Short fiction: Dinosaur Ghost
With Halloween coming up, I thought it might be a good time for a ghost story. Those of you who’ve been hanging around here for awhile might recognize this one – I posted a very short, early draft of it almost two years ago. It’s been thoroughly overhauled since then and wound up being my WisCon reading this year.
The Cadwalladers drove nine hundred miles across sticky-hot July roads to move into a haunted house. Nathan, age nine, was the only one of them who noticed the ghost, because it was in his room. The first night there, he lay clutching the goodbye Build-A-Bear bear his friends had made him to his chest and staring out into his dark room. The ghost shuffled between cardboard boxes, its claws dragging ruts in the carpet and its low growl reverberating off the drywall of the development house.
“There’s a dinosaur ghost in my room,” he told his moms in the morning, as they unpacked boxes of knick-knacks for the mantle.
“There’s no such thing,” his mama said.
Nathan’s hand clenched on the arm of his goodbye bear. “I can hear it at night, all low and rumbly. The floor creaks when it breathes. I don’t think it wants us here.”
“Sweetie,” his mom said, sighing at a china teapot, “sometimes houses creak. You’ll get used to it.”
The house sat at the far end of the development, bordering on unfinished lots and overlooking a ravine that had split in the carefully leveled landscape. On the second night, a flash-flood tore through the area, washing strips of sod from their yard down into the ravine and flushing it out toward the river on the other end of the development. Nathan spent the night curled up with his back to the wall and his goodbye bear wedged between his knees, glaring out at his room by the glow of a flashlight. The dinosaur ghost paced from the rain-spattered window to the door, its tail upturning boxes that Nathan had refused to unpack.
“The dinosaur ghost gives me dreams,” Nathan told his mama the next morning over breakfast. “Last night I dreamed about the Cretaceous Era. There was mud between my toes, and when I ran, the trees moved for me like traffic making way for a police car.”
“You know what I hear is popular with boys your age?” his mama said, frowning at her tablet. “Cowboys.”
That night, there was a cowboy-themed comforter and sheet set laid out neatly on his bed. Nathan frowned at it. A growl wheezed through the room, like the sound his moms’ sedan used to make starting on cold mornings.
“I know,” Nathan said, hiding his face under the comforter. “It’s not my fault.”
The dinosaur ghost roared, rattling the windows and making Nathan’s chest hum. He hugged his goodbye bear tight.
When his moms brought home groceries, Nathan tried a peace offering: a bowl of chili. The dinosaur ghost didn’t get any quieter, and after three days on top of his dresser, the bowl of uneaten chili developed moldy speckles and a sour odor. Nathan’s mom instructed him to throw it out.
The dinosaur ghost followed him across his room whenever he was there – which he was all the time, because the options his moms had given him were “Go find some kids to play with in the neighborhood” or “Go play in your room.” So he held his goodbye bear in his lap and played video games while the dinosaur ghost grumbled and grunted at his ear.
“I don’t know what you want!” Nathan hissed.
The dinosaur ghost made a soft keening sound and thumped onto the floor beside him. From downstairs, his mother yelled at him to stop jumping around.
Nathan tried reading to the dinosaur ghost from his favorite books. A Light in the Attic elicited only grumbles. The dinosaur ghost began whining loud enough to hurt Nathan’s ears halfway through the third chapter of Harry Potter. They very nearly made it to the end of Where the Red Fern Grows, but once Nathan started crying, the dinosaur ghost did, too. Rain pattered down from a fresh crack in the ceiling, and Nathan carried a bucket upstairs on his head, using both hands to block out the sound of the dinosaur ghost wailing. He didn’t sleep at all that night, the dinosaur ghost’s head dipping his mattress morosely.
The internet got hooked up the week after they moved in. Nathan borrowed his mama’s laptop while she was at a job interview and spent two hours in the breakfast nook with a bag of Marshmallow Mateys, reading articles about ghosts. The internet said that ghosts were anchored in place by their remains. Nathan checked the email account his mom had set up for his friends back home to contact him – empty – and closed the browser window with a jab of his finger. When his mama got home, he asked to borrow her trowel.
“Going to venture outside, finally?” she said, ruffling his hair.
Nathan took up the trowel and his flashlight and slung his goodbye bear in a backpack over his shoulder. “I’m going to dig up the dinosaur ghost’s bones and move them,” he said.
His mama pursed her lips for a moment, then shrugged. “Be back for dinner.”
It had been drizzling all day, and the ground around the house’s foundation came away easily under the trowel and his hands. He dug for two hours along the shady side of the house and hit a pipe, a patch of limestone, and a large, cracked tooth. He tugged at the tooth, but the limestone held it firmly in place. The dinosaur ghost’s grumble vibrated the foundation.
“Fine!” he shouted up at his bedroom window. “I’ll dig you out from underneath!”
The ravine cut a dark line across the bottom of the yard, the bare patches where sod had been washed away now ribboned with mud and clay. Nathan marched up to the ravine and climbed over the lip of it, grabbing roots to lower himself down. On the third foothold, his sneakers slipped, sending him tumbling to the bottom on a slick of wet clay. He landed with a hard strike to his elbows and winced. It was dark down there, and a shallow stream trickled over his hands. He felt for his backpack and choked down a shrill sound when his hands found it empty. Turning on his flashlight, Nathan scanned the stream bed.
The beam of light caught on the ravine wall in front of him, and up in the house, the dinosaur ghost cried out mournfully.
Bones and bones. Old bones of all sizes and shapes protruding from the clay – the foot of a dinosaur, the shapes of ancient fish, the tails and pelvises and skulls and vertebrae of so many long-gone animals he’d seen in books. Dozens. Hundreds. The place had been a riverbed once.
The goodbye bear his friends had made for him sat in a muddied lump at the base of the wall. Nathan hugged it sopping to his chest, his eyes roaming the wall of bones.
When he climbed out of the ravine, his backpack sagged with bits of bone and company for the dinosaur ghost followed with him.