This is a short sort-of-ghost story I came up with while I was on a run a little while back and watching a fellow runner ahead of me, constantly disappearing and reappearing around the trail’s curves and bends. Dusk was falling and the trail, framed by these pale skeletal trees, had gotten pretty dark and spooky, and I immediately thought, what if this trail was haunted? By a… ghost runner??
I felt a thrill come on and pretty much spent the rest of my run coming up with the bones of the story.
Running is a great way to think out new plot lines; conversely, thinking up new story ideas is a great way of overcoming the mental challenge of running and helps in making a run feel a lot shorter than usual. My favourite character in this story is the gregarious and garrulous Mrs Maccona – I hope you like her too!
The Haunted Runner
“10 kays in forty minutes!” I crowed as I half-stumbled up the lawn, waving my sports watch at Scott who lay in a deck chair, beer in one hand and the latest issue of Cars Magazine on his lap.
“That’s my girl!” Scott toasted me with his beer as he reached under the deck chair for a bottle of water to hand to me.
“That’s five minutes I’ve shaved off from my time two days ago.” I sat down on the grass and began to stretch.
“I knew you could do it!” Scott pumped his fist into the air. “Here’s to Claire, runner extraordinaire!”
I smiled up at him from where I lay bent and stretched over one leg. Scott, more than anyone else in the world, knew just how much this meant to me.
I was a runner. Always had been. I wasn’t the strongest or fastest runner out there, but I had always been a runner. I ran track and relay in high school, moving on to half-marathons and then full marathons when I was at college. At one point my best friend, Dee, and I had even looked at training for an ultramarathon. My mother swore that when I was a baby, I was half-running, half-stumbling upon unsteady, chubby feet before I learned how to walk. Growing up, I don’t think I’ve ever remembered a time when I did not run. In fact, the first time I met Scott, I’d almost knocked him over while running across the college green.
That all changed however, one day, almost a year ago, when, in the middle of a quick evening run, I’d gotten hit by a station wagon swerving wildly to avoid a cat running across the road.
The cat escaped with all nine lives intact. I, on the other hand, was left with a broken right hip and several fractured ribs. I won’t talk about it now, but it was a tough time for me and for Scott too. His girl, who used to walk like she was running and run like she was flying, hobbling painfully around the house like an old woman, crying bitterly because it hurt to take even one step.
Well, it felt like forever, but the doctors pronounced me fully healed at last. My rehab sessions, which felt like torture sessions at first, slowly got easier and easier and finally tapered off. I could run again, they said, and I tried to, I really did. But something had changed. There was a new fear in me, some strange black hole of self-doubt and anxiety that hadn’t been there before. The first time I tried to run, a car sped by me and I immediately lost it, shrieking and veering away from the roadside, tumbling to the ground like Humpty Dumpty, my fragile eggshell mind shattered into so many pieces. Some time later, the neighbours found me still curled up in a whimpering little ball by the side of the road. They had to call Scott to come get me.
Slowly, things got a little better. After much coaxing and tears, I could finally walk down the street without jumping if so much as a small child on a tricycle whizzed past me. But I still couldn’t run. The sight of my sneakers, the laces stained with blood from the accident, sent shivers through me. Even Scott surprising me with a new pair of much-coveted, super-expensive running shoes didn’t work. Running was not a joy for me anymore – it had become a nightmare, a thing to be dreaded. My only other option was to run on a treadmill and I hated treadmills. Besides, the second time I tried running at the gym, the sound of someone dropping a large weight on the ground made me jump, stumble, and tumble off the moving belt into a bruised and humiliated heap.
I never went back to the gym again.
My newfound phobia of running – and, especially, of busy streets – was part of the reason Scott and I were both glad when his job forced us to move out of the city and into Glenbury, a sleep little town on the outskirts of what could almost legitimately be called ‘the real countryside’. Glenbury was a tidy, pretty town filled with beautiful colonial-style buildings and surrounded by huge tracts of forests and national parks readymade for hiking, cycling, camping and, of course, running.
My accident, I think, was also one of the reasons why Scott pushed so hard for us to buy a house half an hour’s drive out of Glenbury itself. The location was rather out of the way, set back as it was along a long, lonely, winding back road with only a handful of neighbours for company. But that didn’t matter the moment we caught sight of the house. It was a lovely, big house with grey walls that had mellowed with age and a beautifully kept lawn sloping down to the road and edged with rosebushes, lobelias and hydrangeas. A huge, friendly willow tree sat right smack in the middle of the lawn like a benevolent guardian of the house. And we got the place at a steal – the previous owner was an elderly woman who was anxious to sell up and go live with her daughter in Melbourne. And, as Scott had hinted, it would be great for children in the future.
Best of all, though, was how quiet the neighbourhood was. Cars hardly ever came down this way. And there was a trail that veered off the road just a few kilometres away from our house, a trail that looped and twisted through the bush, past a popular lake frequented by summer visitors (who came by car to the shore on the far side of the lake, the side closest to us being rather swampy, and whose loud parties, jet skis and raucous volleyball games were screened off by the distance and layers of trees and heavy foliage so there was still plenty of privacy), past the back of our house and then back up on the other side, coming out on the road between our property and that of an old couple who evidently liked their privacy as much as we did ours.
Framed by trees and wildflower bushes, it was a quiet, isolated trail that obviously saw more squirrels and birds than it did humans. Best of all, no cars could ever frequent it. It was perfect. When Scott and I first tramped through it, in our first days exploring our new neighbourhood, I felt that old ache within me that I thought I’d never feel again – that ache to just run.
It’s been five months now and I’ve been running almost every day along my quiet little trail. I’m happy, and Scott’s happy because I’m happy, and we’ve made plenty of new friends in Glenbury with the occasional weekend visit to the city to keep things exciting. The lifestyle is a lot slower and more relaxed here, but we still find lots to do here and we’ve never regretted our decision to move to Glenbury.
“Did you see your fellow runner again?” Scott asked me now.
“I sure did. Right ahead of me as usual, always just a little ahead. I’ve never been able to catch her yet, but I always try. She spurs me on.”
When I first started using the trail, I didn’t see anyone else on it, which suited me just fine. The quiet and isolation was what I needed at the time. But after several weeks of running along the bush trail, I saw her. My fellow runner. At least, that’s what Scott and I first called her.
My feelings of gloom and self-doubt didn’t go away altogether when I first started running again. Negativity is a hard thing to dispel and my body was also pretty stiff, after all my injuries, and unused to running again. I would run a little, walk a little, run a little, walk a little. I knew that was how it was going to be in the beginning, that it would take time to get back to where I used to be, but knowing didn’t stop me from sulking about it.
This lasted for about a week. Then I started to improve. I began running for longer without stopping. My body got stronger, my distances grew further. I started to perk up, though I still felt as if I hadn’t quite attained the old joy yet. I was still running pretty slowly and I would jump at the tiniest sound, a squirrel running up a tree or a branch rustling in the breeze. But still I felt far safer on my little bush trail than I did out on the big roads.
And that was when I saw her.
Another runner, just ahead on the trail. I would catch glimpses of her going round the bends, the flash of a long black ponytail, the black and white tank top and shorts she always wore, that smooth tanned skin and long, toned limbs that denote the sign of another serious runner.
I always thought I’d be incredibly annoyed and pissed off the first time someone else came and disturbed the peace of my little bush trail. But, somehow, I wasn’t.
Instead, something in me sparked to life. It was part encouragement, part competition. I began to run after her, to use her as my pacer. Each time I saw her, I would run a little faster, but she always managed to stay one curve of the road ahead of me. That did not frustrate me; rather, it encouraged me. In my head, we were playing a friendly game of cat and mouse. I knew she must know I was there, that she could surely hear me pounding along the path just behind her.
I’ve never caught up with her. There is a corner towards the end of the run, just before we hit the main road, where some wild cherry blossoms grow. Each time, I’d catch a glimpse of that black ponytail and those black and white shorts whisking past the pink-and-white cherry blossom sprays, but when I turned the corner, she’d have vanished. There is a funny crooked little house just past the trees, even more isolated than the rest of the houses on our street, tucked away as it was in a hollow filled with yet more cherry blossom trees just off the bush trail. It looked like a house where a fairytale witch lived, a witch that you’re not quite sure is bad or good, and I figured that must be where she lived, but I’ve never yet rounded the corner in time to see her enter the house.
I told Scott about my fellow runner, of course, and we have always joked that she must be some sort of guardian angel of runners sent to guide me back to my old love.
“I’m going to hit the shower and we’ll start cooking dinner after,” I said to Scott now. “Spaghetti bolognaise sounds good to you?”
He nodded. “I’ve already taken the meat out to thaw.”
“Great!” I was about to head inside when a yodel and the sight of an enormous bright pink ball rattling up our lawn stopped me.
That bright pink ball is none other than Mrs Maccona. She’s our neighbour from down the street and, I must say, she’s quite the character. She’s always dressed in bright colours and draped in hundreds of jangling necklaces, bracelets and dangly earrings that signal her approach from miles away. (That is, unless you’re hoping to avoid her whereby you will not hear her until she is almost behind you. Scott swears that Mrs Maccona is fitted out with some kind of predatory instinct that allows her to silence her jewellery on command so she can creep up on her prey – that is, us and her other neighbours.)
Most of the folk who live along Peppermint Drive are the sort to keep to themselves, obviously having chosen this area, like us, for its quiet and isolation. Not Mrs Maccona. She believes in ‘being neighbourly’ and was over at our place on the first day we moved in with a tray of brownies in one hand and a dish of extra cheesy lasagne in the other. Within the first week, she’s told us everything we would ever want to know about the rest of our neighbours and the town of Glenbury, as well as everything we didn’t want to know. She was kind, generous, gossipy, humorous and could talk the legs off an iron pot, as my grandmother used to say.
“Hello-ooo!” she called out now as she waddled up the garden walk. “My, hasn’t the weather been warm lately? Have you been out running in this heat, Claire? I must say, I admire your stamina. I’ve been watching you run past my house all this week. Patsy barks the place down whenever she sees you go by – I think she envies you your nice long legs, having only four stumpy little ones of her own. I should try to do something about my own figure –” patting her ample pink waist as she spoke – “but I’ve never gotten around to it. Oh, well, best to be comfortable when you’re old!”
“Claire’s always been a runner,” Scott said proudly. “She used to enter marathons all the time.”
“I certainly won’t doubt your word on that.” Mrs Maccona nodded at me. “Those lovely long legs and that tiny little waist! I used to have a waist like that too, back in my day. You wouldn’t think it to look at me now, but then you wouldn’t think I’ve had three husbands either, or that two boys were once suspended for fighting at the seniors’ ball because I couldn’t decide which one of them should take me home. In the end, neither of them could because they were so bruised and cut up after the fight so I hitched a ride with my cousin Fanny and her escort, Peter. Peter was a college boy and Fanny was quite proud to have him as her date, but everyone knows he only took her as a favour to her brother Sam. Well, Peter and I started seeing each other soon after and we were married two weeks after I was out of high school. Fanny didn’t speak to me for five years after, but I didn’t really mind that because she never did have anything interesting to say. And she came around sooner than my parents did. They never spoke to me until Peter died in a rodeo contest seven years after we were married and I was left with four children and no money and Husband No. 2 nowhere in sight for another six months. Husband No. 2 was a rich man and my parents forgave me plenty after that.
“There are some nice trails for running hereabouts,” she said, doing an abrupt switch in subject. “Have you taken Campdon Road down to the lake yet?”
I shook my head. “Campdon Road is far too busy for me. I run along that little back trail that goes behind our houses.”
“Ah.” Mrs Maccona nodded knowingly. “Grey Squirrel Trail. Nice little bush track. I’m afraid it’s been rather out of use for some time now. Too isolated for most folk. Old Gramps Auburn used to hike it every evening before he passed away. Said it was his daily constitutional, that it kept him spry. Though I think it was more likely his wife’s cooking that kept him going. Marie Auburn was a great hand at cooking, that she was. I haven’t tasted pumpkin pie to match hers since she died. When she passed away, I knew it was only a matter of time before Gramps Auburn followed her into the great beyond. He told me there was no flavour left in life after she’d gone, but I’m guessing it’s more the flavour of her cooking that he missed. And then there was Lizzy – Elizabeth Carlton – who used to run ‘long Grey Squirrel all the time, just like you do now. She was a pretty girl with long, lovely runners’ legs – just like yours, Claire. She was your age too.”
She gave a little plaintive sigh. “Lizzy used to live all alone with her aunt at Cherry Blossom House – have you seen it? It’s a little old cottage and a strange one, for you won’t see it along our road here, oh no, instead it’s tucked back in a little hollow just along Grey Squirrel Trail. But the cherry blossom trees that grow about it are beautiful, just plain beautiful. Janet Parnet planted most of those trees herself after she came to live there with her husband, Murray Parnet. He died of cancer when he was about forty. Janet lived there all by herself after that and she got to be real unsociable – never went out and never spoke to anyone. Lizzy was her sister’s child and when the Carltons died in a plane crash on their way to Canada for a holiday, she sent for the little girl to come to Glenbury to live with her. Lizzy was a sweet young thing and real friendly too after she had gotten over the grief of losing her parents. Always had a smile for you, always ready to stop and have a little neighbourly chat. And running – she loved running too. I still remember her running past my gate with a big smile on her face and a great, big wave.”
“You said ‘was’,” Scott said. “What happened to her?”
“Got caught in a flash hailstorm one day while she was out running along that very trail, Grey Squirrel Trail. Came stumbling home, already shivering from the cold that became pneumonia the very next day. She died within a week. It was very sad.” Ms Maccona shook her head and sighed. “Poor little Lizzy – and poor Janet too!”
“And – and so Mrs Parnet lives all by herself now at Cherry Blossom House?” I asked. Scott glanced at me, noticing the quiver in my voice, but I ignored him, focusing instead on Mrs Maccona.
Mrs Maccona shook her head. “No, just by herself. Not even a puppy to keep her company. It’s almost a cursed family, I tell you, with so many deaths. There was a grandmother who died from tuberculosis and an uncle who went a bit mad after a boxing accident and drank himself to death. It’s no wonder poor Janet has been getting stranger and stranger ever since. She must be over eighty now and a perfect hermit. I visit her every now and then, bring her some library books and a casserole or two, and I’d sit a spell and chat with her when I have the time. But having a conversation with that woman is like trying to get water out of a rock. It’s like she’s lost the skill of talking, living all alone as she does in that hollow of hers. But then she’s led a hard life, poor dear.
“But just listen to me now, nattering on and on and keeping you two outside to be eaten alive by the mozzies! You must be wanting your tea and wishing this old busybody would just shut up. I ought to get going – the dogs will be yowling and yapping something fearful now for their tea. I was just down at the Williamses, giving Mrs Williams some advice on her petunias. They’ll grow like anything once she’s weeded the beds thoroughly. But she’ll have a harder time controlling her teenage son than she would her flower beds. He’s got a wild streak in him that’ll sour and turn rotten if not properly reined in. Just like his uncle who’s in the penitentiary down at Old Yorke for robbing his neighbours and nearly bludgeoning a poor old woman to death. I was a bit nervous when the Williamses first moved in – they’ve been here only a year before you came – but they’re nice, respectable folk, on the whole, except for that uncle – and that son of theirs. I gave Mrs Williams a word or two about looking after him, but I’m not sure if she’ll listen to me. Oh, well, maybe one of these days I’ll mind my own business, but sure and I can’t help myself if I see a bad seed sprouting up right before my eyes and me with a chance to give folks a bit of warning. They can do as they please after that, but at least I’ll know I’ve spoken my piece and can rest easy after. Now, Scott, I just stopped by to see if you could nip over some time this week and take a look at my car? It’s been making a strange whining sound whenever I start the engine. Something between a baby mewling and a cat being strangled.”
Scott promised to come over the next day and, after giving us some advice about looking after our roses in between a story about one of her granddaughters (who rode horses for a living and was almost entangled in a bookmakers’ scandal) and an old friend of Mrs Maccona’s (whom she hadn’t heard of for years but had recently sent her a postcard from a nudist colony on a Greek island, not that she had anything against nudists, but heaven help that colony and their eyes because Agatha had never been anything worth looking at when she was young with clothes on so God forbid what she would look like at 50 with no clothes on), Mrs Maccona finally remembered her dogs and wished us goodnight, waddling off into the dusky gloom.
“Isn’t she a character?” Scott grinned at me. “I sometimes wish… Claire, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Maybe I have.” I swallowed again. “Scott, did you hear what she said about… about that girl, Lizzy Carlton?”
“Yeah, that was a sad story. Poor girl. And poor Janet Parnet. Did it upset you badly?” Scott looked at me, concerned. “Was it because she – she died from catching pneumonia on Grey Squirrel Trail?”
I shook my head. “No, it’s just… remember the girl I always saw running just ahead of me along the bush trail?”
“Your fellow runner, you mean?”
“Yeah. I told you I always lose sight of her before the trail turns back to Peppermint Drive, but what I didn’t tell you is that I also always lose her just before the house with the cherry blossom trees. Cherry Blossom House, where Janet Parnet lives and where Lizzy Carlton used to live.”
Scott looked at me for a moment or two without speaking. I could see him working it out slowly in his head. “You don’t think she’s…”
“Lizzy Carlton’s ghost? I know it sounds crazy. But who else could she be? I’ve always sworn she lived in that house with the cherry blossoms. But there’s no one there except that old woman. Mrs Maccona said so. And she said no one else ever uses that trail. And she would know. You know what Mrs Maccona’s like. She knows everything about everyone on this street. If there was any other person who uses that trail as much as my fellow runner does, Mrs Maccona would be sure to know who it is.”
“I’ll ask her,” Scott said, “when I take a look at her car tomorrow. Casual-like, so she won’t think we’re talking about ghosts.” He paused and laughed a little, self-consciously. “We’re being a bit silly and jumping ahead of ourselves, aren’t we? I mean, who ever heard of a ghost runner?”
I didn’t answer him. Instead, I merely said it was getting dark and that we should start heading in. I needed a shower and we needed to start thinking about dinner.
The next evening, as promised, Scott went over to Mrs Maccona’s to take a look at her car. He came back with a plate of Mrs Maccona’s homemade caramel fudge and something else besides. As he had fixed her car for her with the good lady hovering around and chattering a million miles a minute as usual, he had casually asked if there were any runners in the neighbourhood. Claire, he said, sometimes got lonely running without a friend and he didn’t like running much himself. Mrs Maccona had answered regretfully that there were none.
“The last young girl who lived around here was Lizzy Carlton, and as I told you the other day, she died about two years ago. Very sad, it was. I’m sure Lizzy and Claire would have been good friends if only Lizzy had lived. Lizzy was such a keen runner herself. No, I’m afraid your wife will have to run all by herself, Scott. Perhaps she should get a dog to run with her. I hear greyhounds are very good for that sort of thing. People are going crazy about adopting greyhounds these days. Saving them from an early death after they’re retired from the races. I like a good greyhound race myself. That’s where I met Husband No. 3.”
“Your fellow runner might not live along our road,” Scott said. “But that doesn’t mean she’s one of the undead. Maybe she’s one of those tourists summering on the other side of the lake.”
“Maybe she is,” I answered, and we let it go at that.
Scott later told me he was worried all this talk of ghosts would put me off running again. But in a couple of days, I had laced up my sneakers and was off once more.
If you asked me, I couldn’t honestly tell you what I felt after hearing Mrs Maccona’s story about Lizzy Carlton. I couldn’t tell you whether I was afraid of seeing a ghost. But I had been seeing this woman, whoever she was, running ahead of me for days on end. And I did not feel she would do me any harm. After all, we were both runners. Runners are a notoriously close-knit and supportive community. And from all I’ve heard of Lizzy Carlton, she seemed like someone I wouldn’t mind as a friend. Certainly, if anyone was to haunt me, I wouldn’t mind at all if it were her.
She appeared ahead of me that day. Always, that glimpse of her flashing around the corner, that bundle of silky black hair pulled back in a ponytail. Once again, I found myself hurrying, trying to keep up with her. Not because I waned to see if she was proper flesh-and-blood or a ghost. But because of the challenge she embodied, the challenge to keep up with the pace she was setting, to challenge myself. Not a ghost, not a human. Just another runner.
As usual, she always kept one bend ahead of me. And as usual, she vanished when I rounded that final corner past the cherry blossom trees. I glanced once at the little crooked house as I ran past, but I saw nothing and no one.
I continued to see her all the time, on all my runs. No matter how fast I ran, she would always stay one curve ahead of me, always setting the pace for our runs, always disappearing right before Janet Parnet’s house with the cherry blossoms. In time, Scott’s curiosity got the better of him and he determined to ask Mrs Maccona about our mystery runner, certain she must know something, but I told him not to. She had become almost a secret I wanted to keep all to myself. This was a private world for us, that isolated back trail, both of us challenging and pushing one another, for I felt certain she knew I was behind her, pushing to keep up with her, pushing her onward faster than ever. In fact, the mystery of who or what she was added a little spice of intrigue to my runs. Scott and I even came to joke about it, now calling her my ‘ghost angel runner.’
A couple of months went by like this. Summer faded away and early autumn arrived with its mild days and chilly evenings. It was on one such evening that I laced up my sneakers and headed out for my usual run. Scott was in the garden, messing around with his new camera. He aimed the camera at me and took a picture as I went by. I lifted my hand to block him.
“Save it for when I’ve got make-up and a nice dress on,” I said teasingly.
“I like you in running gear with no make-up and your hair pulled back,” Scott protested. He pointed the camera at me and started taking lots of quick action shots. I laughed, turned and ran off down the road. The sound of the camera’s whirr and snap soon faded behind me.
As I passed Mrs Maccona’s house further down the street, I saw the gate had been left wide open. Mrs Maccona herself was nowhere in sight, but I could hear her bellowing from somewhere within the grounds, calling to one of her dogs. “Pansy! Paaaa-aaansy! Paaan-sy daaaar-liiing!”
A few kilometres down from Mrs Maccona’s property, I turned off the road and plunged through the forest into Grey Squirrel Trail. My feet fell into an easy and familiar rhythm as the trees closed in around me. All I could hear was the rustling of leaves and the sound of my breathing.
I used to run with my headphones permanently wired to my ears and my music turned up loud, but ever since my accident I’d stopped running with music altogether. Playing music loudly was one of the reasons I hadn’t noticed the station wagon coming at me. Now I couldn’t even handle having the volume on low.
At first I thought running without music would bore the hell out of me. But I soon came to love running in the wilderness without music, just me and the breeze and the birds and the rustle of the trees around me. I found it a calming respite from the loud noises of everyday life, the blasting of the TV or the radio, the sound of cars and jackhammers and refrigerators humming and laptops whirring. I came to love the meditative silence of my runs.
And of course there was my silent runner ahead of me. Maybe that was one of the reasons why I was so certain she was a ghost. Most pro runners know to run softly to make it easier on the knees and joints. But my ghost runner ran so silently, I never heard her footsteps, even though she was only ever a bend ahead of me.
And there she was again now, right in front. Flash – flash – flash – that jet-black hair and long tanned legs. The black-and-white ensemble she always wore. I immediately picked up my pace, hoping to catch up with her, all the while knowing that I never would and that perhaps I never would want to either. But I was enjoying myself and somehow I knew she was too. It was a game with us, a friendly challenge between two runners. She was my running buddy; I was hers.
And then – the loud rustling in the bushes to my right, loud enough to make me whirl around, jumping aside just as a huge shape, much larger than the usual squirrel or lizard, came crashing out of the foliage straight at me.
It was a man and he was onto me in seconds, clawing at me. I shrieked and tried to fight him off, but he was a lot heavier and his weight sent us both tumbling to the ground. My head hit a small sharp rock and I cried out as stars momentarily flooded my vision.
I kicked and scratched and fought, but my attacker had the advantage of being on top of me. Large, callused hands fumbled at me, and I could smell and hear his rancid hot breath, making me want to throw up. One hand clamped firmly over my mouth, muffling another scream, while the other fumbled down my body towards my shorts, and an overwhelming surge of panic flooded through me. This can’t be happening, this can’t be happening…
A female voice rang out above my muffled screams. “Leave her alone, you bastard!”
A loud thwack, followed by another thwack. Just as suddenly, those awful fumbling hands were gone and so was the weight of my attacker on top of me. I heard another loud thwack and a man’s sharp cry, full of pain and surprise and anger.
I scrambled up and stopped.
My attacker was standing before me, eyes wide open, a look of horror on his white, white face. He was staring at something behind me. Before I could say or do anything, he uttered one low moan of fear and turned and fled through the bushes, disappearing as quickly as he had come.
Slowly, I turned around, afraid of what I would see behind me. But there wasn’t anything to be seen but an enormous broken-off branch lying across the trail
I don’t know how, but shortly after, I somehow remembered I ought to get moving. Somehow, I managed to stumble on along the trail, crying and bleeding and trembling uncontrollably until I got to Cherry Blossom House. Just as I turned the corner, I heard a woman’s cry.
It was Mrs Maccona, a welcome vision of bright orange and lime green, standing on the path directly in front of me. She latched onto me in a flash with another cry. “Claire! Claire! My dear, what’s happened to you? You’re shaking like a leaf – and you’re bleeding! Did you fall? You must come up to the house at once. Janet! Janet!”
She drew me up the path toward Cherry Blossom House. In answer to Mrs Maccona’s foghorn cry, a woman emerged from the front door, dressed in a faded housecoat with long untidy grey hair tumbling about her shoulders. Together, the two of them endeavoured to get me into the house and onto a sofa. Janet Parnet went into the kitchen to make some tea while I gasped out my story to Mrs Maccona. I had enough sense in me, though, not to blurt out something along the lines of, “Lizzy Carlton saved me! Her ghost saved me!” The kitchen door was wide open and Janet could hear everything we said. Instead, I said something must have happened to frighten him and he ran away into the bushes.
Mrs Maccona said, “oh, dear, oh dear, oh dear” and “I knew it!” several times. As Janet Parnet returned to the living room with a tray of tea, Mrs Maccona turned to her and said, “Ring up the police right away, Janet. I have no doubt in my mind that that man who attacked poor Claire was Ronald Williams. I knew he’d come sneaking around here, trying to get hold of his brother the moment I heard he’d escaped from prison just two days ago. And the police didn’t even see fit to notify any of us. What were they thinking? We could all have been murdered in our sleep. Ring them up, Janet, and tell them he was last seen attacking a poor young girl along Grey Squirrel Trail not more than 10 minutes ago. Hurry now!”
Janet went away and we could hear her telephoning in the hallway. As I sipped my tea and tried to stop shivering, Mrs Maccona explained to me that Ronald Williams, the ne’er-do-well uncle of the Williamses, had escaped from the penitentiary in Old Yorke where he’d been languishing for the last two years. When Mrs Maccona heard the news on the radio just a little over an hour ago, she determined to alert the rest of the neighbourhood, beginning with Cherry Blossom House where Janet Parnet lived alone. “No doubt he’s been hiding near the lake, waiting for his chance to make himself known to the Williamses. But the nerve of him! Attacking a poor, young defenceless girl! Thank God something happened to scare him off you! I wonder what it was?”
“The police are on their way,” Janet Parnet announced as she re-entered the room, saving me from answering. “And I’ve taken the liberty of phoning your husband as well,” she said to me. “I still remember the number from way back when the Smiths used to own the place. He’s coming over as fast as he can.”
“Th-thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much.”
“Have some more tea,” Mrs Maccona said. “You’re cold as ice, my dear. Here, Janet, get a blanket for her – and some bandaids – and antiseptic. The poor dear’s scratched all over her arms and legs, and we’ll need to get someone to look at the back of your head too.”
Janet vanished again in search of a blanket and a first-aid kit. I took another big gulp of tea and looked around the room, feeling much calmer now. It was a typical old woman’s sitting room, filled with plenty of little ornamental knickknacks, a few framed Biblical mottoes and a great many photographs. Some of them featured a younger Janet Parnet and a man whom I presumed to be her late husband. There were also several more modern photos featuring a girl with an infectiously sunny smile and cropped white blonde hair.
“That’s Lizzy Carlton,” Mrs Maccona said, following my gaze. We could hear Mrs Parnet moving about upstairs, opening and shutting cupboard doors. “I told you about her – Janet’s niece, the one who died. Poor little soul. She was such a pretty young thing. Lovely skin, as white as milk, though she did freckle pretty badly in summer, especially with all that running she did.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it again. My head was whirling again as if it had just received another hard blow.
If Lizzy Parnet was a pale blonde girl with freckles, then who was the runner with the long dark hair and tanned skin always one bend ahead of me on Grey Squirrel Trail?
Scott and the police arrived just as Janet Parnet came down with a blanket and a first-aid kit. The next hour was a blur, with Scott fussing over me and the police taking my statement and sending out search teams to look for Ronald Williams – for there was no doubt he was my attacker after I identified him from a set of mug shots –and Janet Parnet calmly and gently mopping up my wounds and Mrs Maccona trying to boss everyone about, even the police. Scott wanted to take me to hospital, but I refused. The wound on my head was not bad enough to require stitches and I was fine, if a little unnerved by my experience. I just wanted to go home.
That evening, as I was safely ensconced on the lounge at home, surrounded by fluffy pillows and rugs with Scott dancing attendance on me, serving up an early supper of chicken soup and warm bread, I told him what I had not told anyone else, not even the police. To Mrs Maccona and Janet Parnet and the police, I merely said something must have happened to scare off my attacker, but what it was, I hadn’t a clue. Mrs Maccona had given her own answer promptly. “Drugs! The man was going crazy, no doubt,” with a glare at the officer taking my statement as if to imply that it was he who had supplied Ronald Williams with hallucinatory drugs.
To Scott, however, I told everything and capped it all off with my revelation in Janet Parnet’s house that the ghost of Lizzy Carlton was not my mysterious ghost runner.
“But then… who is she?” Scott asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But whoever she is – or was – she saved my life today.”
A few days later, we heard that Ronald Williams had finally been cornered by the police while in the midst of an armed robbery on a convenience store in Calloway, the next town down from Glenbury. There had been a brief exchange of gunfire and Ronald Williams had finally tried rushing the officers outside the store and was gunned down. He died in a matter of hours from his wounds.
A week after his death, Mrs Maccona informed us that the Williamses were packing up and moving to New South Wales. “I think they’ve felt terribly ashamed about what’s happened,” she said, “even though I guess it wasn’t really their fault they’ve got a relative like that. I feel sorry for them. Gemma and Alan Williams are good, kind people, on the whole, though they do lack any sort of proper backbone. From what Alan tells me, Ronald wasn’t all that bad when he was young, though he had a nasty temper, and it was the drugs that turned him. At least one good thing seems to have come out of it – their son’s received a good and proper scare now after his uncle’s death, and Gemma and Alan think removing him to a new environment and a new set of friends would be just the thing to get him to turn over a new leaf. If not, well, nothing can be done for that boy, I’m afraid, and he’ll turn out just like his uncle. Still, whether he does or doesn’t, to be sure, we won’t be bothered by any more Williamses after this.”
The Williamses moved away in a few weeks and our neighbourhood, along with the rest of Glenbury, soon returned to its sleepy little self again.
One night soon after, Scott and I went through some of the photos he’d been taking with his new camera. Among them were the pictures he had taken that fateful evening when I’d been attacked by Ronald Williams. When I saw one of the pictures, I gave a sharp cry.
It was a picture of me as I’d left the house on my run that day. And there was no mistaking that long dark ponytail and those tanned legs under the black-and-white shorts… the runner I had seen on the trail had been me.
Scott and I stayed up late that night, talking about it, trying to reason things out. Scott put it down to some psychological phenomenon, suggesting that in the wake of my accident, my brain was somehow trying to reassure me that it was safe to run again. That somehow I had summoned up some weird trick of an illusion to spur myself on, an illusion of a stronger, more confident inner self, as a form of reassurance.
“But what about Ronald Williams?” I asked. “He saw someone too, someone who actually picked up a tree branch and drove him off me. And he was afraid, as afraid as if…” I trailed off. As if he’d seen a ghost.
We would never know what Ronald Williams saw, seeing as he is dead and unable to tell any living soul what he’d seen. Had this ‘trick of the brain’, this illusion of a stronger self, been so strong as to assume material form when I needed it most, driving my attacker off me? Or had it been someone else? Perhaps the real ghost of Lizzy Carlton? We would never know the answer.
Scott was worried my encounter with Ronald Williams would succeed in scaring me off running altogether for the rest of my life. But a day or so after I’d seen Scott’s photos, I was back on Grey Squirrel Trail again. And not only that – I’ve also started running on proper roads once more. I no longer have that jittery fear of cars holding me back. There is a new sense of calmness and strength within me. And no matter how often I’ve run that little bush trail, I’ve never seen my ghost runner again. But then I don’t need to. I know who she is now and where she is. She is inside of me; she is my running buddy; she is my stronger self, my strength and my reassurance.
She is me.