Here's a nice, pleasant, only slightly unsettling ghost story for your reading enjoyment. Because that's how I roll.
Kate was lost in the woods.
On Halloween night.
And her cell phone wasn’t getting any reception.
“I’m a moron,” she grumbled as she slumped against an enormous old tree, rubbing her arms to try to keep warm in the growing chill. Her long blonde hair blew in and out of her face in the night wind. While one side of the tree was tall and weighed down with golden leaves, the other was barren and scorched, as though it had been struck by lightning long ago and never fully recovered.
Taking a hayride through the infamous Sleepy Hollow with some other kids from her high school sounded like a fun idea on paper. What she forgot to account for was the “other kids” part. Kate had wanted to spend the evening enjoying the seasonal rapture of autumn in rural New York – with the added fun of a bit of spooky history - but what she got instead was an earful of gossip and awkward public displays of affection by dating couples. A few guys from the football team had come along, and were obnoxiously full of themselves as always.
And then the ghost stories started. Kate knew this was Halloween and all, but it turned out teenagers became sociopaths when telling ghost stories. It rapidly devolved into a competition to see who could come up with the most macabre tales, and it was as if everyone had simultaneously decided to show their darkest sides and revel in them.
At that point Kate couldn’t take it anymore. When the wagon slowed a bit to navigate a particularly bumpy patch, she slipped over the side and let it trundle on without her. She was pretty sure she could find the way back if she just returned the direction they had come from.
Well, that was half an hour ago and she hadn’t so much as seen a light from a building. And she was getting colder by the minute.
“So this is how I die,” she muttered. “Great. One more ghost to haunt Sleepy Hollow.”
Or she could at least keep moving. Kate pushed away from the old tree and forced her stiff legs to walk. Her cell phone’s light kept her from stumbling over rocks and roots as she scanned the wet ground ahead of her.
Suddenly something new showed up in the pale LED glow—a pair of hooves.
Kate looked up and into the nostrils of an enormous dark horse. She blinked and realized that she could somehow see the horse well even though her phone light was still at its feet. She could also, past its ears, see its rider, a brawny man wearing a weathered old military uniform that looked like something out of the Revolutionary War.
Also his head was under his arm.
Chills raced up Kate’s spine as she bit her tongue to keep from screaming. Part of her wanted to run, of course, but the other, crazy part realized that there wasn’t really anything to run from. Horse and rider merely stood there in front of her, watching her. The horse flicked its ears lazily, tail swishing from side to side, while the man stared grimly at her from under his own arm.
He was unexpectedly young, maybe in his early thirties, with piercing blue eyes and a thin scar down one cheek. Rather than wearing the silly powdered wig of an 18th-century dignitary, his hair was dark and curly and fell messily out from where it was tied back behind his head, like he had actually been out fighting a war for a while and hadn’t had the opportunity to clean up to get his portrait painted.
Kate always thought that a ghost should be more terrifying, but the expression on this one’s face was sad, almost desperate. The thought occurred to her that he probably had a family that he died far away from and couldn’t get back to.
Armed with that thought, and the fact that ghosts were, well, just dead people after all, Kate pocketed her phone and stood her ground. “Can—can I help you?” she asked. Her voice came out shaky and weak, but at least, she thought, she was not screaming.
He nodded. Shifting his head to the crook of his other arm, he nudged his horse aside and Kate figured he wanted her to follow him. Instead he leaned over and extended his free hand to her, offering her a lift onto the steed. From the other side of his torso, his eyes watched her questioningly.
Well, it was either this or keep wandering through the woods, Kate thought as she took his hand. Him being a ghost and all, she was half expecting her hand to pass right through his, but it held fast, and he pulled her up into the saddle behind him.
Kate only had a moment to be surprised before he urged his mount into a swift canter and they took off, through the muck of a thick swamp. Eyes wide, Kate wrapped her arms around the horseman to keep from falling off. From beneath his arm, he smiled up at her with a bit of a twinkle in his pale eyes.
“This had better not be a trap,” she grumbled to him. Her classmates’ horror stories had left her feeling a bit cynical.
His smile eased into something a bit more sincere and knowing, and then he looked back to the path ahead. The horse made no noise as it moved, and although somehow horse and rider were solid enough for Kate to touch, they did not seem quite real. There was a bit of fuzziness about them, for lack of a better description, as though they could not fully exist in this plane. And they were cold, although not like the chill that had settled on Sleepy Hollow after nightfall—more like the unnaturally pervasive coolness of a medical cold pack.
The horse slowed to a halt in front of a huge old oak tree that looked as if it had been there for centuries. The Horseman guided his mount around the treacherous knobbly roots, and then the horse stopped and pawed uselessly at the ground beneath the tree with one hoof. Again the Horseman’s expression turned pleading as he stared at the spot and then back to Kate.
She took a breath. What was under there that he wanted? Hopefully not his physical head. But she did ask how she could help, so it would be rude to back out now. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said, clumsily swinging down from the horse and turning her phone’s light back on.
Clenching her phone between her teeth to use both hands, Kate cleared away the dead leaves and undergrowth and then dug into the cold dirt with her bare hands until her fingers were numb. Past a thick layer of soil were the roots of the tree, a labyrinth of thick, woody veins snaking through the ground.
Amid them, something glinted in the phone-light. Kate furrowed her brows and pried the roots apart from each other, no easy task considering how old they must have been and how hard it was to move her hands now. They begged for a rest, but she was curious, and she let that drive her as she teased away root after root.
Finally she dislodged the shiny thing and pulled it out from its grave. It was an old medal, half-tarnished, with a loop for a ribbon that had long since decomposed. Kate took a moment to inspect it, but the writing had aged too much to read.
Breathing hard, she stood up and held up her prize to the Horseman. “Is this what you were after?” she asked.
His eyes grew large and he nodded fervently, reaching out a hand to take it.
She began to give it to him, but then paused. “Wait—I could use your help, too,” she said. “I’m lost. I need to find civilization. Since I helped you… could you please help me?”
The Horseman smiled and nodded again.
An annoying little voice in the back of Kate’s head told her that he could easily take the medal and run, but Kate didn’t want to listen to it. The world wasn’t as horrible as all the stories the other kids told. She wanted to believe in humanity more than that—living and dead.
“Thanks,” she said as she handed him the medal.
The Horseman instinctively brought it up to his neck and then seemed to remember that his eyes were located elsewhere now, as he lowered the medal to where his head currently sat. As he gave the medal a long look, his smile faded, replaced by a deep emotion in his expression. Clearly he had been searching for this for a long time, and it brought back memories. His eyes watered and Kate wondered if ghosts could cry.
He didn’t cry, but he did place the medal in the pocket of his coat, looked up at his neck, and stuck his head back on. Wincing, he withdrew his hands slightly as though expecting his cranium to tumble back off, but it held and he grinned. He was whole again.
The Horseman once more offered a hand to Kate. As he pulled her back onto the horse, his lips moved for the first time. Although no sound came out, she could easily make out what “thank you” looked like.
With a renewed vigor, he sat up in the saddle and gave his steed a firm squeeze to the ribs. It tossed its head and dashed forward, and Kate remembered to grab hold of the Horseman just in time. Her hair whipped behind her as they galloped through the woods, darting around trees like they were flying through the night.
Best Halloween ever, Kate decided.
Finally they cleared the trees and emerged onto a dirt road, which the horse bounded down with spirited strides, as though it and its rider were finally free. Kate laughed in delight. She’d always thought horses were a little intimidating, but she liked this one, so maybe they weren’t all that bad.
They reached a wide wooden bridge across a gushing river, and the horse finally slowed down, although Kate found herself wishing the ride had lasted longer. On the other side of the river was a vast meadow littered with large stones and—nope, that was definitely a graveyard. But past the graveyard, in the distance, she could see lights from buildings.
The horse stopped at the foot of the bridge and the Horseman gestured for Kate to get off. “Oh, right,” she said as she clumsily dismounted. “Ghosts can’t cross water. Or that’s what I’ve read, anyway.” He just smiled at her.
It didn’t feel right to simply take off. Kate turned back to him. “Thank you,” she said. “And I’m glad I was able to help you. Will you be able to pass on now?”
As his horse nudged her face with its nose, tickling her forehead with its whiskery lips, the Horseman looked over the bridge with some unsureness, but nodded to her with a hopeful smile.
She gave him a thumbs-up. “You can do it!” she said. He looked confused at the gesture. “It means ‘good job’,” she explained.
His eyebrows rose. One hand gripping the reins, he tried it out himself, giving her a thumbs-up.
Kate laughed. “Thanks,” she said. “I won’t forget you.”
The Horseman nodded as if to say he wouldn’t forget her, either. Then, looking back to the bridge, he frowned and nudged his horse forward, and Kate stood aside to watch. They started slow, but picked up speed as they pounded noiselessly across the old wood.
The rider leaned forward and they lurched into a gallop. As they neared the apex of the bridge, pale flames began to lick at them like a spacecraft reentering the atmosphere and coming in hot. Horse and rider did not react as they glowed brighter and brighter.
Kate almost thought they looked like they were charging into battle, but then the Horseman’s face lit up with joy and he spread his arms wide as he leaned down as if to pick someone up. With her last glimpse of him before he vanished entirely, wreathed in flame, Kate thought she saw him lift a child into his lap, with a woman and several other children gathered to greet him.
Then it was just her and the cold night.
Kate wiped a few tears on the sleeve of her jacket. She couldn’t stop smiling. Best Halloween ever.
Once the reality of the cold set in again, she ventured across the bridge, using her cell phone to light the way. At the halfway point, something gleamed in the darkness, and Kate picked it up. It was the Horseman’s medal.
“You left it behind for me to remember you by, didn’t you,” she said.
For a response, a chilly breeze swept through the trees, and in the rustle of dry leaves Kate thought she could hear a family’s happy laughter.
She pocketed the medal and stepped into the graveyard. She wasn’t afraid of whatever ghosts might be lurking there. Kate van Tassel, Ghost-Friend—that’s what she’d be known as from now on. Not that she felt like sharing this experience with any of her classmates. They’d just laugh her out of school.
“Kate!” a boy’s voice yelled, and Kate jumped despite her newfound bravado.
Adrenaline still tingling, she turned to see someone running toward her, and she flashed her phone light up at him. It was Abe van Brunt, one of the football players. She didn’t know much about him except that his parents raised horses and he was a tremendous jock, always surrounded by friends and admirers, so she’d always assumed he was just an arrogant dullard. He had been on the hayride with some of his teammates, although now that she thought about it, the ghost stories he had told were pretty tame.
“Hey, there you are!” he said as he jogged toward her. “Thank goodness you’re okay! I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
Kate lowered her phone so it wasn’t shining in his eyes. “Y-you have?” she asked. Her teeth chattered as she spoke and she realized just how cold she was.
“Oh man, you’re freezing!” Abe said. “Your lips are turning purple—here.” He took off his own heavy coat and dropped it over her shoulders.
Kate had never been particularly impressed with him before, but it was hard not to be impressed with someone who would give up his own coat as soon as he saw someone was cold. “Oh… th-thanks,” she said, enjoying the warmth.
“Hey, I’m really sorry about the hayride earlier,” Abe said. “Those guys got way out of line. I saw you getting upset and I should have said something sooner. But all of a sudden you were gone.” He paused and dug his toe into the lawn. “I got worried, so I hopped off too and went looking for you.”
“Thanks,” Kate said. “I’m glad somebody cared.”
Abe smiled. “I was wondering… want to spend Halloween over at my place instead of with those weirdos?” he asked. “My mom makes the best homemade donuts this time of year. And I can introduce you to the horses. I’ve got a beautiful Quarter Horse named Hildebrand, he loves when you feed him carrots.”
Kate smiled back, a lopsided smile that exposed her braces. “I’d like that,” she said. “Sounds like fun. Let me know when you want your coat back, okay?”
“You use it for as long as you want,” Abe said as he gestured for her to walk alongside him.
Kate decided that she had seriously misjudged him. “Hildebrand’s a cool name,” she said as they strolled between the tombstones. “It’s German, right?”
Abe nodded and said, “From an old epic poem. Some of my ancestors were German. My dad’s done a lot of family history—we think my something-great grandpa was a Hessian soldier in the Revolutionary War. He had to leave his family in Germany to fight over here, but he was killed in battle.”
“I think he found his family again,” Kate said. She looked up and around at some of the taller stone monuments. “Hey—I know where we are. This is the Old Dutch Burying Ground. Some of my ancestors are buried here. We went here once for a family reunion.”
“I’ve got some ancestors here too,” Abe said. He laughed. “Man, family history’s way nicer to talk about than ghost stories.”
“I agree,” Kate said. She paused and looked back over her shoulder at the bridge. No—no one would be there now. He had reached his happy place. Clutching the medal in her pocket, she turned back to Abe and said, “Although I think I like the ghost stories with happy endings.”
“A ghost story with a happy ending?” Abe asked. “Like what?”
“I’ve got a good one,” Kate said. “It starts with a girl lost in the woods on Halloween night.”