Old Wives’ Tale
Beth’s mother had always told her that she’d been a very chatty baby. According to Annette, the youngest Greene child had always been curious and full of life. She said Beth’s head was always on a swivel, her eyes were always gazing around and searching and staring with fascination at things that weren’t really there. And when she began talking, it always seemed to be directed towards walls or shadowy corners - as though she were talking to someone that Annette couldn’t see.
“There’s an old wives’ tale that babies and children can see things that grown-ups can’t - like spirits and demons and what-have-you,” Beth’s father, Hershel, would eventually explain to her. “Your mama’s always had a wild imagination. And old wives’ tales are nothing more than that: tales. Like fairytales. You were just like any other baby, maybe a little more… curious. But that don’t mean nothin’, Doodlebug. Ghosts aren’t real.”
At seven years old, Beth had a wild imagination, too. And it was fed by the Bible and all the things she heard and read about in Sunday School, all the things her family repeated regularly. “But what about angels? Or spirits? What about people’s souls, Daddy? After they die? Where d’they go?”
Hershel had chuckled a bit and stated, “Well, people’s souls either go to Heaven or Hell. They don’t stick around here, sweetheart. And angels are real, sure. But I can’t say I’ve ever personally seen one. Remember, the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
She had a lot more questions but she didn’t want to ask them anymore. She didn’t bring it up again after that.
Beth was nine years old when she first saw someone that wasn’t there. As far as she could remember, anyway. There always seemed to be shadows moving in the corner of her eye, people vaguely appearing and then vanishing. She mostly thought she was dreaming when it happened. But this time, the lady appeared solid on the other side of the fence. Beth was playing outside of her elementary school during recess and when she went to retrieve the kickball, the lady showed up. Just like that - out of nowhere.
She was older but not quite middle-aged. She gripped the chainlinks and leaned in close to the fence, staring at Beth with wild eyes. When she realized that Beth was staring back, she grinned so wide that it was frightening.
“Little girl - you can see me?” The lady asked, her voice high-pitched and fearful.
Beth didn’t know what to do. She nodded meekly, tiny fingers gripping tightly to the big red kickball in her hands.
“Can you help me? Please, I-I’m so lost, I don’t know - “
“Beth! Bring the ball back!”
Beth snapped her head around to see her group of friends approaching from across the grass, calling for her, and when she turned back, the lady was gone.
She couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks afterwards, but she didn’t dare speak of it. Even when she’d asked one of her friends if they saw the woman on the other side of the fence, her friend had made her feel weird and given her a very confused look. Beth wrote it down in her journal and then tried to forget it ever happened.
Which she did. Until it happened again almost a year later. This time was vastly different, though.
There was a fire a few miles down the road. A big one. The house had been occupied by an elderly couple whose children lived several states away. Hershel and Annette checked in on them frequently but one night, the house had caught fire and by the time anyone could get there, everything was consumed in flames. Needless to say, the elderly couple died. Although when exactly they passed and how long it took was a mystery to everyone.
But Beth knew, because she’d seen their souls leave. Standing out on the front lawn, staring up at the crackling flames that licked toward the night sky, she’d glanced down just in time to see the familiar elderly couple emerging from the crumbling front door. They were unharmed and she could see them smiling, walking hand-in-hand through the fire and away from it. She stared in awe as they crossed the lawn and passed right by her, a shiver running down her spine. And when she turned around to see where they were heading, they’d already disappeared.
She definitely didn’t say anything about that particular night to anyone. She’d been hearing stories at school about one of her classmates’ father and how he was “crazy” and “seeing things” and “getting locked up so he won’t hurt anybody.” She knew what happened to people like that - people like her. So she wrote about what she saw and how it made her feel in her well-hidden journal and then never thought about it again.
There were a couple more weird incidents, countless shadows that she’d glimpse from the corner of her eye, dozens of silhouettes in the far-off distance that faded away like fog. Strange voices calling out to her from seemingly nowhere. But nothing really notable.
And then it suddenly stopped. She wasn’t sure if it had something to do with going through puberty, but once her period came and her hips began to widen and her body began to change in more ways than she could count, the inexplicable things just… stopped happening. She didn’t see anybody or anything that wasn’t there. Not even in her dreams.
Eventually, she attributed it to God answering her silent prayers and began praying harder than ever, thanking Him relentlessly. A few years went by and nothing changed. Those old journals got pushed to the back of her closet, stuffed inside boxes full of other abandoned books and childhood drawings, and she started brand new journals that had nothing in them about ghosts or spirits or souls or any of those other childish nonsense fantasies. In her head, the memories got pushed back and stuffed inside a box just the same. Forgotten, for the most part.
Then, when Beth was seventeen, her mama got very sick and didn’t get better. It turned out she had cancer, but no matter how many treatments they tried, she kept getting worse and worse. Annette fought for several long months before she passed away. Afterwards, Beth knew for certain that all those weird incidents had been a product of her wild imagination as a child.
Because she didn’t see her mama at all after she died. Not even when she took her last breaths and her soul undoubtedly fled from Earth once and for all.
Beth stopped thanking God after that. It wasn’t that she wanted to be crazy, to see things that other people couldn’t see. But if she could’ve chosen it, if she could’ve gotten just one last moment with her mother to tell her how much she loved her and to say goodbye… Well, it just didn’t seem fair. Why would God take it away from her before it really mattered? Maybe it had been a blessing in disguise and she’d been too ignorant to understand. Maybe He took it away to punish her for being ungrateful.
Everything got very hectic after that. Beth graduated high school - just barely - and her older sister, Maggie, had no choice but to get a job in the city that paid just enough to keep the bill collectors off their backs. Hershel had already been retired for a few years and his age was showing more and more everyday but he never stopped working, doing everything he could to keep the farm afloat after Annette’s medical bills and funeral costs all but drained his savings. Beth wanted to get a job in the city as well but Maggie insisted that the youngest Greene needed to stay on the farm with their daddy and their brother, Shawn.
So that’s what she did. Beth mostly ran the house, cleaning and cooking, essentially taking over all her mama’s previous duties. It wasn’t much different from what she’d been doing while Annette was sick and dying, but it had become more permanent. At least it felt that way to Beth. She’d thought of going to college and moving away, but at the end of the day, her obligations kept her on the farm. She couldn’t abandon her family like that. She could see how much Maggie hated being away for five days a week and Beth didn’t want to end up making a decision that she would later regret. What if she moved away and something happened to her dad? Or Shawn? She’d never be able to forgive herself.
Besides, the busier she kept herself, the less time she had to think about… other things. Which worked out pretty well for the first couple of years. Time passed by in a blur. The whole family fell into a routine, days blending into weeks blending into months. Beth was always eagerly awaiting the arrival of the weekend, during which Maggie would be home for two blissful days. She found that the more she wished it was the weekend, the more days she wound up missing out on entirely.
It was like she’d blinked and then a year passed. She blinked again and there went another year. Her twenty-first birthday came and went and she didn’t even feel any different. Not in the slightest. The same went for her twenty-second and twenty-third.
She continued her routine, as did everyone else. They were always barely scraping by, stretching to make ends meet. Maggie got promoted and that helped, though it kept her in the city more often than not. They finally paid off all the medical bills and got all but a couple of the debt collectors off their backs. Sometimes, Beth was able to earn a little extra money by babysitting for one of her dad’s friends and once in a while, it gave her an excuse to get out of the house for a day or two.
But Hershel was growing weaker everyday and his doctor was insisting that he stop pushing himself so much because his aging body could no longer handle the constant strain. Shawn responded by taking the brunt of the work onto his shoulders and hiring more help. Yet Beth’s routine remained unaffected.
She kept telling herself that things would change eventually. And she was right - they did change. Though not at all in the way she was hoping.
Autumn was arriving quickly, bringing with it a relieving break from the humid Georgia heat. The anniversary of Annette’s death was arriving quickly, too. Beth didn’t feel quite as sad this year as she normally did and she wasn’t sure why that was.
Nonetheless, considering it was a relatively slow Monday morning, she headed out into the woods after breakfast in search of some peace and quiet and maybe some nice wildflowers for her mama’s grave. There was a picturesque creek that she’d found when she was little and had always loved, and nowadays she liked to use it as her little escape from the monotony of daily life. It was a place where she could sit and think and just be without fear of anyone disturbing her. Sometimes she brought her journal. Today, she brought nothing more than an old wicker basket to hold any flowers she might gather.
Despite the lower temperatures, the sun was still beating down hot from above and the air was thick with humidity. Beth strolled through the quiet woods with the basket hanging from her arm, heading toward the creek as sweat formed on her face and beneath her clothes. She was eager to reach the water and cool down, to sit and relax before trekking out a little farther in search of those wildflower patches she’d stumbled across a few months back.
The trees rustled in the light breeze and birds sang from every which direction. There were tiny chirps and squeaks from the unseen wildlife skittering through the undergrowth, the unmistakable chatter of squirrels and the clicking of their little claws as they darted up and down tree trunks. Beth approached the creek and took in a deep breath of the comforting scent. She set her basket on the ground and lowered herself until she was resting on her knees at the water’s edge.
She didn’t hear the distant voice at first. She splashed cool water on her face, rinsing away the sweat that had begun to drip down her neck. But when she paused and let the water go still, she heard it. Distant and unfamiliar, yet she knew without a doubt that it was a man’s voice. For a moment, she thought her dad or Shawn may have wandered out to find her but as the voice came and went, it gradually got louder. Several seconds later, she was certain that it was no voice she’d ever heard before.
She bristled and turned her head, standing up and looking around, searching for signs of the mysterious man. But suddenly, she couldn’t hear him anymore. And there was no one else around that she could see.
Beth decided that she’d been overhearing someone yelling from the farm - that was the only reasonable explanation. Either that or she was imagining things. So she ignored it and forgot about it and resumed her rest by the creek, leisurely scooping cool water up and over her sun-tanned arms.
“Take yer top off, sweetcheeks!”
Beth jolted when the loud voice surrounded her and filled her ears. It was immediately followed by crude laughter and she spun around, leaping up to her feet.
A man was standing nearby, leaning against a tree and watching her. As soon as she locked eyes with him, his laughter stopped and his face fell. He stood up straight and stared at her, bewildered.
“Who the hell are you? This is my family’s property, you’re trespassing, ya know,” she threatened. She was suddenly wishing she hadn’t stopped bringing a hunting knife with her on these little treks into the woods. But years and years of never encountering a dangerous animal, let alone a stranger, had lowered her guard. She hadn’t even brought her damn phone.
The man looked older, in his late 30s or 40s with short, receding gray hair and heavy bags under bright blue eyes. He was broad-shouldered and a few inches short of six feet, dressed in ripped and faded blue jeans, dark boots, and a wrinkly maroon V-neck underneath an aged leather vest. And he appeared to be nearly as startled as Beth felt. Which didn’t make sense.
“What - you can hear me?” He asked.
She couldn’t tell if he was being serious or not. “Are you insane, mister? You’re yelling at me out in the middle of the woods, yer all I can hear! What d’you want?”
The man’s bewilderment didn’t fade. He took a step forward and Beth stiffened but she couldn’t step back without ending up knee-deep in water. She froze and watched him intently, prepared to turn and run if he tried to get any closer.
“No, no no - you gotta be shittin’ me,” he grumbled, glancing upward as though he were talking to someone else. “This li’l bitch? She ain’t got no goddamn idea who I even am!”
“Who are you talking to? D’you need help or somethin’?” Beth asked loudly.
The man narrowed his eyes at her and shook his head. “So you can see me? I’m - what do I look like ta you, girl?”
She was more confused than fearful at this point, almost certain that this strange man had escaped some sort of hospital. “I dunno - like an old creep who preys on young girls in the woods. Are you some kinda pervert or somethin’? My dad’s gonna be here any minute and I - “
He lifted a hand as if to wave away her words and interrupted, “Shut up, shut up! I ain’t no fuckin’ pervert. I’m dead! How the fuck can you see me, blondie? Can ya tell me that?”
It took a moment for his statement to register in her head. But when it did, Beth reeled. She blinked and looked away, a slew of locked-up memories resurfacing and filling her with a mixture of confusion and horror.
There’s no way, she thought. There can’t be.
“This is a joke, right?” She asked, her voice quiet and doubtful.
The man frowned and creased his brow. “Do I look like I’m fuckin’ laughin’?”
Beth swallowed hard and felt the blood draining from her face.
Recognition sparked in his eyes. He tilted his chin upwards and glared at her suspiciously. “This ain’t the first time you seen a ghost, is it, sweetheart?”
She shook her head wordlessly, mouth gone dry.
He grunted out a cold half-chuckle and said, “Ain’t the first time you talked ta one neither, I’m guessin’.”
She shook her head again and blinked, dumbfounded and speechless.
“Well, nobody else can see me so I reckon that means you got no choice in the matter. Yer gonna have ta help me, li’l girl.”
Beth finally found her voice, though it came out choked and hoarse. “Help you - ? Who are you?”
He smirked, crossing his arms over his chest and declaring proudly, “Merle Dixon, the one an’ only.”
She didn’t give him a chance to say anything else. She quickly reached down and snatched up her basket and darted off in the opposite direction of the strange man. He was caught off-guard and didn’t follow at first, though she didn’t risk looking back.
She weaved between trees and walked as fast as she could, heart racing and hands shaking.
Not real, not real, not real, she silently told herself. He’ll fade away. It’s just my imagination.
She was about to break out into a run when his voice reached her ears once more.
“Hey - hey! Don’t walk away from me! You have ta help me!”
Beth ignored him and picked up her pace, half-jogging through the undergrowth and dead leaves.
“It’s not real, he’s not real, it’s my imagination,” she mumbled to herself feverishly.
She couldn’t hear him chasing her but his voice kept getting closer, kept following her. By the time she gave in and began to run, he sounded frantic.
“Dammit - stop running! I ain’t gonna hurt you! I need yer help, you stubborn little twerp!”
She chanced a brief glimpse over her shoulder to see how far away he was and that was all it took for her to lose her footing and stumble across a dead log in her path. She fell forward and threw her hands out just in time to catch herself, scraping her palms against the hard earth as her knees hit the ground painfully. The basket crumpled and the handle snapped beneath her.
The fear and adrenaline made the pain easy to forget and she immediately got back to her feet and spun around, prepared to defend herself however she could. She obviously couldn’t outrun him, but maybe she could start screaming and someone on the farm would hear her.
He was there, standing next to the log that had tripped her and looking more frustrated than ever. He gestured angrily towards her knees. “Now see what ya did? Yer gonna twist yer damn ankle out here, girl. Why the hell you runnin’ from me? Don’t you wanna help a soul in need?”
He pointed to her chest and she glanced down to see the shiny gold cross hanging from a thin chain around her neck.
“You’re a liar,” she said, still trying to catch her breath. “You’re messin’ with me and it’s not funny! I don’t know you and I don’t want any trouble. Just leave me be, I won’t - “
“You don’t believe me? Let’s go find that daddy a yers, see what he thinks. How ‘bout that?”
Beth quickly shook her head, speaking with as much confidence as she could muster. “He’ll call the cops, he’ll have you arrested for trespassing and harassing me. Just go, this isn’t funny!”
Merle scoffed and rolled his eyes. “I agree, princess. Ain’t shit funny about any part of this. Don’t make no sense, you can see me but nobody else can. Damn cruel joke if ya ask me - but it sure as shit ain’t my joke.”
She thought she might be sick. She shook her head again, refusing to believe it even as her blood went cold and her knees trembled beneath her. “No - no. No. I’m not… it’s not possible. I saw a couple weird things as a kid but it was just my imagination. This has to be…”
Her voice drifted off and her mind raced. He waited, watching her expectantly.
After a long moment of silence, he held his open palms out before him and said, “Well - you take any drugs lately?”
Beth was so appalled that she snapped back without thinking, “No, of course not.”
“Alrigh’ then,” he went on. “Any history of mental illness? ‘Sides that ‘overactive imagination’ you used ta have.”
She shook her head, glaring back at him with distrust. “No - no way.”
“Then I guess the only explanation is that yer goin’ crazy, sweetcheeks. You think that’s it? Maybe you got some kinda recessive trait an’ I’m the product of yer fucked-up brain? You think maybe everything got to be too much and ya finally just… snapped?”
He laughed coldly and a shiver ran down her spine. She remembered the burning house and the old couple, the frantic lady outside of school, the countless faces of strangers who’d lingered just a little too long in her periphery.
No, she wasn’t going crazy. No one in her family had ever been crazy, no one that was related to her had ever heard voices before or seen people that weren’t there.
“Leave me alone,” she said flatly. Then she spun on her heel and walked away, keeping her eyes down and focused on avoiding obstacles in her path.
“Hey now, don’t be like that - I was just kiddin’! I know you ain’t goin’ crazy. I’m dead! I know lotsa shit now!” Merle called after her. Once again, she couldn’t hear his footsteps on the ground but his voice followed her and she knew he was following her, too. “Look, I know I’m an asshole an’ yeah, I was a real piece a shit my whole life. But I wouldn’t just ask some random teenager for help if I didn’t really fuckin’ need help.”
“I’m not a teenager or a little girl, I’m a grown woman,” Beth angrily snapped without looking back. “Leave me alone.”
She heard him scoff and then he said, “Ya look about sixteen but whatever you say - either way, I don’t know you an’ I don’t know shit about you. I wanted my brother ta help me but he can’t fuckin’ hear me! I can’t get through to ‘im no matter what I try. Not even my tweaker buddies can see me an’ they’re so goddamn high all the time, they can hear shapes! You gotta help me, blondie, I’m beggin’ you. And I ain’t never begged nobody before!”
The frustration grew more palpable in his voice but Beth tuned him out. She could see the treeline up ahead and the farm was just beyond it. She picked up her pace and refused to glance back let alone speak another word aloud. She told herself that if she pretended he wasn’t there, he’d have no choice but to disappear eventually. And if he was there, then someone else would see him and he would no longer be her problem. It was a win-win situation, she just had to make it out of the woods first.
“I’m not goin’ anywhere till you help me!” Merle demanded. “I’ll just keep buggin’ you. Watch! I don’t need ta eat or sleep no more, I got all the time in the world. I’ll drive ya crazy if ya ain’t there already. Mark my words, little lady.”
Beth tried to ignore his threats and kept walking, emerging from the woods and fast-walking through the tall grass toward the nearest barn. She could see people working in the distance and one of them was Shawn.
Merle kept calling after her. “This where you live? Nice place - where’s that daddy a yers? Let’s see what he thinks ‘bout your predicament… He a man of God? Y’all go to church every Sunday? ...damn, woman, you wanna walk a little slower?”
She kept her eyes locked on her brother and made a beeline toward him, Merle’s voice grating on her nerves. As she approached, she saw that Shawn was completely focused on the tractor he was repairing and no one had offered so much as a glance in her direction yet. Her heart sped up as she waited for someone else to see Merle.
But no one said anything. She stopped a few feet away from Shawn and spoke up.
He lifted his head and turned around, nodding his head in greeting with his hands still buried in tractor parts. “What’s up?”
She blinked and glanced over her shoulder for the first time since she’d left the woods. Sure enough, Merle was still there, standing with his arms crossed over his chest and glaring at the back of her head. She looked at her older brother and waited for him to react, silently praying that he could see the strange man that was so obviously standing behind her.
But he didn’t. Shawn stared at her expectantly.
“Um,” she started. “I just - “
“Does Dad need somethin’? I’m kinda busy right now,” Shawn asked impatiently.
Beth shook her head and cleared her throat, trying to ignore the sensation of her stomach plummeting down to her feet. “No - nevermind. I uh, I forgot. Sorry.”
Before he could comment on her odd behavior, she turned and walked away. Her stomach was turning and she thought she might actually be sick this time.
“See what I mean, sweetheart?” Merle piped up. “Yer the only one. Yer stuck with me.”
She knew he was right. Every single person she passed was completely oblivious of Merle’s presence. Some of them offered her a brief wave or a warm smile of acknowledgment, but no one stopped and asked who the hell the older guy following her around was and why he was here.
They couldn’t see him. Couldn’t even hear him.
He called out crude remarks about the farmhands as they passed and Beth did her best to tune him out but it was becoming more and more difficult. Her blood was boiling and she strode angrily through the farm. He was having too much fun with the whole situation. Half the things he spouted would’ve gotten him shot and unfortunately, she was the only one who could hear him. And even more unfortunately, she knew she couldn’t shoot him.
There was one last hope for her, though. She was heading straight for the house, where she knew her father would be watching TV in the den or reading in the kitchen. And she knew it was a long shot but she had to at least try. Maybe it wasn’t just her after all. Maybe she’d get incredibly lucky and find out that her father could see and hear this insistent, annoying man as well.
She entered the house to find it quiet and empty. Merle let out a long and low whistle as they stepped through the entryway and into the kitchen.
“Oh, y’all go to church alright,” he remarked. “Buncha Jesus freaks, from the looks of it.”
She bit her tongue and searched around for her father but the kitchen was empty. She checked the dining room before heading into the den. That’s where she found Hershel sitting on the couch, an old Bible open in his lap and reading glasses resting low on his nose. He looked up when she entered and smiled warmly.
Beth knew immediately that he couldn’t see Merle. Her heart dropped and her face inadvertently fell. Hershel’s smile disappeared and he gave her a look of concern.
“What’s wrong, Doodlebug?” He asked.
She swallowed past a thick knot in her throat and fought back tears. Merle’s antagonizing voice filled her ears once more.
“Doodlebug? That’s cute. Not somethin’ I’d expect a grown woman ta be called, though.”
Beth shook her head and forced a smile for her father. “No, Daddy - I was just checkin’ on you. What d’you wanna do fer lunch?”
She couldn’t hear his response over Merle’s loud and taunting laughter.
to be continued...