On this last Throwback Thursday of the haunted month of October, I’m giving you arguably one of the scariest stories I’ve ever written. “Murky Waters” was originally featured on Latashia Figueroa’s blog for Halloween 2015. Check it out here.
Ever thought about what makes a great ghost story? Well, I think it all starts with a visually haunting image and a very distinct setting. This story takes place in Burgaw, North Carolina, by Burgaw Creek, which often spits up more than just water whenever it rains . . .
Uncle Macon had been dead a year when Aunt Bessie saw bodies rise from Burgaw Creek. Her ankles rolled as she turned to run, and she fainted behind the house. Bedsheets clipped to the clothesline sailed in the wind gusts, sheltered her from the drizzling rain. Or so, that was what she had told us.
Mama and I drove three hours to Burgaw to check on her. When we arrived, the toilet was backed-up, the water shut off.
“We had a really bad storm come through last night. You know Burgaw Creek floods every time it rains,” Aunt Bessie said. I squirmed in my chair at the kitchen table, squeezing my inner thighs together as warm urine bled through my jeans.
“How have you been using the bathroom?” Mama asked.
“I been makin’ do,” Aunt Bessie said, which meant she hadn’t been flushing. Two days of Aunt Bessie’s waste clogging the commode with what was buried in Burgaw Creek—natural or supernatural—caused the bile to rise at the back of my throat. I feared that if I sat to pee, a hand would reach up from the feces and mud, pull me under. There was no place outside for me to relieve myself. The backyard was flooded from the creek. The treeless front yard faced highway 53, where peeping Tom truck drivers could catch a passing glimpse of me naked from the waist down as I squatted in the overgrown grass.
Before the highway was built, the area had been farmland. Uncle Macon’s father grew corn, green beans, okra, snap peas, turnips, and potatoes. He also had a few animals—chicken, cows, pigs. He didn’t budge when the government came to buy his land. He refused to sale the home he had built with his own hands. However, the pressure and money was too great for his poor family, and the government eventually plowed the road down the center, dividing the farm, separating the animals and crops. It was difficult to tend to the other side with a two lane highway standing as barrier. The weeds grew up over the front porch of the old farmhouse, concealing the lost rural era from mass consumerism.
We checked into a hotel in Wilmington, and Mama called the plumber, who promised to pump the septic tank the following afternoon. I was thrilled that we didn’t have to stay at Aunt Bessie’s. Burgaw was hot. It was only a thirty-minute drive from Wilmington, but the temperature differential was easily fifteen degrees. Wilmington had the breeze from the ocean, but Burgaw was situated in a pocket of humidity. With the backed-up sewage in Aunt Bessie’s yard, it made for a sweltering stay.
“How are you doing, Aunt Bessie,” Mama asked after we had settled into the room, turned the television to channel three so Aunt Bessie could watch Eyewitness News.
“I been alright,” she said, dragging out her vowels with her nasal voice. “Wish you’d come see me more often.”
“You know I have to work. And Cassandra’s still in school.”
“You ain’t graduate yet?” Aunt Bessie asked looking in my direction.
“In May,” I said. “Gotta study for exams so I can pass.” I sat in the armchair by the window, reading Toni Morison’s Paradise. I had reached the haunting final chapter after the elder men of Ruby lay siege on the Convent, gunning down all of the women, only to discover their bodies vanished hours later.
Aunt Bessie pulled a slim red photo album with black trimming from her oversized pocketbook. “I finally got the pictures from Macon’s funeral developed,” she said, flipping through the pages. “They did really good with the flowers.” She turned the album to Mama, pointed to a picture of Uncle Macon in the casket. “That’s his favorite suit. I made sure to have it dry cleaned before the wake.” Aunt Bessie brought her fist to her mouth, coughed into the tissue to camouflage her voice cracking as she spoke of her deceased husband.
Mama jerked her head away. She pressed her lips together into a thin line, pinched her eyes closed, a single tear gliding down each cheek.
“What can you tell me about the people you saw in the creek?” Mama asked, switching to a different, though no less disturbing subject.
“I saw them through the sheets, just standing there. You know, Macon used to see people around the house. I just thought it was his sickness, but now I see them too.”
“Did they look scary?” I asked.
“No, just lonely.” She didn’t say anything else, and we didn’t badger her for more details. After Uncle Macon died, Aunt Bessie shocked everyone when she asked to be taken home instead of spending the next few days at a friend or family member’s house. She’d said that she had to get used to living by herself; that if she left, she wouldn’t be able to come back.
The heat hadn’t yet arrived when we returned to Burgaw late the next morning, the dew still on the grass in the front lawn.
“Who cuts your grass, Aunt Bessie?” Mama asked, looking at the tall blades.
“I have someone come and do it,” Aunt Bessie answered.
“Well, whoever that is, you need to call them. You don’t want to worry about snakes.”
We waited in the kitchen while the plumber worked on the septic tank. Aunt Bessie stood in front of the window overlooking the backyard and Burgaw Creek.
“I hope it don’t come up a thunder cloud,” she said. I straightened in my chair, looked up over her shoulders through the window, seeing nothing but blue sky.
Mama touched her at her shoulders, guided her to the kitchen table. “Why don’t you sit,” she said softly. “I’ll check on the plumber.” She eased Aunt Bessie down into her chair and left out of the back door.
The kitchen was silent save for the ticking of the clock on the wall. Aunt Bessie sniffled, wiped her dry nose with her knuckle. “Sometimes Macon comes to visit me.”
Unsure if she was recounting pleasant memories of Uncle Macon alive or if she had actually seen his spirit, I asked, “What do you mean?”
“Sometimes I would be in the den watching TV, and I’d hear him coming down the hall.”
The wooden floorboards creaked behind me. The sound of boot heels approached the kitchen from the front bedroom, echoing through the hall.
“He’d come to the door and say, ‘It’s gettin’ late, Bess. Cut off that TV and come on to bed.’ ” She smiled and looked at something over my head. The hairs on my neck pricked up. I sat frozen in my seat, afraid to turn around and see who or what stood behind me. I nearly wet myself to the sudden slam of the screen door as Mama reentered from the backyard.
“Girl, why you so jumpy?” she asked.
I swallowed air, my throat dry as if dust had been poured into my mouth. “Is the plumber done yet? I have to pee.”
“Yea,” Mama answered. “It cost me 300 bucks.”
I ignored her rant and scrambled to the bathroom, ripping off my pants and falling onto the toilet, nearly tipping it forward, prying it from the mildewed tile floor. To my left, the white lace curtains on the window ruffled in the air flowing up from the vent below. I never liked windows in bathrooms. They denied me privacy. I felt I was being watched in my most vulnerable moments.
In the distance, I heard a low rumble. I stood, holding the zipper of my pants at my knees, and looked out the window. The grayish-blue clouds had accumulated. The wind had picked up. The bedsheets hanging on the clothesline flapped furiously. I watched the creek just behind them, half-expecting to see a person, maybe Uncle Macon, emerge from its murky waters. I licked my dry lips, the movement of my tongue tickling the back of my throat. If I were to see a head, or a hand, or a soggy bedroom slipper, would Mama dismiss me as we had Aunt Bessie, and she Uncle Macon? What were the odds that three people would hallucinate the imprint of a face—eyes, nose, an open mouth—through the thin bedsheets along the banks of Burgaw Creek?