This was a multi-purpose story, for the FFF challenge, as well as to be submitted this story to a short story contest, run by NYCMidnight. The submission deadline was last Saturday, at midnight, but I had to wait for their official "got it okay" before I posted online. There are three rounds, with authors assigned to sub-groups/heats in each one, sharing a genre/subject/character with your fellow authors. We had 2500 words in eight days, then some will progress to 2000 words in three days in April, then it's 1500 words in 24 hours in May. We get feedback at each stage, and there are lots of prizes at the end.
For this round I got Ghost Story, Donation, Child Psychologist. It was fun, but a challenge to ensure I kept my focus on those three elements. My story is below. Feedback welcome.
The Lost Boys
Sharon was stuck in court, again.
Since her graduation two years ago, most of her days found her in a courtroom. As the newest child psychologist at the clinic, it was up to her to present her colleagues’ decisions to the court. She felt like little more than a messenger. Her role was to pass on their label of a youth at risk, or their recommendation in a custody battle. Sharon’s own interactions with youth were usually late in the process, while sitting in on a police interview, rather than working out in the field.
Her phone vibrated with an email from her husband. Dan was immersed in real estate, out all day and most evenings, seven days a week.
“Hi Shar,” she read. “Big coup for me. The old Johnston estate will finally get donated to the city. The trustees get their tax receipt, and I still get a commission. I’m checking the house out again tonight. Oh, and sorry to hear about yet another bad day—remember my offer.”
That deal would definitely be a coup. The estate featured an old rambling house, set on a large overgrown lot. Abandoned years ago, the house had roots back to the city’s founders. There was a lot of petty crime in the area, though, thefts and vandalism, blamed for the most part on youth gangs. The hope was that once the city restored the estate as a historical site, and cleaned up the neighbourhood, those gangs would somehow disappear. Sarah Sharon had her doubts. As for his offer, Dan had done extremely well this year. He could probably afford to support both of them. She appreciated his intent, but being home was not an option she was interested in. No tennis courts or shopping trips for her. For all its annoyances, she did like her work. She sighed. She felt bad for the kids she saw. Social services needed to get to them before the courts did.
“Sounds great, hun,” she wrote. “I’ll keep supper hot. Don’t be too late.”
She‘d assumed that he would be, again, but when she got home, Dan was already there, pacing back and forth.
“What’s wrong hun,” she said. “Sit down, you’ll wear out the carpet. How was the house?”
He sat, but then bounced right back up.
“The house was fine,” he said. “It’s what was in it. Or who.”
“Squatters?” she said. “There are some homeless kids in the area.”
“Sort of,” he said. “This will sound crazy, but there was a kid there. Thing is, he was a ghost.”
Her first reaction was to hoot with laughter, but as she wiped the tears from her eyes, she could see that he was serious. He‘d seen one small child, in a corner, staring at him. Definitely a ghost.
“I could see right through it. Scared the shit out of me. I turned and ran. But it’s there. The city will definitely not want a haunted house.”
Sharon finally managed to calm him down. He was willing to consider that maybe, after yet another long day, and too many coffees, he’d imagined it all.
“Go back tomorrow morning, hun, and in the light of day it will be nothing more than an old house. And a very nice commission. Maybe we can even take a vacation.”
She was at the office the next day, browsing through travel sites, when Dan called.
“It’s still here,” he said. “Not in my imagination. I think it wants to talk.”
He definitely needed a break. She suggested that he open all the doors and windows, air the place out, sit on the wide veranda, and relax for once. Preferably without a coffee.
Once again, Dan was waiting when she got home. He was a bit calmer than yesterday, but still not smiling.
“How did the rest of the day go,” she asked.
He’d taken her advice, aired the place out, and done a tour of the gardens, such as they were.
“It’s all quite overgrown, but you can see where some kids have been camping out, in some rough lean-to’s. I saw a few of them in back, running between the trees, but they disappeared, like feral cats. And when I went in later to close up the house, the ghost was still there. Jeez Shar, the city wants to send over some inspectors before they accept the donation, but they won’t want a haunted house. I need to stall them until we fix this. Otherwise, there goes my commission, and there go my brownie points with the mayor.”
Dan was still adamant that the ghost existed. He’d even talked to it, or at least tried to. The ghost, child sized, had seemed agitated. It kept repeating that it needed help with something before it could leave. And it was cold.
“But I’m not good with kids,” Dan said. “It just gets upset and cries. Loudly. But you . . . “
It took some persuading, but she finally agreed to go with him to see whatever he thought was there.
She shivered as they walked in. “Wow, this place really cooled down overnight.” She looked around. “Okay, where‘s your friend.”
“Wait,” said Dan. “He needs a few seconds to appear.”
The air shimmered, then solidified into a figure, that of a small boy. Maybe eight she thought. He was thin, and had a slight cough. He wore an older style of clothes: long pants, button-down shirt, and plain shoes. He had a pale face, under a tidy haircut. And not so solid, as she could see the couch right through him.
She smiled nervously. "Ah, hello little boy. What’s your name?”
“No name,” said the boy. “They said I was nobody. Mean men, all of them. Don’t let them get me!” He threw back his head, opened his mouth, and let out a wail that rattled the windows, the paintings, and even the inside of her head. Clapping her hands over her ears she ran out the door, with Dan close behind her.
“Holy crap, Dan. Does he always do that?”
“Pretty much. I tried to talk a few times yesterday. Usually it throws furniture around too. Maybe it had run-ins with the authorities at some point, before it was, you know, dead. But I think things went a little quieter this time. Perhaps it likes you. Do you think you could help, and at least get it to talk?”
“I suppose I could try,” she said. “He, not it, does seem to need help. My schedule is light for now, so I’ll squeeze in some hours here and there, and hope work doesn’t notice.”
It took a few visits, but Sharon made slow progress. Initially, it was like talking to an angry dog, using a calming voice, with no sudden movements. Dan poked around online and discovered that there had been a young boy living in the house, decades ago, named Timmie. Something had happened, though, as the family seemed to all have disappeared. Once she had a name, and some context to work in, things went better. Unfortunately, Timmie had little memory of his past.
She was trying, but Dan was getting impatient. As was the city.
“They keep nagging me about letting inspectors inside,” he said. “And there’s a developer that’s been sniffing around too. He wants to tear it all down and put in a condo and retail complex. It would mean a bigger commission for me, but I’m sort of getting to like the place. In spite of Timmie. Even the local gangs are behaving. Keep it up.”
She didn’t want to tell Dan, but the reduction in petty crimes was mostly thanks to Timmie. He had met some of those kids already, when they’d tried to sneak into the house, out of the rain and cold. But, since most were only a few years older than him, he’d been calmer with them, approaching them as a friend. They’d quickly accepted his existence and were grateful when he assured them they could shelter in his house whenever they wanted to. They’d managed to survive so far by stealing food, or small things that they could fence for cash. As for the vandalism, well, that had been more from boredom. Timmie promised to keep an eye out for the cops, to give his new friends time to sneak back into the woods if need be. They in turn promised to keep the house and its grounds relatively clean.
It took a while, but with his help Sharon finally convinced the boys to come in and join in their chats, as an informal group session. They were a rag-tag looking bunch, but clean. All were orphans, some intentionally, so her goal was to eventually get them into foster care. However, most of them had trust issues, especially after several years of confrontation with the police and the court system.
“Into care? No way,” said one of the older kids. “We have our cosy places in the woods, and Timmie‘s place here. We’re fine.”
She was pleased with her progress so far, though. Timmie was opening up a bit, hinting at what his issues might be. As for the rest of them, in a short time she’d managed to build up some solid connections, even establishing some unofficial case files on them. Her target was to wrap it up in a few weeks, as her supervisor back at the clinic was starting to question her time off.
Then Dan dropped a bomb. The city staff had tired of waiting and were ready to issue a demolition order. Effective in just a week.
“They can’t,” she said. “I need more time. What will I tell my kids?”
She debated whether to tell them at all, and then it was too late. Someone on staff told someone, and word spread. Once the news reached the kids, they gradually stopped coming. Every day there were a few less at a session. And then there were none.
“Timmie, can’t you ask them to come back?”
“They don’t want to,” he said. He coughed, and continued. “They say you’re like all the others. Talk, talk talk, then turn them in to the cops.”
“Oh, Timmie, I am trying,” she said. “But it takes time. Tell them to trust me.”
But even Timmie stopped talking to her. She missed her kids. It wasn’t only being able to help them, it was also the fun of working directly with kids for more than a quick interview, no matter how troubled they were. They were all basically good kids, and she’d grown attached to them. She and Dan had been trying for a year to start their own family, with no success yet. And now she’d failed these kids. The deadline was tomorrow. She might as well return to her old boring job and let the city do whatever with both the house and the local kids. Most would fit in somewhere. Her court docket for the next week was filling again so all around this would be the best for all. One of those win-win’s people liked.
When she called Dan to admit to him her decision he chuckled.
“Hold on, Shar. I was about to call you. I pulled a few strings and called in some favours. They gave me a one week delay on the demolition. Or more.”
“What do you mean by more.”
“Well, I can’t promise anything, but I decided to mention to the mayor that you were running an outreach program. Don’t worry, all off the record, he promised to keep it quiet. He seemed quite interested, so prepare yourself for a visit.”
Dan also had found out more about Timmie’s background. After his parents had been killed in a crash, he’d been shoved into a series of foster homes. He’d eventually died of pneumonia, two days after his eighth birthday.
Sharon was reluctant to burden the child with that news, but he did deserve to know what had happened. Hopefully, it would give him the closure that he was looking for. He seemed so sad at first that she wished she could hug him.
Timmie gave a little cough, then smiled. “Thanks, I feel better. I can leave now.”
“I am glad,” she said. “But don’t leave yet. Only a few days more. Would you find the other kids, and ask them to please give me one more week?” She wasn’t sure what she could do, but she wasn’t giving up.
The next day, all the kids trooped into the house, just in time for the mayor’s visit. Luckily, he didn’t arrive with a large entourage and scare them all off. It was only him and his driver. And even better, she was able to persuade Timmie to not show up.
The mayor was impressed with her progress, and even talked to the kids for a while—to them, not down to them. He left with a promise to ensure the police would help to ease the kids into the system, and surprised her with an offer to develop an outreach program for the city.
“I’ll have to run it by council,” he said. “But they should be okay. I do want to clean up the area, somehow. Let’s try your approach. I’m pretty sure your clinic will approve too. This would be on a contract business to them, with room for expansion. And with you as the prime, of course.”
“And the demolition?” she asked.
He waved a hand. “Cancelled.” he said. “The developer was looking for way too many concessions from the city. Plus, your husband pointed out some additional political advantages to sticking with the original plan. He has some good ideas.”
Once the mayor left, the kids all gathered around to hug Sharon. She had some paperwork to push through, but tomorrow they would collect their meager belongings and move on into the system. Luckily, this would be a process she would be able to steer, so it would serve them better. The last to approach her was Timmie.
“I guess I can go now, too,” he said. “Thanks. I’ll miss you .”
“I’ll miss you too, sweetie.” Her voice caught. “Thanks for all your help, you were a big boy.”
She could almost feel his hug goodbye. He smiled and touched her abdomen.
“Take care of this little boy here,” he said, as he slowly faded.