Black Pepper (WIP)
Posted on September 24, 2011
When my sister and I were children, we were absolutely convinced we were being haunted by a ghost. She didn’t even look like a ghost, not when we first met her, but somehow, we just knew. She began as a mere shadow. On the bedroom floor of our vast, two-story New England home, there she appeared one day, a simple, small, rectangular shadow. But she was very unlike the other shadows that lived in our house. She didn’t seem to move or change the way they did as they followed the progression of the sun. She didn’t even budge when the shades were drawn and the overhead light flickered on. No matter where the light source came from, there she was, a small, simple, dark rectangle of a shadow lying on the floor. She was even there when it seemed to our young little brains that she oughtn’t to have been there at all, not if she was a real shadow. That’s how we knew she was a ghost. We called her Black Pepper – “Black”, because she was black, and “Pepper”, well, because pepper seemed to be the only other thing we could think of that was also black. We couldn’t have been more than three and four at the time.
Black Pepper lived with us for about a year. Then my dad was discharged from the navy and decided it was time for us all to move back to the place where he and my mom grew up. So in the middle of winter, right after the blizzard of ’87, that’s exactly what we did. We packed up everything we couldn’t sell and moved straight down to Florida. And you can be sure there was no way my sister and I were going to pack Black Pepper up and take her with us. No, we said goodbye to our little ghost and left her right where she was. And that was the last we ever thought of her.
But things have a way of coming ’round again when they’re least expected. My parents grew up in a small town called Ocala, and both my mom’s parents as well as my dad’s dad lived there still. We settled down in an even smaller town close by, and every weekend, to Ocala we went. My sister and I didn’t know it at the time, but Ocala had a secret. A very dark secret, though not a very old one. All we knew then was that Ocala was where Memere and Pepere and Granddad lived. And for us, that was all that mattered.
That first year, we spent most of our time visiting Granddad. It was important that we did, because Granddad was dying. He was an alcoholic, you see, and his liver was failing, though all that was kept from us. Many things were kept from us in those days. I never understood why his bed was mostly plastic and had rails and why he never seemed to get out of it when we visited. I never knew what all those machines behind him with the glowing lights and the beeping sounds did exactly, or why so many tubes connected themselves to him. I just knew that he was the sweetest man in the entire world, and I loved his smile, and I loved his jokes, and I really loved him. He didn’t have very much time left in the world, but he was the only one in the world that seemed to have any time for me. Many a bright, sunlit, warm afternoon, I would sit at his bedside and tell him stories. He would listen, and he would smile, and he would laugh and ask me to tell him more. He would let me play with the controls that moved his strange, plastic, railed bed up and down. He would let me hold his hand as I prattled on nonsensically in my little girl way. And bit by bit, he faded away until he was just a shadow. Then he faded until he wasn’t even a shadow, not even a simple, small rectangle of a shadow on the floor. Then he was nothing at all. I was only five when he died.
A couple years passed. Then she returned. I don’t know how she found us, but Black Pepper came home. Only, she wasn’t a little rectangular shadow on the floor anymore. No, my sister and I had grown, and so had she somehow. Now she was a lithe little woman who wore a bun in her hair. Except she wasn’t quite a woman. Despite the maturity the bun seemed to impart, her stature and figure more closely resembled those of a younger girl. Yes, our Black Pepper was only about twelve years old.
She didn’t come into the house anymore. She didn’t sit still anymore, either. In fact, she didn’t resemble the old Black Pepper in any way other than being comprised of a shadow, yet we knew it was her, all right. Her presence felt the same. Sometimes we saw her walk briskly by one of our bedroom windows, then disappear without a trace. Other times we saw her briefly in the garden. She moved so smoothly, so gracefully – she could have been a dancer. Normally she remained for only a few seconds. We’d see her, blink, and then she’d be gone.
But one day she stayed a little longer. We chanced to look out the window, and there she was, in the garden. Something was wrong. She never looked toward us. She just crouched behind the blueberry bush, ducking as low as she could, trying to see around it without being seen. She seemed nervous, perhaps scared. What on earth could possibly scare someone who was already dead? I wondered to myself. She had never stayed around this long, and I found myself suddenly unnerved. I quickly closed the shade overlooking the garden, heart pounding palpably in my chest. By the time I ventured to raise it again, Black Pepper had already vanished. Not once did I wonder to myself who she was hiding from. I never would have found out, anyway.
Because that was the year I learned Ocala had a secret. A very dark secret, though not a very old one. Somewhere beneath its soil, a girl was buried, though no one ever knew where. She was the youngest of five children. Her name was Dorothy, but everyone who loved her called her Dee. She was a dancer. And she was only twelve years old.
It happened in the summer of ’76. Dorothy and her mom left on a very normal day to run some very normal errands. While her mother sat to take a driving test, Dorothy begged to be allowed to shop nearby for a wristwatch for her only brother. He was about to turn fifteen. After much pleading, her mother reluctantly agreed and they designated a meeting time and place. Then off Dorothy went. Her mother never saw her again.
When she failed to turn up at the designated time and place, her mom contacted the police. They searched the mall for Dorothy, but the only thing they ever found was a brand new wristwatch lying on the ground. A couple convenience store clerks reported seeing someone matching her description that day and the day after – with one man by one account, with two men by another, and in both shaking and terrified. The police conducted their mandatory investigation, but somehow, they never seemed to put as many resources into it as they should have, certainly not as many as they put into lesser cases. Dorothy’s father started drinking. Years went by. One by one her older siblings married and moved away. No answers ever came. Her father’s alcoholism worsened. When Dorothy’s older brother enlisted in the navy and married, her mother divorced her father, only to marry another alcoholic a short time later. More years passed. Still no answers came. The police had long given up, relegating her demise to the realm of cold cases – odd for a jurisdiction priding itself on its unusually low number of unsolved murders. Torn between wanting to believe she was still alive after all this time and yet realistically fearing the worst, Dorothy’s family kept quiet, talking in hushed whispers here and there but making up stories when their children were around so the new generation wouldn’t feel frightened. Only Dorothy’s father seemed to continue the search. But then his liver gave out, and he passed on. Twelve years later, Dorothy was no more than an age-progressed photo and quick audio blurb at the end of “America’s Most Wanted”. And the memory of a shadow from years ago in the minds of two not-so-young-anymore girls.
I never saw Black Pepper after that day in the garden. Whatever message she was trying to tell us, whatever happened, whomever she was hiding from remained utterly lost to me. It seemed once we knew who she was, she no longer felt the need to come round. Perhaps she just needed someone to know – know for certain that she wasn’t coming back, not ever. That the woman in the age-progressed photo was never going to stride into a room, smiling, as she reunited herself with her long-grieving family. That somewhere in Ocala all those years ago, a terrified shadow had gotten separated from its body, and that body was going to remain buried forever.
Why would she choose us, you might wonder. Why choose two little girls who didn’t even exist the summer those horrific events happened? Well, the answer is simple. Because Dorothy wasn’t just anybody. She was my dad’s youngest sister. He was nearly fifteen, and all she wanted to do was buy him a birthday present. And she died for it.
When my sister and I were still young children, we mentioned Black Pepper to my grandmom. She was driving – she had passed the test that fateful day, afterall – and my sister ventured to mention the shadow of the girl with the bun in her hair. I’ll never forget how my devout Catholic grandmother smiled as she peered at us through the rearview mirror. It was the Virgin Mary appearing to us in disguise, so Grandmom told us, and how lucky we were that She was granting us her special protection. My sister and I said no more after that. Neither of us had the heart to tell Grandmom the apparition’s real identity. Perhaps it was true Aunt Dee had sought us out to ensure us protection for a time against sharing her fate. But there’s many a time I couldn’t help but wonder who was protecting her that dreadful day in Ocala, all those years ago.
Last edited by Visual Lullaby on September 25, 2011, 11:55 am