How to Tell Scary Stories

It’s a late-summer evening. Two figures sit on the top of a weather-beaten picnic table on the bank on an inlet pond, a short walk from a row of mostly unlit cabins. A voluminous gibbous moon waxes behind a row of stately old-growth pine trees, and the air teems with frog song accompanied by crickets and katydids.

“So, who are you?”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you. Who are you?”

“I’m Lisa. You know that.”

“Sure, I know your name. But who are you.”

“I’m no one.”

“No one’s no one.”

“Well, I am.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m just Lisa. Lisa from Fucking Nowhere, Ohio.”

“Okay…. I heard you you’re hard to talk to.”

“You heard that, did you?”

“Yeah, that’s what Billy told me.”

“Billy?”

“Billy. You know Billy—tall guy, glasses, never brushes—”

“I know who you’re talking about, but what the fuck does Billy know?”

“He says you’ve been coming here every year he and his folks have.”

“I guess that’s true….”

“He says you guys talked a bit last summer. He says you’re kind of a….”
“Kind of a what?”

“He says you’re kind of a bitch, but I don—”

“Billy sure says a lot, for a guy who doesn’t know much.”

“He said he made out with you.”

“What???”

“Hey, I’m just telling you what Billy—”

“He tried to kiss me, sure, but—”

“Ew..!”

“Yeah…. ‘Ew’ is right”

There’s an awkward silence as Lisa glares down at her shoes. “Anyway, there’s got to be more to you than ‘I’m just Lisa from Fucking Nowhere, Ohio.”

“Oh really? Like what?”

“I dunno…. What? Don’t just look at me like that. Okay, so, like I’m Jake from Kenosha, Wisconsin, but I’m a lot more than that.”

“Oh, are you?”

“Sure I am. I mean, like, I’m also Jake from the Indian Trail Hawks track team.”

“Track?”

“Yeah, track.”

“You like to run?”

“I’m a runner….”

“You any good?”

“Not really. I mean, I placed in the 1,500 meter one year, but mostly no. No one on my team is all that good.”

“That’s okay, as long as you like doing it.”

“Well….”

“You do like to run, right?”

“No one actually likes to run. No one sane, anyway.”

“I like to run.”

“You do?”

“Sure I do, but it all has to do with whether I’m running toward something or running away from something.”

“I guess that’s fair, but—”

“And this is what you do with your spare time—running?”

“Sure. Yeah.”

“That’s too bad.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“It’s just…. I mean it’s too bad you waste so much of your free time.”

“Hey now—running isn’t a waste of free time.”

“It is if you don’t like running, especially if you’re no good at it.”

“I didn’t say—”

“If you’re no good at it, and you don’t like doing it, then why bother wasting your time by running? If you ask me, that demonstrates a distinct lack of character.”

“What—really? Look, I’ve got plenty of character, even if there are lots of things I like more than running.”

“Such as..?”

“Such as… engineering. I love building things. Like, this one time, I was on a team that designed and built a high-gas-millage car for a competition. We used bike parts, and welded our own frame, and… well, anyway, it was a lot of fun and we took first place.”

“That’s cool, I guess.”

“I actually plan to go to UW for engineering next year, if I can get in.”

“So you’re going to be an engineer?”

“I’m planning on it. I mean, it pays well.”

“It pays well?”

“Yeah, it pays really well. I could make six figures easy in no time.”

“Ya think?”

“I know. My buddy Carson’s older brother just got his first job as an engineer at a company that makes tempered glass up near Ann Arbor, and he started at seventy k.”

“That’s not exactly six figures.”

“Yeah, but—”

“I mean, it’s thirty k short. That’s significant.”

“Still, it’s a lot of money.”

“Sure, but is making a lot of money a good reason to go into engineering?”

“One of the best, if you grew up like I did.”

“I hear ya.”

Jake chuckles. “I guess that explains why we’re both on vacation here instead of somewhere…”

“Better?”

“I guess so, I mean—”

“I like it here.”

“You do?”

“Sure. It always feels like home.”

“So you have been coming here long.”

“Ages.”

“Oh yeah? Since when?”

“Since for-fucking-ever.”

“A bit dramatic, aren’t we? It’s not like you’re that old.”

“Hey, I’m older than I look.”

“Good, because it’s kinda weird to think of a twelve-year-old girl saying ‘fuck’ as much as you do.”

“Asshole.” Lisa giggles, and Jake, grins. “Okay, Jake I-suck-at-running-but-sorta-like-it-and-I-wanna-be-an-engineer-for-the-money, here’s a better question: if you never had to worry about money—like, ever—what would you do with yourself?”

“That’s easy—I’d read.”

“Read?”

“Its when you look at these little squiggles and words pop into your—”

“Ha ha very funny. What would you read?”

“Books.”

“Books?”

“Yeah, those things with pages full of those little squig—”

“GAH! What kind answers are these, Jake? Keep it up, and I’ll be forced to conclude that you aren’t very quick. Add that to your questionable character, and things aren’t looking up for you.” Jake grins again. “So, what kind of books do you like to read?”

“I dunno. Scary ones? I like Stephen King and Poe…”

“Anyone still alive?”

“King’s still alive.”

“A mere technicality. I mean anyone more… current?”

“Let’s see. There’s T. E. Grau. Ever heard of him?”

“No, but that’s okay. So, are we talking horror?”

“Sure, I guess. Horror, weird fiction, it’s a blurry line.”

“It’s got to be hard to write anything really scary these days.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, because these days, people are emotionally disconnected but constantly connected to their phones. It’s hard to develop suspense when you begin with characters that are already impossible to sympathize with. Stick Google in their pockets, and then give them a phone-a-friend lifeline whenever they need it, and you’ve run out of truly plausible horror plots.”

“What if you don’t have your phone? What if there’s no signal, or you run out of batteries, or—?”

“Blah, blah, blah. Sure, you can pick one of the three or four totally contrived reasons your characters don’t have a single working phone between them, but it’s all been done to death.”

“What if cellphones are the cause of the horror? I mean, Stephen King had a whole book where—”

“Yeah, I read that one. It totally sucked.”

“Good point. Well, for what it’s worth, I actually don’t have my phone on me, it doesn’t hold a charge for shit, and we are in a signal vacuum here. I guess we’re doomed.”

“I guess so.”

“Isn’t this the part where you say, ‘Good thing we aren’t in a horror story,’ or some shit like that?”

“If I did, then we’d almost certainly be in one, and that would be even worse than the lame-ass reason you don’t have you phone on you. Anyway, it’s better like this.”

“Really? What—you actually want to be in a horror story?”

“Who says we aren’t? I mean, what’s more horrific than a bunch of zombies, shambling around unable to see two feet past their noses?”

“That’s deep.”

There’s a note of sarcasm in Jake’s voice, but Lisa ignores it and continues, “Besides, even if we were in a horror story, having a cell phone isn’t always helpful.”

“True—there’s always that lag between when you call for help and when help arrives.”

“There’s also always situational irony. You know, when the person you call for help refuses to believe you or your ringer lets the monster or psycho killer know exactly where you are. If you ask me, I’d say cellphones in general are a curse.”

“Don’t hold back. Tell me how you really feel.”

“I fucking hate smartphones. I wish they’d never been invented. Why can’t a girl just appreciate the undivided attention of a nice boy on a beautiful night, instead of having all of this ruined by an obnoxious glowing screen.”

“Hypocrite.”

“What?”

“Like you don’t have a smartphone.”

“Not me.”

“Liar. I bet you’re just itching to— Ow! Whatcha hit me for?”

“Don’t call me a liar. That isn’t very nice.”

“You just said I was nice.”

“Calling someone a liar isn’t nice.”

“Neither is hitting someone.”

“Who said I was nice?”

“You seem nice.”

“Heh. Who says either of us are what we seem like we are. We’re just a couple of kids, out here in the dark because it beats the alternative.”

A silence lingers before Jake says, “You really serious?”

“About what?”

“You’ve seriously never had a smartphone?”

“Seriously.”

“You mean no constant status updates? No selfies? No Snapchat?”

“No, nope, nu-uh, no way. I’ve never even had a dumbphone.”

“Wait—you can’t even text? That’s not right. Shit—even the Amish have cellphones. How is this even legal anymore!?”

“You got me—I’m a neglected child. You gonna call CPS on my folks?”

“Would it do any good?”

“It never has before.”

“I— Wait—what? You’re joking, right?”

“Sure….” Lisa trails off and fidgets with her skirt, pulling her sweater tightly around her. “So, Jake, you like scary stories, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Know any good ones?”

“Sure. Lots. There’s this whole collection—I’ve got it in my—”

“Want to tell me one?”

“Um… what?”

“Want to tell me a scary story? Go on—it’ll be fun.”

“What, like make one up?”

“If you like.”

“I’m not sure I can. It’s one thing to read them, but coming up with stories is pretty hard. I’ve tried, and everything I write just comes out flat.”

“Don’t stress about it. You can tell me any one you like. It doesn’t have to be original or anything. I’m not looking for a masterpiece here.”

“I dunno….”

“Yeah. C’mon, Jake, just let me curl up next to you and tell me a story.”

“Jeez! You’re cold!”

“Freezing. Want to feel my hands?”

“Hell no. I—what are you doing?”

“I could just warm them up a little….” Lisa reaches over shoves both of her hands up the back of Jake’s loose tee-shirt.

“Ah! Jeezus! Your fingers are like ice!”

“Tell me a story and I’ll take my hands out of your shirt.”

“Okay, okay. Let me think. Sheesh. That’s better. Come here—let me warm you up in a way that won’t cause frostbite.”

“My hero.”

“How the hell are you so cold? It’s got to be at least seventy five, maybe closer to eighty still.”

“I’m little. Little girls get cold easily. Haven’t you ever had a girlfriend, Jake?”

“I— Uh— Sure I have, but…”

“You’re blushing. You know you’re blushing, right? So, you’ve never had a girlfriend? A boyfriend then? That’s cool.”

“What? No. I mean, yes. I mean, yes, I’ve had girlfriends.”

“You have one now?”

“No. Not for a bit.”

“Not for a bit?”

“Things ended kind of messy. Things always seem to end up getting messy.”

“Not that I’m keeping score or anything, but right now it seems that you lack character, aren’t terribly quick, and are a bit of a heartbreaker. Don’t have much going for you, now do you?

“I’m honest?”

“You know what I think?”

“What?”

“I think you’re stalling. Weren’t you about to tell me a story?”

“Busted. Okay—let me think….”

“Oh, just pick your favorite.”

“I don’t have a favorite.”

“Fine. Then tell me the first stupid campfire story that pops into your head.”

“Okay. Maybe… aw, no, that one’s really lame.”

“Which one’s really lame?”

“The Lady in White.” Lisa stares blankly at Jake until he continues, “It’s a classic. I’m sure you’ve heard some version of it dozens of times by now.”

“Probably, but the story’s not the important part—it’s the way you tell it that matters.”

“Okay, here goes. It was a dark and stormy night—”

“Seriously?”

“Hush now. Do you want me to tell you a story or not.”

“Go on.”

“Fine. It was a clear night like any other when Eddie set out on the road. He’d gotten in a fight with his girlfriend and just decided to go for a drive. He rode along over the rolling hills around Ashville, listening classic rock ‘n’ roll on the radio in his ’74 mustang, drinking cheap beer and tossing the empties at speed limit signs. You know, the quintessential pastime of southern boys who are almost legally old enough to drink.

Anyway, he’s cruising along, when up ahead he sees this girl walking along the side of the road. In the moonlight, her white dress practically makes her glow. He can’t take his eyes off of her, and before he knows what he’s doing, he pulls over.”

“Oh, I definitely know this one. It’s a good one though. Please, go on.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence. Where was I?”

“Your guy just pulled over to pick up the mysterious woman on the side of the road.”

“That’s right. Okay, so he pulls over to the side of the road and asks her if she needs a lift. She looks over at him and just shivers for a moment, but she doesn’t say a word. So, Eddie gets out of the car, opens up the passenger door, and the girl gets in.

‘Where am I taking you?’ Eddie asks, but the girl just stares straight ahead and points a long white finger tipped with a wine-red nail into the horizon. ‘Not much of a talker, huh?’ He says, ‘No wonder—you look like you’re freezing. Here, take my jacket.” Eddie slips out of his jacket and drapes it over her shoulders. She still says nothing, but pulls the jacket close with hands visibly stiff from the cold.

Eddie punches up the heat, and, since he has no better ideas, starts driving. They’re on a long stretch of road that’s fairly straight and only a little hilly. Despite the clear night, a thick white mist starts to settle into the troughs between the rolling hills, and the car bobs like a cork on a sea of fog. Between a haze of cheap beer and the late hour, Eddie finds himself zoning out, so he tries to strike up a conversation again.

‘I’m Eddie, by the way,’ He says. The girl says nothing. ‘Sure am glad I picked you up—this is not a safe stretch of road, and I don’t normally drive around out here. In fact, if I remember right, there was a pretty bad wreck not too far down the road. Musta been just a few years back. Yup—sure is a good thing I came along when I did.”

To his surprise, the girl kicks one of the empties in the passenger foot well and gives him a wry smile.

‘You sure you’re okay to drive, Eddie?’ She asks, ‘You seem pretty blitzed to me.’

‘I’m good,’ he says, ‘So, you can talk. Cool. What’s your name?’

‘Tina. Tina-May Harris.’

‘Tina Harris…. Harris…. That name sounds familiar. Do I know you?’

‘Probably not.’

‘Well, Tina, what’s a girl like you doing out here on a night like this?’ Eddie asks, shaking off the strange familiar feeling and pushing back the drowsiness of his dying buzz.

‘Oh, you know how it goes. Me and my boyfriend Will got into it back aways. He wanted to take things a bit too far, I said no, he got hacked and said I could get out and walk if I wanted to. So I did.’

‘Wow. What a dip.’

‘Boys are like that.’

‘Some are.’

There’s a long silence as they drift down a steep hill into the fog. It’s thicker here, so Eddie kills the high beams and slows down. After a moment he asks, ‘So, assuming we make it through this soup, where am I taking you?’

Tina’s voice seems to come from a mile away, and she says, ‘It’s not too far.’

Eddie looks over at her, but the thick mist has seeped into the car, and he can barely make out the girl next to him anymore. ‘That’s good,’ he says, a little disquieted, ‘Because we’re going to have to take it real slow if we want to stay on the road.’

It’s becoming harder to concentrate, and even the dangerous fog isn’t enough to keep Eddie alert. He gets that funny familiar feeling again when Tina’s distant voice says, ‘Oh, we’ll be there before you know it….’

Her voice is so faint and distant now—it’s like someone’s turning down the volume on the radio. Straining as hard as he can, Eddie can just make out the words. ‘Kroemer bridge is just up ahead, and after that….’

But that’s it, and just as he realizes he can’t hear Tina’s voice at all anymore, the mist grows so thick that Eddie has to pull off onto the shoulder. He tries to speak, but his mouth feels full of cotton balls, so he closes his eyes for just a moment….

When Eddie wakes up, he’s all alone in his car. Dawn is just starting to break in his rearview mirror, and the mist has begun to clear up. He’s surprised to discover that he’d pulled off right under the old bridge. He shivers for a while before realizing that his jacket disappeared along with the girl. ‘Oh well,’ he thinks out loud, ‘I guess she needed it more than I did.’

To his delight, however, the Mustang’s engine turns over right away, and the heater starts pushing out warm air in just a few minutes. As he begins to pull out, a bright red coupé comes flying down the road in the opposite direction. Eddie slams on the breaks and lurches forward in his seat. When he settles back down, his eyes come to rest on a faded wooden cross on the side of the road, half hidden under a sprawl of curious white flowers with pointed wine-red leaves.

He can’t quite make out the weatherworn lettering on the cross—maybe that’s an H or a T, but he’s not sure. It isn’t until he’s halfway back to town that he starts to piece it all together: the familiar name, that lonely stretch of highway, the bridge, the story about the bad wreck, and, of course, the disappearing girl.

His mind is still reeling by the time he arrives home and finds the front door locked. No one’s up yet, and it suddenly occurs to him that his house key was in his jacket pocket. For a moment, he contemplates hammering on the door, but it’s still early on a Saturday. Rather than wake up the whole house, and with nothing better so do, Eddie gets back in his car and drives out to the cemetery to see if he can find the graves of the kids who died that night.

He’s just rounding the bend in the footpath that will take him to the first grave, when a sinking feeling comes over him. The grave comes into view, and there on the—”

Lisa breaks in with an over-dramatic tone, “There on the grave is Eddie’s missing jacket!”

Jake gives her a long, narrow-eyed look, and Lisa looks vaguely sheepish. Chidingly, he says, “I thought you said it was all about how you tell the story.”

“I’m sorry.”

“May I finish?”

“Um… yeah. Sure. Go right ahead.”

“There, on the headstone, he sees his own name, ‘Edward J Mason, 1959–1978.'”

“Oh! Nice! I like that.”

“It’s called—”

“A reversal,” they both say together. “I know that!” they also say in unison, followed by “Jinx!” They grin at each other and begin to chuckle.

“I love twist endings like that, don’t you?”

“Oh course!”

“They’re almost as good as the kind where you think one of the characters is harmless, but—”

“—they turn out to be a horrible fiend—”

“—who’s lured a poor innocent victim into certain doom.”

The silence that follows is oddly tense, but it dissolves as a low, incongruously sinister chuckle fills the air. The shadows deepen, greedily sucking in the silvery moonlight, which throws the world into stark contrasts, rather than providing any meaningful illumination.

“Why… why are you laughing like that?”

“Because it’s kinda funny.”

“What? What’s kinda funny?”

“Well, it just occurred to me… I never did get to ask you which you’re better at.”

“I— I— I don’t know what you mean.”

“Are you better at running toward something, or are you better at running away?”

“I— That’s… that’s not funny….”

“Let’s find out.”


Author’s Note

With the exception of a few minor additions and part of the rewrite stage, I drafted this entire story in two and a half sessions over a single weekend. It began with a few lines of dialog that unexpectedly jumped into my head on a Friday evening as I was cooking dinner. I was so taken off guard by this bolt from the blue, that I immediately ran to my computer to jot them down, completely forgetting to turn the burner off (or even down). After those first couple of sentences, the rest of the story broke through the dam and flooded into my mind and I consigned my eggplant and zucchini to the gods as a burnt offering.

I hovered over my desk, typing furiously for about an hour lest I forget any important details, only pausing to water the blackened mess on the stove when the house filled with smoke. Most of that evening is still a blur. I know that eventually, I transferred my laptop and my attached self to bed, where I wrote until I passed out. When I awoke the next day, most of the story was sitting there, waiting for the last few paragraphs and some much needed refinement.

I found are many things about this experience novel. For starters, while I’ve had many manic bursts of creativity, they’ve never successfully centered around creative writing. I hear this happens to other writers a lot, so I’ve always felt disappointed that I, as an actual professional writer, haven’t enjoyed this phenomenon. In fact, one of the reasons I haven’t been terribly prolific up to now is that, I’m terribly dyslexic, and though I spend most of every day writing for work, every word I lay down often still feels like another step as I perpetually trudge up a snowy hillside.

The second novel—or at least humorous—part of writing “How to Tell Scary Stories” is that I didn’t outline it. Frankly, I never had the time. I initially wrote the entire thing as pure dialog (something I tried to perserve as far as I could), which meant there really wasn’t that much plot to outline, outside of the part where Jake tells “The Lady in White.” Nonetheless, I would have normally outlined a story like this, had I not been concerned about interrupting my creative flow.

Ironically, I’m in the process of writing another short story as part of a challenge in which I’m not allowed to outline—a restriction which, in that instance, I’ve found exceedingly difficult. While “How to Tell Scary Stories” is certainly no masterpiece, I am at least marginally happy with it. I wonder how the story I currently think of as “Time and Tide” will turn out.


One last thing: at the time I’m writing this author’s note, “How to Tell Scary Stories” still hasn’t been proofread. I’m sure there are numerous small errors. I appreciate your forgiveness, as I’ve found I’m not terribly good at proofing my own work.