Out in the country, close to where I grew up, was a small airport. When I was a kid, I used to ride my bike out there. I liked seeing the airplanes—just small, personal planes—and I often wondered where they’d come from and where they were going. Our humble airport offered a glimpse of life outside a small town.
When I took Driver’s Ed, our instructor would have us drive out to the airport. It was a good place to practice driving, a gently curving swath of road with hardly any traffic. The only people who used the road were either going to the airport or learning to drive.
Once I finally got my license, I’d cruise there sometimes to take a peek at the planes. There was a waterhole in the pasture next to the airport. I liked the rumble my tires made when I drove over the cattle guard, a metal bridge with slats meant to keep the cows from wandering onto a busier road.
Not long after my sixteenth birthday and my newfound freedom to drive, I got roped into helping with prom. I was a sophomore so I wasn’t old enough to attend, and hadn’t been invited, but someone tagged me to serve refreshments. I wasn’t particularly thrilled about it—it was kind of embarrassing to go. One of my friends was dating a senior, so she’d been invited. In comparison, I felt like a fraud, crashing the party. I couldn’t back out gracefully though, so I put on a nice dress and a smile, and went.
After helping out at the dance, I decided to cruise for a while before heading home. This wasn’t a horrible idea, or at least, it didn’t start out that way. It was before my curfew, so it wasn’t like I was going to get into trouble.
I turned onto the road leading to the airport, feeling my mother’s minivan jounce lightly as I crossed over the cattle guard. It was a moonless night and nobody was on the road. That was fine with me. After hours of feeling socially awkward, serving drinks and watching everybody else have a great time, being alone was refreshing.
I cranked up the radio and sang along, enjoying my solitude. A favorite song came on, Joyride, by a group called Roxette. It was nineties bubblegum pop, but it was fun and fitting, lifting my mood considerably. The song ends with a trademark whistle.
I happen to be a terrible whistler. I can hold a tune when singing, but I can’t whistle to save my life. I’d been singing along to Joyride, and then tried to whistle that last part. Tried and failed—all the notes came out flat, with no power behind them. I figured I’d improve with practice, so when the next song began, I kept whistling. I was still way off. I took a breath to try again.
Then, from the back of the minivan, I heard someone whistling. Eight notes, repeated twice. It was the tune from Joyride, clear and strong.
I froze, the whistle on my own lips dying as my hands clenched the wheel. I wasn’t alone in the car.
I knew when I looked in the rearview mirror, I’d see a face staring back at me. Someone had snuck into the van, and here I was, a teenage girl on a lonely road in the middle of the night with whoever it was. I didn’t recognize the voice, which meant there was a stranger in my car, a stranger with bad intentions, no doubt. Why else would you sneak into a girl’s car? Then I realized that no one knew where I was.
I braved a look in the mirror, but saw nothing—no face, no movement. But I’d heard the whistle. I hadn’t imagined that, or the feeling that someone was in the car with me. Whoever it was had crouched back down, I decided. The van had a big cargo area behind the back seat, one large enough to fit a man. I mentally cursed at myself for not checking out the car before driving away from the school gym.
It would have been a bad idea to stop the car in a place where no one could help me, so I did the only thing that made sense. I turned the van around and drove home, less than a mile away. I tried the keep up the pretense that I still thought I was alone, pretending I hadn’t heard that whistle. I sang along to the radio like everything was fine, forcing myself to keep to the speed limit. If I drive too fast, I told myself, he’ll know.
I pulled into the carport of my house as calmly as I could, put the van in park, and leapt out of the vehicle. I slammed the door and pressed the lock button on the key fob. The minivan had child safety locks, so the person would have to climb to the front of the vehicle to unlock the doors. It wouldn’t buy much time, but enough to get in the house, I hoped.
I ran to the front door and unlocked it, keeping an eye on the minivan. Then I waited, ready to duck inside and close the door to the house if I saw a shadowy form rise from the darkness of the back seat. If I did, my plan was to lock the front door and go wake my dad.
I stared at the van, sure I’d see movement—at least a slight rocking as the person shifted positions. But there was nothing. No sound, no movement.
My curiosity outweighed my fear. I left the front door open, ready to run back inside if I saw anything. I walked along the side of the van, peering in the windows. The security light in the carport offered me a clear view of most of the vehicle’s interior.
As I neared the back of the van, I could feel my heart thudding in my chest. I imagined placing my face close to the rear window and seeing a stranger pop up like a Jack-in-the-box, his hands smacking the glass in front of me.
I kept my distance and gave the cargo area behind the back seat a tentative look. It was furthest from the security light and not as illuminated as the rest of the van, so it was difficult to see inside without getting closer. I gathered my courage and leaned forward, my face nearly touching the glass.
The cargo area was vacant.
I stepped back in surprise. Maybe he’d somehow crawled up front when I wasn’t looking? I slowly circled the van, looking in the windows. It was completely empty.
I don’t know who took a joyride with me that night, but I know one thing. He sure could whistle.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2015
When I was in second grade, I got into big trouble at school.
This was an anomaly for me—I was quiet in class and generally obeyed the rules. The only prior blot on my behavior record was in the first grade, when I got shushed by the teacher for talking to a friend during silent reading time. I dutifully returned to reading, but then I was ordered to sit in the corner when someone else made a noise and the teacher thought it was me. Unjust, but even teachers make mistakes.
I had a good friend who lived in my neighborhood in elementary school. We played well together until we got a new girl in our class. Our classmate was someone we both wanted to befriend. The three of us were skipping rope on the playground, and it was my turn to jump while they turned the rope.
At that age, I was one of the tallest kids in my class. I was so gangly, my mom bought me boys’ jeans to wear for the length and fit, because girls’ jeans were too short and slipped off my skinny frame. My friend was petite, and much more coordinated. She’d climb the jungle gym, sling a leg over a metal bar, and flip over and over. The best I could do was hang upside down by my knees and pray I didn’t land on my face.
As I tried to jump rope, my feet got tangled and I stumbled, which meant I was out and had to let someone else take a turn jumping. It wasn’t the first time I’d failed at jumping rope (nor would it be the last), but this time my friend made fun of me to impress the new girl.
That was when I made a mistake. I was angry and I didn’t think. I just acted. I kicked my friend in the shin. I was as surprised by this as everyone else, and as soon as I’d done it, I knew I had crossed a line. I felt horrible about it.
Then, things got worse. My friend went and told the playground monitor. It was my terrible luck that the teacher’s aide on duty was the meanest monitor around. I remember her towering over me, shouting at me to go to the principal’s office.
This was a nightmare. I’d gone from little Miss Goody-Two-Shoes to a hardened criminal because of one thoughtless act. The worst part was that in those days (ahem, thirty-something years ago), corporal punishment was permitted. Teachers were allowed to swat students on the bum. I knew that the principal had a big green ping pong paddle on her desk for just that purpose. It was a school legend.
I also knew I had transgressed, so I lifted my chin and marched off to the principal’s office to take my punishment.
It was a long walk.
Along the way, I thought about what I’d done and what my parents would think. I’d said sorry, but it wasn’t enough.
Humbled, I reached the principal’s office and meekly asked her administrative assistant if the principal was in. The woman smiled and said no.
In that instant, I realized this nice lady had no idea why I was there. The playground monitor hadn’t given me a behavior slip and was unlikely to follow up.
I leapt at my chance for escape. I smiled and said, “That’s okay. Thank you.” Then I left.
My rear end remained unpaddled. I got in a little trouble when I got home. My friend’s mother called my mom and told her what happened at school that day. I apologized, and the girl and I became friends again.
Still, though I truly was sorry for what I did, I wasn’t sorry for cheating fate.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2015
My dad is the first writer I ever knew, and he loves to tell stories. He’s a huge Teddy Roosevelt fan, so it’s no wonder our twenty-sixth president makes an appearance in his book, Tom Horn: Killer of Men and Monsters. He also enjoys tales of the supernatural. Although his novel is a nod to history, it features an otherworldly twist involving a shape-shifter.
Like my grandmother, my father told me scary stories, and I loved hearing them. He too had a ghostly encounter at the house where they lived when he was young.
When his family was moving out of the house, his mother asked him if he remembered to shut the front door. He hadn’t, so he got out of the car and hurried back up the front walk to close the door, before he and his parents drove away.
As he reached for the doorknob, he noticed a stray piece of newspaper, left behind from packing boxes. Suddenly, the paper rose up to stand on its edge, almost as though it had been lifted by a breeze. There was no wind.
Then the front door slammed shut. And in the front window, he could see a pair of eyes, staring out at him. He ran full-tilt for the car, and never looked back.
Another story my father told me was about the old hag. One night, as my dad was tucking me into bed, he asked, “Do you know why people have messy hair when they wake up?”
I thought about it. “Mom says I have a rat’s nest on my head when she combs my hair.” I had long hair that tangled easily, especially after playing outside all day. It was always a wreck in the morning.
He laughed. “Some people think the reason we have messy hair is the old hag sits on our heads at night.”
“What’s a hag?” I asked.
“A hag is a witch. She climbs in your window, sits on your head, and rides it like a hobby horse all night, gripping your hair like she’s holding the reins.”
This was a messed-up thing to say to a kid. Naturally, I wanted to know how to protect myself from being smothered by a witch’s buttocks. “How do I stop her from doing that?”
“Well, there are two ways to stop a hag. You could gather a handful of straw and put it by your bedside,” he answered.
We lived out in the country and had hay for our horse, but at nine years old, I wasn’t sure if hay was the same thing as straw and what effect substituting it might have. I felt it was really important to get this right. I did not want a hag to use my head as a rocking horse. “What’s the other way?”
“You could also pile some sand on your nightstand. The witch will be compelled to count it, and she’ll forget about you entirely.”
Sand I could do—I’d just grab some from our sandbox. But something troubled me. “What if she runs out of sand to count?”
“Ah.” He chuckled. “Witches are easily distracted, you see. She’ll lose count, and then she’ll have to start over, again and again. You’ll be able to catch her at first morning’s light, and she’ll never bother you again.”
I wasn’t sure what I’d do once I caught a witch, but I tried putting sand next to my bed. It must have helped, because even though I still had messy hair, I never woke to find the old hag sitting on my head.
The story, however, found its way into my own writing. It became the inspiration for the Wasteland in the Solas Beir Trilogy.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2015
I wouldn’t say my family is psychic, but we’re not exactly normal. Let’s just say we’re sensitive to certain things, and as a result, we’ve got a lot of creepy stories to tell. Maybe it’s because of our Scottish heritage, our ties to the old world. Or maybe we’re just tuned in.
The first thing you need to know about my grandma is she’s cool—I’d say cool for an elderly person, but she’s always been cool. Her signature color is red, and she can still rock a killer pair of boots, even in her eighties. She grew up in a poor family, but her father set aside money so she could take dance lessons. Vaudeville was giving way to cinema, and maybe he hoped she’d someday be a star. She didn’t hit the big time, but she retained a certain flair that set her apart from her peers.
She’s also the luckiest person I’ve ever met. If there’s a raffle to be entered, you can bet my grandma will enter and win. That’s not to say she hasn’t had her share of bad luck in life, or that she’s won the lottery, but she has an uncanny knack for winning drawings and finding help when she needs it. Hopefully that part of her Scottish DNA has been passed down to her grandchildren.
The third thing you need to know is that my grandma loves scary stories. When I was a kid we’d eat junk food and watch B horror movies together. There was one about killer bees, and another about a mummy’s hand that skittered about on its own, an image which likely scarred me for life. She had a fear of being presumed dead and then buried alive, and I remember there was a movie about this too. It was terrifying and I loved it. That part of her DNA definitely got passed down.
My grandma used to tell stories about living in a haunted house when my dad was a young boy. She said she’d wake up at night to see a strange mist swirling overhead. The ghost, who she dubbed Ella, liked to repair things. Once my grandma found a button sewn on a dress, a button that she swore had fallen off, that she set aside to sew back on. Another time there was a horrible banging noise coming from the laundry room. My grandmother had guests over, and they asked what the noise was. My grandma brushed it off and said, “Oh, my washing machine is broken. That’s just Ella fixing it for us.” After that, the washing machine worked just fine.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2015