything to stop the ghost from staring, eyes as black as sink holes, rotting hair falling off an exposed skull of a head.
There was talking; students whispering and snickering, cracking jokes at the Principles bald head and making impressions of his voice. However, it seemed all so terrible to Madeline as she sat, trying to ignore that horrible spectral corpse that stood wavering behind the podium.
Its just my imagination, its not real
But I am…
Maddie shivered at the voice which spoke directly to her, closing her eyes tight and wincing. This was nothing an 8th grader should have to endure; seeing something that nobody else could. Talking about it only made her look weird, and thus she was alone, no parents, just Alicia, and she was in high school anyway. Margret the Social caretaker who was their surrogate mother didn't even regard Maddie as sane.
It was too dark in the auditorium, too many shadows and contrasting bright lights. It was too hot, too tense, too superficial and crude. The crowd was chattering, the principle continued to read off the school's motto and rules as the new school year began, and there was nothing unusual to anyone else. They were all so blind, so unaware of the danger that was up on that wooden stage, behind that old battered podium, staring with those empty eyes, that agape mouth with bare teeth that were in a perpetual grin of malevolence.
She could handle this. This wasn't unusual for her; she saw things like this all the time…right?
Wrong, she only saw these things alone, never in so public a place. And when the ghost, like some sort of mist, began to float forwards and move ever so slowly towards her on the mezzanine, Madeline whimpered and clenched the arm rests of her seat.
"Something wrong Maddie?" her best friend said, tugging on her arm. "Got the spooks again?"
Madeline nodded slowly. Her close friend was the only one that she held in confidence, the only one that would place stock in her personal daymares, and Candice Foley was the only one that she could trust to support her in these instances.
"Where is it Maddie?" the girl leaned forward, eyes sweeping the stage for evidence of the ghostly manifestation. "Where?"
"Right there, getting closer, floating" Madeline said. "don't look at the eyes" her heart was beginning to race and the room seemed to get cold. Sounds seemed to drown themselves out as the ghost came closer and closer. She could see it up close now, it used to be a man old business suit complete with a bow tie and old glasses, but now he was a skull with shattered glasses and skeleton hands that were reaching out to her.
"I don't see it"
"You never do, he's going to hurt me" Madeline said between her breaths that were reaching a state of hyperventilation.
"What should I do?"
"Just stay still and try not to catch his attention"
"What about you?"
But Madeline's only answer was to look up and widen her eyes as the ghost floated up to her eyelevel.
Madeline was shoved into her seat, knuckles turning a steady white as she gripped and tensed, stopped her breathing and wondered what was the world coming too. The Principle was nearing the end. Her classmates were clapping unenthusiastically.
"Maddie!" Candice reached over and shook Madeline's arm more violently.
The Ghost stood above her now, staring intently at her, towering over her petite form.
I won't hurt you beyond what you can endure
"Maddie!" Candice screamed this time as Madeline slumped over in her chair and fell onto the floor, eyes still wide open and face as still as a mask, her pig tails splayed out across the dirty carpet. Eyes turned, voices rose in tempo, the Principle stopped his monologue.
"Something wrong in the balcony?!" The Principle said sternly.
"Maddie!" Candice was growing hysteric as she turned Madeline over and tried shaking her awake. Nothing, Madeline was still stone faced and still, limp and motionless. Students in the rows behind them stood up to get a glimpse. A boy in the seat next to them said something concerned, starting to rise from his seat.
"Stop that ruckus!" the Principle yelled.
She woke up in a fright, silent and frantic, grabbing the air and clawing at the invisible attacker. But a moment passed and she knew that she was alone, alone in the bedroom, without anyone to tell her that her nightmare was nothing more than a terrible vision from an obscure past.
Sometimes they were real, sometimes they weren't. Sometimes they were bizarre, and other times they were vivid beyond what she wanted to endure. And they always seemed to involve…
Her heart was racing and her breaths labored, but she calmed down, sitting up and staring at the window, illuminated by the dim orange light of a sodium vapor street lamp that flickered occasionally outside. Although it was silent and her eyelids heavy with sleep, she failed to return, mind too troubled to settle down.
Life carried on in Amity Park without pause, but there was always that strange look that residents cast over their shoulders, as if something was watching them. Reports of possessions, hauntings and strange phenomenon were commonplace in the tired old town, and even more common were the rumors that raced through the city streets, about malevolent ghosts and spirits. Sociologists had deemed the town as "conservatively minded and superstitious" with tendancies towards "mass hysteria concerning perfectly explainable events and accidents". Perhaps it was true, perhaps it wasn't, but Maddie chose the center path of balance between skepticism and wry belief in the myth that Amity Park had some sort of curse on it.
And yet she was a scientist in the field?
Or at least was, had been, before life had gave a sigh of fatigue and sank upon her, taking away some of the things that she counted as important; her job and husband. However, she had to count her blessings, at least she had a few things left of the old days to remind her of better times. She shook her head and cleared her mind.
Can't sleep, nor do I think I want to. Maybe I'll just check on Danny.
She got up and wandered out into the hallway, sliding down the rug as quietly as she could, searching for the comforting noise of Danny's snoring. She pushed open his bedroom door carefully and came over to gently run a hand through his hair.
Poor kid. My fault, the fact that he had to go through a divorce and all. I suppose it was for the better, Jack was just too…wild, although I wonder what kind of a Dad he would have been. Probably fun, but negligent. He always was. Maddie paused, struck by the thought
Oh who am I kidding? We both knew that we were too incompatible and equally at fault. I was too cloying I suppose, he was too apathetic. Doesn't matter now, that was 6 years ago, before Danny could understand.
"Mom? What are you doing?"
Maddie looked over, startled to see Danny groggily rubbing his eyes and yawning. "What time is it?"
"Sometime past three in the morning I think. I just had a nightmare, couldn't sleep" Maddie herself yawned as she smiled and caressed Danny's cheek. "But don't worry and get some rest, you have school tomorrow"
"Not a baby Mom" Danny growled. "And I always have school tomorrow except on Friday and football nights on Saturday"
"Sorry, I know you don't like this"
The situation suddenly grew awkward and Maddie knew it. Something was suddenly very alien about Danny's room, very strange and unfamiliar. She understood that she tended to be overprotective, and that it was inevitable that Danny was growing up and rapidly adapting a new lifestyle and personality that was far out of her control. She feared that day when he would decide to burn the bridges that kept them as family, and wished wistfully that time would just sometimes freeze and place a hold on the changes that swept through her life; for the good times to stay good and the bad times to stay locked away. But she had been wishing that for a long time and that had never happened, and life progressed, she aged, so did her children, both of them. Jasmine was already long gone, leaving Danny to be a final link to Maddie's younger days.
There was one sound that haunted her more than any other, the sound of the clock in the hallways, ticking, without halt or rest, precious seconds slipping by. Danny struggled to find tactful words as Maddie mulled on her broodings.
"It's just…weird. I'm 14 now Mom, I don't need you treating me like a newborn" Danny closed his eyes and turned away from her. Maddie was slightly crestfallen, but nodded and sighed.
"We all change, I should know that most of all. It just seems like yesterday that I brought you to presch…"
"Mooooom" Danny moaned, Maddie grinned.
"I know I know, embarrassing memory, but a fond one for me. Oh please Danny, let me revel in a bit of sentimental nostalgia."
She paused. "How's being a freshmen?"
"This late? Really? Well anyway, fine. I guess it's okay, I mean, it's kinda nice being treated as though you're supposed to be at a certain level of responsibility, makes you feel respected, if you know what I mean. Lot of more kids than Middle School, a lot of girls…its nice."
Maddie couldn't help but laugh. "You truly are growing up. Any keepers?"
"One. Tall, pale, outcast amidst the girls and a rebel like none other, but its really very…" Danny struggled for words
"Attractive?" Maddie suggested
"Charming" Danny said uncomfortably. "She's Sam, Sam Manson I think. Dresses like a Goth, makeup and purple lipstick to boot but I think…I might ask her out to the homecoming dance"
"Oh will you?" Maddie asked, delighted. "I trust that you've made a good appraisal. I always say that the outcasts are the girls that are the most interesting"
"I don't know" Danny said unsurely. "I might get laughed at by Tucker for it"
"Oh Tucker laughs at anything" Maddie said with a hint of humor in her voice. "Just like his mother. Her and I were inseparable in Highschool, like you and Tucker are. You should have seen Candice back in the day, running that school like it was her…"
"Mom, it's 3 in the morning!"
"Sorry" Maddie said as she got up and moved towards the door. "Just don't mind the old lady stepping off stage"
"Leaving, leaving" Maddie chortled as she closed the door behind her, but she stopped and quickly looked back into the darkness, a frown crossing her face. "By the way, what I really wanted to ask is how you're feeling"
Danny was silent for a moment, but then spoke carefully. "I feel…cold, but not a bad sort of cold, just sort of chilled...its really hard to explain, but nothing else seems wrong per say. There's something different, I think, but nothing that I want to find out about right now" Danny yawned again. "Good night Mom"
"Night Danny" Maddie shut the door softly, troubled.
She wandered back through the hallway into the kitchen. They lived simply and nothing more, making it from day to day, seeking the opportunity to improve what they had. They…maybe it was just her. Danny was fast becoming more independent of her mothering, forging ahead into a new world that was leaving her behind. What did she have then? This little old house with its peeling wallpaper and old linoleum floors? That job as a receptionist at the hospital? Seemed like a degree in psychology and spectral studies just didn't attract many job offers during an economic downturn.
She sat down at the table, brooding. No lights were on, just the dim street lamps shining through the windows; dark and gloomy. In the shadows, she could cloak herself and hide away, free from prying eyes and condescending judgments, but it was in the shadows that her fears came out. In solitude, in the quiet, they lurked like prowling wolves, preying on her security and peace of mind. Fears of age, of aloneness, of financial ruin, and of ghosts that dogged her from night to night, week to week, year to year.
About to return to her bed, she noticed a dark shape moving across the front lawn through the wide living room window, moving swiftly and assertively.
Her heart sank. A burglar? What to do? Call the police? Fight back? Try to reason?
The dark shape vanished behind the leaves of the front bushes. Heavy footsteps traversed the front walk across the uneven concrete.
Her mind was going blank as a silent and creeping terror took over, hands shaking as she stood up slowly and as silently as she could be. What should I do? Where is this guy coming in?
The frosted glass on the side door grew dark as a shadow fell upon it. Feet shuffled on the front steps and something grasped the door handle.
Maddie didn't consider the repercussions as she grabbed a broom and lifted it behind her shoulder, eyes focusing on the door and calculating the swing of her makeshift weapon. Tremors were running through her spine and out to her hands, with a sudden luridness gripping her and sharpened her senses and dulled her logical reasoning.
The door opened with force.
She swung and felt the end of the broom be caught with a surprised yelp.
Her mouth opened to cry out, but a hand cupped it and stifled the shout.
Realization fluttered through her mind as she batted the hand away, reaching for the lights. He squinted as they came on, dropping the broom.
"Jack! What the hell are you doing here!" she blurted out, shaken and suddenly furious.