Bailey leaned over the rim of the well, waiting for the echo to fade away. Sometimes it took the spirit two or three calls before it awakened.
A full minute passed. Then she heard a clear reply—as if it were right there whispering in her ear.
“Good morning, Bailey.”
The Phantom had been with her for a long while now. Once she had been close to her sister, but Natalie had run off to Vegas five years ago, and never bothered to contact the family again. The Voice had made its presence known to Bailey a year later—calling to her from the weathered, dried-up cistern in the field behind the barn. At first, because it was so familiar, Bailey believed it was her own voice—a projection of inner thoughts bouncing around in a child’s mind. But the shadow knew things Bailey didn’t—secret things.
“How are you today, Bails?”
Bailey unwrapped the wax paper from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich cut crossways, the crust neatly trimmed away. She held half of it over the opening, and then released it into the darkness. Listening closely, she could almost hear it land on the leaves below.
“Thank you for remembering. I get so hungry sometimes.”
Cautiously, Bailey leaned over, peering into the void, but the bottom was so far down that she could never clearly make anything out. Even the beam of a flashlight couldn’t penetrate the inky gloom. She tried once, lowering one at the end of a rope. Halfway down she caught a glimpse of something blue. But then the torch slipped off and tumbled into the abyss. She sat there watching for almost an hour, and thought she saw shadows flitting about it. Gradually, the warm glow faded, and the blackness returned.
She had become so engrossed in her vigil that she’d forgotten what her father would do to her for losing it. But her mother stepped in and scolded Pa, telling him that he’d taken it to the creek fishing. It was strange that her mother came to her defense. And Pa had been so drunk that he’d never remember.
Caught in the memory, Bailey’s weight slipped on a loose brick, which went careening over the edge.
“I know you’re still there, Bails. I can feel your breathing.”
She had appropriately called the voice “The Phantom,” since she wasn’t certain there was actually anything there. She’d read a book about hobgoblins and thought about that, but just saying the name aloud scared her.
Finally, she sighed and said, “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“Then you need to tell someone. They’ll take you to a…”
“No, you don’t understand. I don’t want to be here anymore.”
A stillness descended—it was now in the open.
“Pa said he’d kill me if I ever told. But Mom knows, I think.”
“But she doesn’t do anything.”
“She’s ashamed…and afraid too.”
“Because of what he did to Natalie? At least she got away. I miss her.”
“And she misses you.”
“But she’s never called or tried to come and get me.”
“Maybe she can’t.”
“Nobody’s ever going to help me. It’s all my fault. This is the only way.”
Bailey sat on the lip of the well. She stretched her arms forward like a diver preparing to plunge. The unfathomable seemed more comfortable than the known.
She paused, indecision gripping her.
“I would welcome your company. It is so lonely here. But are you sure you want to do this now?”
“You are my only friend. And it will finally be over.”
“Bailey, there aren’t many things worse than death. Trust me and I will save you.”
And then the Phantom revealed the plan.
That night, shortly after Ma had gone to bed, Bailey heard a squeak at the bottom step of the stairwell. Pa was going to “visit” again. She slid silently out of bed and stood behind the door, two feet of lead pipe in her hands. She counted the slow, steady creak of the steps. They stopped outside her door. The handle quietly turned. The door opened slightly. Pa had always been stealthy so no one ever heard.
As he entered the room, the light from the hallway crept up to her bed.
“Sweetie? Daddy’s here.”
Before he noticed that the bed was empty, Bailey brought the pipe down on the back of his head—just hard enough, as the phantom had warned her, to stun him but not knock him unconscious. Pa dropped to his knees and there was the smell of sweat and death in the room.
She stood waiting, framed in the doorway. As Pa pivoted towards her, Bailey yelled loud enough to wake the dead, “Natalie got away from you and you’re never going to touch me again.”
She paused briefly as he faltered to his feet. It helped that he was already drunk. She counted on his consistency. She ran down the stairs just fast enough to stay ahead of him, but not too fast as to discourage him from following.
“You little bitch! I’m gonna kill you!”
Bailey made it easily to the thicket behind the barn. Hiding behind a tree, she was breathing hard, but excited that this would soon be over. Pa reeled around the corner, stumbled and fell back against the barn door.
“It’s okay, honey. Your Pa didn’t mean it. Come on out now, and we’ll forget about this whole thing.”
For a moment, Bailey almost believed him and she made a move forward before she remembered his true motive.
“That was a pretty good smack, but I’m not mad at you, Sweetie. I know you didn’t mean anything by it.”
She held her breath, wondering how many nights over the years Pa had gone to Natalie’s room, and why she had never told anyone about it, especially Bailey. Then it became as clear to her as the path she was now on. Natalie had accommodated Pa to save her. But why had Natalie left, knowing that Pa would eventually turn his attentions to her?
Pa staggered into the thicket, the sound of his footsteps drawing closer. Suddenly a faint voice stopped him.
“Bailey, where are you?”
“Over here. I fell and I think I’ve hurt myself. Please come and get me.”
He bent over and picked up a piece of lumber as large as a Louisville Slugger.
“I’m comin’, baby. Daddy’ll take care of you.”
“Pa, I’m over here. Hurry!”
Now he was running at full trot toward the sound of his daughter’s voice, timber raised above his head. Abruptly, he collided with the brink of the cistern and lost his balance. He dropped the log into the pit and fell forward, rolling sideways at the last instant, saving himself from tumbling into the chasm. The sound of Pa cracking his elbow snapped loudly in the night air.
He sat there in a heap, laughing at his own awkwardness, spitting blood from where he’d bitten his tongue. “Damn! That was close.” He looked over the threshold into the murkiness. Imagining he heard a rustling far below, he decided it was just the limb bouncing off the walls on the way down. Trying to focus, he detected a faint bluish glow in the depths. “Sweetie, you must have hit me pretty hard. I think I’m seein’ stars.”
Suddenly, a brisk wind kicked up. Even though it was a muggy August night, the breeze was cold…very cold. Gooseflesh rose on his arms as he heard a faint voice call his name. He struggled to rise. “Bailey, you fall in there?”
He could not make his body move. He was frozen, transfixed as the glow brightened and seemed to rise up the shaft. As the specter drew closer, he was certain a face was emerging out of the swirling mist. The demon’s mouth opened and he heard two voices, one from below and one from behind, plaintively asking, “Why, Pa?”
He turned to see Bailey rushing towards him. He tottered once, threatening to drop over the precipice. Just as he regained his balance and braced himself to deflect his daughter’s charge, a pair of pale blue arms shot out of the well and encircled his neck, pulling him backwards. He flailed in the air, as if grasping for an imaginary branch to arrest his fall, and he was dragged down into the well without a sound.
Bailey knelt at the rim. All was quiet. No echo. No screams. No “Forgive me.” Just the cold, black silence.
The Phantom had gotten her revenge.
Ma didn’t report him missing for three days. She told the police he’d probably gone out fishing and drinking, that he’d often stay away for days. It took the dogs all of ten minutes to trace his alcoholic scent to the well. Some blood on the rim told the investigators all they needed to know. He’d gotten drunk. It was a moonless night. He tumbled over the side. A tragic accident.
Bailey and her mother watched as rescuers repelled down to retrieve the body. To everyone’s surprise, except Bailey, they also discovered the skeleton of a teenage girl, still covered in a blue nightgown. They thought it a bit odd that they had to unwrap the arms from around Pa’s neck.
As they watched Natalie’s remains brought to the surface, her mother reached out and took Baylee’s hand. With some difficulty, she looked into her eyes.
“We’ll be okay now, honey. Natalie has seen to that.”