Contest #24 winner 🏆

The Ghostwriter

Submitted by Gabby Gerstley to Contest #24 in response to: Write a murder mystery with an amateur sleuth who must navigate a fantastical world in a quest to discover the truth.... view prompt

“I can’t believe you live here.”

“I know,” Sylvia says. She smiles and steps aside for me to drag my suitcase through the entrance hall. 

“There’s ivy trellises for chrissakes. Ivy trellises.

“I’m glad you like it.”

We sit on her loveseat in the foyer. It is afternoon, and the sun is starting to wane and drip shade on the room. I take a sip of the earl grey tea she delivers on a worn gold platter. Her tea set is pretty, scalloped and covered in tiny, blood-red flowers. I rub my sweating hands on the velvet fabric of the sofa, hoping it won’t leave a stain. 

“I’m very glad you were able to come for the weekend. I’d like to see you up here once a month to meet about your progress.”

“I can’t thank you enough for hiring me, and for entrusting me with your story.”

She nods, smiling again. Her home smells like slivered almonds. A grandfather clock beats in the corner. There’s a large bookcase against the wall and shelves filled with tchotchkes— porcelain dolls in fraying skirts and ribbons, spotted cats, an extensive collection of salt and pepper shakers, everything covered in a film of dust. The air inside her home is gauzy, small swirls of sparkles float and twirl around us.

“Shall we get started then?” she asks. I nod, setting my teacup down on its saucer. “Evie was found just up the street from here. There’s a body of water where they found her. It isn’t small enough to be a pond but it’s not quite a lake either. The water is very deep in the middle. She had stones tied to her ankles when they recovered her body. We used to spend lots of time there together. There was a dock in the middle you could swim out to. We’d lie out there for hours, reading, talking. It was heaven.”

I write everything down in a small leather journal. A creak whines through the beats of the ticking clock and I jump a little, which makes me laugh.

“Just an old staircase,” she says. “My parents died in a car crash when I was in college, a long time ago. I was an only child. They left me the house. I never understood why they moved in here. It’s creepy, isn’t it? I was homeschooled my whole life, and Evie was my only friend. We met because she lived up the street from here. When I was younger, sometimes I liked to imagine having conversations with her when she was at school. Sometimes I find myself still doing that, too. I was a very lonely child. I was just starting to make friends in college and I was enjoying myself when I got the call that my parents had died. I quit school and moved back here, something I’d said I’d never do, but something called me back here.”

“Did Evie used to come over?”

“Yes, she did. Here,” she says, standing and walking to a large desk across the room. She pulls out a drawer and shows me photos of her and Evie as children. “Wasn’t she gorgeous?” Evie has long, inky black hair and freckles spilled over the bridge of her nose and underneath her eyes the color of a milky cappuccino. “And there’s me, of course.” Sylvia is tall and skinny, her back hunched and curved like a comma, her arm thrown over Evie’s small shoulders. “God was I gawky.” Sylvia’s hair is the color of straw and her two front teeth are twisted in what looks like a painful way. They are standing in the woods, the water behind them to their right. “I don’t know why everyone just accepted it was her who had drowned herself. Evie wasn’t unhappy. In fact, she had all these plans for the future. We were going to move out west together, to Hollywood. She wouldn’t have done this, I just know it, but no one ever questioned it or looked into it.”

“Was she dating anyone at the time?”

“She was in love with this boy named Ryan from school, but he was on vacation at the time with his family out of the country.”

“Is there anyone you’re suspicious of?”

“You like to believe it was no one you knew, right? That someone you knew could be responsible for such a horrific act. But something like this with no real evidence of a struggle or a fight, no skin underneath her fingernails or evidence of blunt force means if it wasn’t self-induced, she knew the person. And she knew them well. She trusted them, and then they did this to her. I’m sorry, it’s still hard for me to talk about.”

“You seem much more affected by her death than your parents’.”

“Evie was so young. She didn’t deserve her ending. My parents were older; they were in their sixties. Their deaths were probably immediate. Do you know how long it takes to drown? It takes about thirty to sixty seconds to start breathing in water, and soon after you lose consciousness. That doesn’t seem like that long of a time, but just try counting to sixty right now.”

We listen to the grandfather clock’s ticks. One, I bite the inside of my cheek and taste metal. Thirteen, I take a sip of the tea; it’s grown cold and the bitterness rests uncomfortably in the back of my throat. Twenty-one I crack my neck. Thirty-seven I smile at Sylvia, but it’s more like a grimace. Forty-one I pick lint off my jeans. Forty-nine I crack my knuckles. Fifty-three I rub at my eye, crossing my legs. Sixty and the cuckoo bird from the clock in the kitchen bursts from its hutch and shrieks. My heart propels upward inside my chest, boing-ing against my ribcage. I feel as though I cannot breathe, as though someone has buried me alive.

“Sixty seconds is a very long time,” she says, beginning to clean up the tea set. I nod, swallowing, but my throat is dry. 

“I want to help you, but I’m not a detective. I’m not even a journalist.”

“You are a poet, and poets have sensibility. They are able to uncover the unknowable, to hear and decipher the whispers of the immortal.”

“Do you hear Evie?” I ask her. “Do you still talk to her?”

“All the time.”

“What if I don’t discover anything new? Or what if on the off chance I do discover something new, you don’t like it.”

“I will give you all of my journals. You will have access to photo albums, newspaper clippings from the time, home videos, yearbooks, my observations, maps, everything. You will write an account of what you look at, what I tell you, and whatever you make of it. It can be fiction, it can be a collection of poems, whatever you like. But it will be set here during the year she died, and it must have some beauty in it.”

“Okay.”

“Let me show you your room.”

I follow her up the wooden staircase. My room has a view of the forest behind the house. I know the water is just beyond, further and deeper into the woods.

“Perhaps you’ll go on a walk tonight, yes? See the water. There are flashlights in the downstairs closet by the front door. I’ll let you rest for a bit. Dinner is whenever you want. I was planning on making a shepherd’s pie, but you’re more than welcome to help yourself to anything in the fridge.”

“Thank you.” She squeezes my hand then shuts the door behind her. I lie on the quilt on top of the bed. It’s completely silent here, even with the window cracked open. Fresh air flows through and I quickly fall asleep.

It’s half-past seven when I wake and already dark out. I grab a large, black leather photo album from the top of the stack Sylvia has placed on the bedside table. There are Sylvia’s parents, both in thick-rimmed glasses unsmiling on a beach in front of a rainbow-striped umbrella. There’s Sylvia with Evie in the backseat, their heads bent together, hair one indecipherable mass. They must be ten or so. Their wrists are adorned with matching, patterned friendship bracelets made of turquoise and orange and red string. They look like they’ve been whispering secrets. What were you saying?

I yawn and put on sneakers. I walk downstairs, but don’t see Sylvia as I walk out and down the graveled dirt path to the water. Buzzing erupts in the forest, whistling through the leaves of the trees, prickling the back of my neck. I swing the flashlight all around me as I continue to walk. Fireflies fling their bodies against my ankles, clawing their way up through the packed dirt and pushing me toward the water. I step over hundreds of little holes, the evacuated homes of the lightning bugs.

Once I reach the water’s edge I see what Sylvia was talking about — a round, hollowed hole not quite a lake, not quite a pond, filled with black water. A solo dock gently swings in the middle, the slight breeze making it move. I passed several other houses on my walk here, but the water feels entirely secluded and completely private; it is the ideal hideout for a set of friends to meet. 

I know Evie’s body is no longer being held underwater, but there are screams, a pulsing from the middle rippling out to the small shore made of pebbles and grass. What happened to you? I slip off my shoes and my shorts. I hold the flashlight in my mouth as I take off my shirt. I dip a toe in the dark water and wade into it. The water is thick and painful to move through, but I make my way out to the dock where I stand. I shine the light into the trees from the dock, half-expecting to see a deer with glowing green eyes staring back at me, or a half-land, half-sea monster with rope in its mouth and stones in its claws ready to drown me too.

I’m sopping wet when I arrive back at Sylvia’s home. I walk across the front room, careful not to leave any droplets of water on the floor. I open the fridge in the kitchen and take out a rotisserie chicken. I pick at it, putting cold pieces in my mouth. Sylvia sits at the kitchen table in the corner. She stares at me as I place the chicken down on the counter and wash my hands at the sink, ringing out my wet hair over it. 

“I went for a swim.”

“I can see that,” she says.

“But the floor isn’t wet. It didn’t get wet. Why isn’t it wet?”

“Come, have a seat.”

“Do you ever go swimming there now?”

“No, not since.” She lights a cigarette and opens a window, blowing out curls of smoke. “She was going to leave me, you know. First, it was Europe, then Los Angeles. She loved the palm trees. She said she wanted to drive on PCH in a convertible, live near the beach. She was going to go to college out there. And that? That was all fine. It was fine with me, it took some getting used to but I could go with her. She said I could go with her, so I’d follow her and we’d live together and we’d always be together and happy, and then she got pregnant. And babies get in the way of everything. I just couldn’t have that. I couldn’t have it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re not really here.”

“I’m not?” She shakes her head at me; her eyelids have grown longer, heavier; she pinches the extra skin and rubs her eyes with the heels of her palms until she sees hundreds of static-like white webs. She crosses her arms and leans back in her seat. She beckons the moon through the window and holds it in her hand like a stone. 

“I wish you were. I don’t even know what’s real and what’s not anymore.”

Sylvia makes herself a fresh pot of coffee and starts to write the story again, one more time, for the forty-seventh time. She likes to write different endings each time, but every time Evie dies. She can’t find an ending where she doesn’t. I play with the ends of her wiry gray hair, running my fingers over the crown of her head. Sylvia feels this; it feels like she’s dunking her head under water, a cool rush spreading over her scalp. I kiss her on the cheek, ball a clump of her hair in my fist and let it fall, then I walk out the kitchen door. I feel the grass, sharp and prickly beneath my feet. The sky is a blank black tapestry I shoot up toward. 

Evie runs away in Sylvia’s latest rendition. She is sixteen and staying in a motel. She is killed by a trucker who rapes her then strangles her. Her eyes are wet and black like marbles; they bounce out of her sockets and roll out the room. Sylvia likes to remind herself that she had been kind, kinder than the killers in her stories; she had made sure Evie hadn’t suffered before she sunk her body into the black folds of the water. 

Before falling asleep, Sylvia likes to imagine her and Evie walking off into a line of sunlight, a runny orange yolk color that continues to fade, and never coming home. Every night she dreams the same dream of being held underwater, and unable to breathe, she wakes and stalks the house like a ghost.

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

34 likes 18 comments

21:43 Jan 24, 2020

Oh wow. Excellent dialogue. I love how you flip the entire story into something way different.

Reply

Show 0 replies
05:24 Jan 25, 2020

This story is excellent! The feel of it changed from a slightly sad but light mystery to a dark thriller. The way you integrated the fantasy elements is really good too. It’s extra hard hitting because it seems like this could really happen in real life. Great job and congratulations!

Reply

Show 0 replies
18:21 Jan 24, 2020

Excellent story! I was immediately sucked into the story, the atmosphere and the mystery of what happened to Evie.

Reply

Show 0 replies
07:58 Jan 25, 2020

Intriguing story with an unexpected ending.

Reply

Show 0 replies
04:58 Jan 25, 2020

Haunting. . . . sad. . . .very interesting, and beautifully written.

Reply

Show 0 replies
00:18 Jan 25, 2020

Your take on the prompt is unique. To start out with a poet as the amateur sleuth and end with a writer as the murderer, I loved reading the twist and your build up to the end.

Reply

Show 0 replies
22:39 Jan 24, 2020

Amazing spooky story!

Reply

Show 0 replies
21:48 Jan 24, 2020

Spooky... yikes! I enjoyed it but not for ten o’clock!!

Reply

Show 0 replies
21:48 Jan 24, 2020

Spooky... yikes! I enjoyed it but not for ten o’clock!!

Reply

Show 0 replies
18:28 Jan 24, 2020

It's gotten a sense of combination of the movie Sixth Sense and Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to it! Very suspenseful and written beautifully!

Reply

Show 0 replies
13:46 Feb 18, 2020

This is fantastic!!

Reply

Show 0 replies
16:37 Jan 31, 2020

Wooooh.♥ I got goosebumps.

Reply

Show 0 replies
13:52 Jan 30, 2020

Masterfully written.

Reply

Show 0 replies
23:46 Jan 27, 2020

interesting twist

Reply

Show 0 replies
19:49 Jan 27, 2020

The ending is just like a bow that ties everything together beautifully. An artwork to be proud of... cherish it!

Reply

Show 0 replies
22:57 Jan 26, 2020

I understand what the direction of the story was meant to move in, but I found the sudden change to Sylvia's POV muddled. It was a really great idea. I would have loved to see it longer, like a novella. I'm not a huge fan of present tense, but that's just a preference. It was done very well.

Reply

Show 0 replies
23:28 Jan 25, 2020

I love the twist! It comes so smoothly, so nicely given. Great story.

Reply

Show 0 replies
19:33 Jan 25, 2020

OhMG! I wish I could write like you. I felt I am in there in your story watching every move of your characters. This is simply jaw breaking, breathtaking, amazingly cool and scary. Keep on dazing us Gabby. Hats off to you! 👌💪❤

Reply

Show 0 replies