As some of you know, I have been participating in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. This past weekend, I received my third assignment; I had 48 hours to write a ghost story, set in a gas station, that included a dunce cap.
I found this assignment to be the most challenging yet. Partly because I’ve never written a ghost story in my life. Partly because dunce cap? In a gas station?!? But mostly because blowing this one means that I won’t make it to the finals.
So the pressure was on, and I’m not sure I’ll pull enough points to advance. But I’m proud of myself for making it this far, and will definitely take part in this competition in the future.
(A short story by Corrie Adams)
When granddad’s car blew a tire on the way back home, Benjamin was upset about the delay. He missed his mom; she never told him he was a bad seed or made him do detention. Granddad didn’t work at the school anymore, but he still made Benjamin call him Principal Green. Also, there were The Lessons.
Granddad said their lessons were secret, and not to tell mom. “Only bad boys tell,” he said. “You’re not a bad boy, are you, Benjamin?”
Benjamin knew what happened to bad boys; he’d learned that on his first day at granddad’s house. His cheeks grew hot when he remembered how he was made to stand in the corner, naked except for the dunce cap granddad slapped on his head. And though many days had passed, Benjamin could still feel the sting of the wooden ruler on his bare skin.
No, he wouldn’t tell.
A tow truck brought them to a lonely gas station; it was the only sign of civilization on an otherwise deserted stretch of road. Granddad talked with the mechanic while Benjamin sat on a rickety bench, trying to figure out if he liked the smell of the place. It was a gasoline-and-machines type of smell, strong but not completely unpleasant.
He closed his eyes; he could taste to the smell better that way, and he hadn’t quite made up his mind about it. But a shivery feeling interrupted his wondering, so he opened his eyes again. There was a strange-looking boy sitting on the bench beside him. He was staring. It gave Benjamin the creeps.
Benjamin tried pretending not to notice the boy; maybe he’d grow bored and go away. When that didn’t work, Benjamin decided to try a different approach.
“I’m waiting for my granddad,” he said, gesturing across the shop toward the men.
“Me, too,” said the boy. Benjamin thought this was a pretty dumb thing to say. He decided the boy must be a bad seed and that he should steer clear.
“Can I walk around outside?” Benjamin called out. Granddad waved a hand in a shoo-shoo motion. Benjamin jumped up from the bench and headed outside to explore.
The gas station was pretty run-down. There was only one pump, and it looked old, like something out of the movies. The office and the garage were old too. The buildings seemed tired; the walls slumped a little, like they didn’t have much strength left, and Benjamin secretly hoped they’d choose now to give up completely, while granddad was somewhere deep inside.
Behind the buildings, there was a bunch of rusty, old cars. None of them had wheels, and one didn’t even have doors. Benjamin decided to take a closer look, careful to avoid the shards of broken glass that littered the ground. His sneakers made a wonderful crunch-crunch sound in the gravel, the sun was warm on his skin, and the gasoline smelled sweet. Benjamin decided he was glad that granddad’s car had broken down and brought them here. What an adventure!
Benjamin approached the car with no doors. He glanced back over his shoulder to make sure granddad wasn’t looking, and then he climbed inside. He grasped the cracked steering wheel with both hands and made some growly engine sounds. He imagined himself in a car chase; the cops were right on his heels. He was so caught up in this fantasy, he could practically hear the sirens.
“Will you help me?”
Benjamin jumped, then looked around. The strange boy was in the passenger seat beside him.
“Why’d you sneak up on me like that?” Benjamin yelled. His heart was bang-banging in his chest and he felt icy cold all over.
“Will you help me?” the boy repeated.
“I told you, I’m just waiting for my granddad. When the tire’s fixed, he’s going to take me home.”
“And I told you: I’m waiting for him, too. Will you give him a message for me?”
“Tell Principal Green that Graham Parker is watching.”
Benjamin slipped out of the car and ran back to the garage, dodging the lonely gas pump with its snake-like hose. He didn’t stop running until, huffing and puffing, he reached granddad’s side.
“What’s the matter with you, boy?” granddad demanded.
“Then calm down. This is not a school yard playground.”
“Graham Parker said to tell you that he’s watching,” Benjamin whispered.
“What did you say?”
“I said, Graham Parker…”
Granddad grabbed Benjamin by the shoulders and glared down at him. His face went red, then white, then red again. The rest of Benjamin’s words got stuck in his throat.
“Who told you to say that?” granddad hissed.
Benjamin looked around, caught sight of the boy, and pointed. “He did.”
Granddad slapped Benjamin on the face. “Don’t tell stories, boy. Your mother warned me you might tell lies like this. I said I wouldn’t tolerate it, and I won’t, do you hear me? Bad boys get punished.”
Benjamin looked to the other boy for help. It was his fault granddad was angry, not Benjamin’s. Graham Parker looked sad. He held Benjamin’s gaze for a moment, then turned and walked away. Benjamin’s eyes blurred with tears; when he wiped them away, the boy had disappeared.
The mechanic chose that moment to announce the repairs were done. Granddad released Benjamin and stomped off toward the car. Benjamin followed without a word. He didn’t want any more lessons; he just wanted to go home.
Granddad paid the mechanic, then opened his car door. But instead of sliding behind the wheel, he stood, frozen, staring inside the vehicle. Curious, Benjamin craned his neck to peer around granddad’s bulk. He saw a dunce cap, sitting on the driver’s seat, and heard a whisper in his ear: “Thank you.”
When Benjamin whirled around, nobody was there. But somehow, he knew there would be no more lessons. Granddad drove him the rest of the way home in silence. His teaching days were done; Graham Parker was watching.