The writing prompt:
You’re on a long auto trip, heading down to see Aunt Mabel in Panama City, Florida. It’s been a long, hard drive down I65, but you’re halfway through Alabama now, and in the home stretch. About this time, steam erupts from under the hood and there’s also a terrific howling sound coming from the engine. Some hours later, you find yourself in Clanton, Alabama, checking in to a ‘low rent’ hotel to wait out the repairs. You collapse into bed and pass out. Later in the night, you awaken suddenly, and you’re confused at first – strange room, strange bed…. and, what woke you up? As you sit in the bed, gathering your thoughts, you hear the sobs of a little girl, accompanied by the low growls of an animal. You rush to the window, look outside. The street light has everything illuminated, but there is nothing to see. You quickly check outside your door in the hallway – nothing. The sobs start again, seeming to come from inside the wall by the door. What’s going on here?
A Night in Clanton, Alabama
In the morning light, it seems that this was all just a dream, perhaps bordering on a nightmare, although there was no feeling of fear during the episode. Even so, I wonder, “Is this place haunted? How old is the building, anyway? What’s its history?”
So, a hike to the library is in order. But, I certainly have the time – it’ll be three days before the car is repaired, so why not? After a quick chat with the librarian, I wind up with one big reference book that just might cast some light on this – “A History of Clanton, Alabama, Including its Ghost Stories”.
Well, this was going to be easy. Unsettling, perhaps, but easy. But, after an hour of reading, nothing has turned up about the building itself, since it is only twenty-eight years old, and the book doesn’t say what was on this site before the building went up. Maybe time to stroll the neighborhood.
Fortunately, Clanton is not that big a place, which is fortunate, since the car is still up on the rack down at the service station. Nice day for a walk, so off I go. It’s a quiet neighborhood, with the storybook white picket fences, roses twisting around arbors, wisteria in glorious bloom, and a few folks sitting on porches, or getting in some yard work.
As I slowly walk along, wishing for a stick to run along the pickets, I wave at a few folks, speak to a couple more, just pleasantries. Then, I catch sight of an older denizen of Clanton – a spry old lady coming down the sidewalk toward me, almost creating a wake as she barrels my way. I step aside as she nears, then say, “Pardon me, but have you lived in this area long?”
She pulled up short, peering at me suspiciously, then asks, “Why’d ya wanna know?”
“So sorry, ma’am, I was just being friendly, and was looking for a little local history information. You looked like one of those friendly locals, so I thought I’d risk it.”
Her face relaxed a little, but her sharp eyes still had me pinned. “Humphhh, what kinda information, anyway? Are you sniffing out the dirt on my friends? If so, you can fergit it, Bub! I ain’t a gossip, no siree!”
I try again. “No ma’am, nothing like that. I was just wondering if you remember any stories from long ago, maybe about a missing child that never showed up, that kinda thing. No names required, if you’d prefer. I just had one of those ‘haunting’ experiences down at the hotel, and was trying to see what I could find out.”
Now a smile actually began to form on her deeply lined face. “Well, why didn’t you say so at the start? Come on down here to my place – we’ll set out on the porch with some iced tea and swap tales, whaddya think? It’s right over there, number 425.”
A little while later, after introductions and the pouring of iced tea, I sat on a comfortable chair on Lettie Ferguson’s big front porch. We were both apparently having just tea, but it’s just possible she slipped some peach schnapps in there, because it was very pleasant tea, indeed! After she had quickly guzzled a large glass of tea and poured herself another, she became quite garrulous, indeed!
Lettie continued, “Yep, it was back in ’27, I think, that one of the local chilluns went out to play, maybe wandered off into the woods, and just flat never came back. She had her big ole dog with her, so we always thought that she was protected, but whatever happened, that dog just couldn’t save the day. Nope, Agnes Murphy stayed gone. The state troopers came, there were lots of volunteers in the search party, too, but nothing ever came of it. No bits of clothing, nuttin’ at all.”
I pressed a little bit, and asked, “And there were no suspicions raised, no rumors of strangers in town, hobos in the woods, anything like that? Strange that she should just evaporate like that.”
Lettie took another long pull on her tea, eying the pitcher for her next refill. “Sorry, that’s all that ever came of it. I wish I had more, but I guess that’s about all. I’ve enjoyed our little chat, would you like to stay for dinner?”
I apologized, making up an excuse about important phone calls to be made, then thanked her and went back to the main part of town, looking for a newspaper office. No luck on that quest, so I went back to the library and pestered the lady about back copies of area papers. Bingo! They had microfilms of old papers that went clear back to the early 1900’s. I requested 1927 and then settled in at the viewer station with the spool of microfilm.
After an hour or so, I had found the news item about the missing child and the subsequent uproar and numerous search parties. After a few weeks, the stories dwindled away, since there were no new facts in the case. It was as Lettie had said, the girl wandered off, big dog in tow, and was never seen again.
Next morning, I decided to take a walk in the woods. I knew it had already been combed time and again, but it was something to kill the hours while I waited on the service mechanic to apply the defibrillator, or whatever they do.
I walked slowly along, eyes and ears attuned to try to find something that might bring the little girl from out of the darkness. I don’t know how many hours I wandered the forest trails, nibbling on my sandwiches and sipping my water, but it was a cool day and the hiking felt good. I found a wide spot on one of the trails and sat down on a big flat rock and brought out my water bottle again as I took a breather.
I was aware that the forest had become very, very quiet – no bird sounds, no droning insects, even the noises of the breeze were stilled. I lay down on the big rock and closed my eyes for a bit, then fell fast asleep. As I slept, I dreamed of little Agnes and her big, faithful dog. I had one dream sequence where she crept up to me and tapped me lightly on the shoulder and whispered to me, “I’m here. Don’t give up. Listen for Rex, he’ll point the way.”
I jerked awake, sitting straight up on the rock. I don’t know how long I had been there, but the quiet remained. I strained my senses, hoping to see or hear something. I was about to pack it in and head back to the hotel when I heard the faint noise of a large canine, either dog or wolf, making whimpering noises. I slowly rotated my head, trying to pinpoint the location of the sounds. The animal was somewhere directly off to my left, so I stood quietly and walked slowly in that direction, senses still highly tuned. I walked about a hundred yards, still hearing the whimpering noises from time to time, then came across a large tree with a tangled outgrowth of roots at its base, looking almost like a cage at the bottom of the massive tree. I leaned into the darkness, finally having to use my flashlight, and was able to make out the form of a small child’s skeleton, and nearby the skeleton of a good-sized dog, with one of its legs placed over the child in a protective pose. The whimpering sounds had ceased as I approached the tree base. I guess the faithful spirit of the dog had done its job, led me there, and then was able to finally still its voice.
A week or so later, Lettie called me to pass along the thanks of the townspeople, and to let me know that a special marker would be placed in the town cemetery that recounted the story of Agnes’ disappearance and eventual discovery. Rex would receive full credit in the story.