Ghost story / A port / A jar of strawberry jam / 994w
“I don’t think we should be here,” Slimy Mark said. He wiped his always-runny nose on his sleeve. I didn’t bother responding to such a stupid comment, but I did look behind me. Sawyer, Hyunjoo, and C looked as nervous as I felt, but I was already halfway through the doorway and Bette, holding my hand, was near to crying.
“The hard part’s over,” I whispered. We’d shimmied in through the vent I’d scouted, picked the lock on the first set of doors, and now we were about to enter Port 1110-A’s main cargo hold. At least, I was pretty sure we were. I had stared so long and hard at Grandpapa Neil’s old blueprints of Port 1110-B that I had no trouble remembering. But 1110-B might be different from 1110-A. I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t told C that, when he’d told me how cool it was that I had blueprints. He’d looked so impressed and grinned so big that I’d just left it at that, so I could grin back.
If you were a kid growing up in Colony 1, there were two things you knew for sure: your block reigned supreme (no matter how many others disagreed), and Port 1110-A, right at the southern wall, was haunted. Everyone had heard the same story from their Grandmama Luna or Grandpapa Neil, who still remembered when the ships from Earth made regular visits.
But now, I was the only kid on my block whose Grandpapa Neil was still alive. Even though his real name was Steven, there were so many Lunas and Neils in his generation (they were the first moon-born, so it was trendy) that we eventually just called them all that. My Grandpapa used to work at Port 1110-B, so he knew more than most about the accident. And that meant I knew more, too. That was my gang’s reasoning when they told me I’d lead our expedition to 1110-A on Eclipse Eve.
I had a reputation to uphold as the girl who’d flicked Chen from block 30’s forehead so hard he cried, so I couldn’t say no. And we needed a good story for Eclipse Eve, too. Something that would scare the block 28s away from our northern turf.
I led my crew in. I pointed the flashlight at the wall nearby, found a light switch, and experimentally flipped it. To my surprise, about half of the emergency lowlights flared to life along the perimeter. The hold was as cavernous as any modern spaceport’s; some of the lights were just dots in the distance. Halfway to the high ceiling, fit into the dome of the colony itself, were three giant airlocks, where the ships would dock to unload. They were near-submerged in shadow. We looked for airlock two, where the accident had happened, and once we found it nobody said a word for a moment.
“They died in there,” Hyunjoo said.
“Instantaneous ejection of the spinal column through the oral cavity,” I said. I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I had read it online (it never hurt to do research). “Because it decompressed too quick.” I glanced at C, but he was looking at something else. It was Bette, who had wandered up to a stack of crates against the wall, directly beneath airlock two. Mom would put me in an airlock herself if I let anything happen to Bette. I rushed over.
“Don’t open that, Bette.” But she already had. She took out a jar of something; cargo from the last ship? I realized C had followed me. His arm brushed mine, and I shivered a little.
“Boiled their blood right up,” he said softly.
“What’s ‘strawberry’?” Bette asked.
At school, the teachers said ghosts weren’t real. People died and then they were dead. But Grandpapa Neil said ghosts had followed us all the way up from Earth, which made it sound like there was a limited number, like a hundred, or a thousand. I knew matter couldn’t be created or destroyed. Maybe it was the same with ghosts.
I guess nobody really believed the teachers, because Colony 1 had closed up Port 1110-A right after the astronauts were killed. It was a moon-born worker who’d made the mistake. Nobody was sure who, because the next day he’d loaded himself into the airlock and released himself, unsuited, into space.
Sawyer, Hyunjoo, and Slimy Mark had joined us by the crates full of jars. I hesitated, realizing I wasn’t sure what to do next. Should we take some proof?
“Their whole bodies got squeezed through a little gap, you know,” Sawyer said after a second, looking up at the hatch to airlock two.
Of course we all knew. I was about to tell him off when three things happened at almost the same time: Bette dropped the jar of something and it smashed open on the floor; C’s hand stole around mine; and Slimy Mark gasped. The giant hatch above us was creaking open.
C started pulling me backward as the others scattered, but Bette was still standing there in a splatter of red, looking petrified, so I yanked free and grabbed her arm. The air felt colder. Something smelled strange, sweet. I turned back and grabbed C’s hand again and the three of us took off for the doorway we’d come in from. The distance seemed suddenly farther than it had before; behind us, the hatch was groaning louder. It felt wrong exposing my back, so I turned around to look.
When Bette and C and I emerged from the vent, we found the others. Mostly, we heard them; the Eclipse had peaked, and we were blind, panting, in the dark. I tried to forget about spines and squeezed bodies. Bette’s hand in mine was sticky.
“Block 29,” C whispered.
“Block 29,” we all whispered back.
We were okay, but how could I tell them? Tell them how, when I’d looked, the opening had looked back at me?
I actually got assigned two ghost stories in a row.
This story didn’t place in the third round, which meant I couldn’t move on. It was disappointing, but I still like this piece well enough. I focused too much on the premise, and not enough on story development, but there are a few moments I’m proud of.
Feedback from the judges: the naming convention worked against the flow of the story (agree but it was so fun); the gang characters should be better differentiated from one another (agree); obviously they’d know who the guilty moon worker was because there would be records (I appreciate how this implies the judge was pretty invested in the story. But yeah.)