This is a 'short' story if you call 2970 words 'short', that I wrote recently :)
The Ghost of a Holiday
The stone skipped across the formerly smooth surface of the vast expanse of water. It seemed to match the steady heartbeat of a contented spouse, the relaxed clarity of a perfect, peaceful life. The next rounded pebble followed, almost parallel to the first.
Jazz’s gaze followed the path of the second skipping stone, its course marked by ripples in the water. He wasn’t exactly sure what to make of the spectacle before him. How exactly did the stone do it? After all, only Jesus had walked on water, or so he’d heard.
“Why do you do that?”
A new personality was added to the mix. Jazz turned to face her, heart skipping as much as the two pebbles now somewhere in the depths of that beautiful water. Oh, he hated her as much as he was fond of her, but it was nothing that she had done to him. What she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
The idea of leaving a life of work and solitude for one of work and play didn’t seem so appealing when he thought of it, and it was her who symbolised this trade. It didn’t seem to be a fair trade. But then, how many philosophers were called Jazz? If the name didn’t fit, the person didn’t fit, as far as his grandparents were concerned. They’d always wanted a philosopher for a son, but their son had failed them, so they had turned to their third grandson, the last to flap his little wings and leave home. Their last chance to be proud of their offspring.
And, of course, Jazz had strived to do just that, ever since he learned their wish at sixteen, two years ago.
“Do what?” Jazz presently asked, studying her tanned, freckly face as he would study a book. Her dauntless green eyes flashed a challenge, and all at once, Jazz wasn’t sure what to make of her.
“Look at me like that. Just because you think that to be a philosopher means you have to be alone all the time doesn’t make it right! Don’t look at me like that.”
The longest speech he’d heard her make all day. In his silence, she had sat by the lake with him, the both of them skipping stones to pass the time.
The trip wasn’t going so well.
Jazz was quite uncomfortable now. His parents had sent him on this trip with her, because they thought he spent too much time in isolation, rather than being independent. They thought that sending him on a holiday with a friend would loosen him up a bit.
He hated the idea of needing someone; it didn’t feel right, the urge to share one’s life and work with another. What he studied he wanted to be his alone, until he was ready. And living with someone would rob him of that freedom.
“Well, Jazz? What have you got to say to me?” She stood up, not bothering to brush off the blades of stray grass stuck on her shorts and legs.
“Nothing,” he snapped, glaring up at her. “Absolutely nothing, Emilia. It wouldn’t be so bad if I hadn’t been forced to go on this trip! If you’d just asked me to, that would have been different.”
“Yeah, it’d been different because you wouldn’t have come, and you know it, Jasper!” Her voice was shrill. The birds left the trees with a cacophony of indignant screeches, but scant attention was paid to them.
Jazz flinched at the sound of his full name. He detested it, but he wasn’t about to let Emilia know that she’d gotten to him. He changed his guns. “You don’t know that, Emilia. I might have felt charitable. But I could be at home now, studying. Or doing something constructive.” Anything but playing with rocks like a child.
It was now Emilia who let loose an involuntary flinch. “So going on a holiday with a friend is a waste of your precious time?” Her eyes were bright, and looked suspiciously teary.
The fight left him. He slumped slightly, guilty. “I’m sorry,” he said, looking up at her, wanting to show his sincerity. “It’s just... complicated, I suppose.” He wasn’t really unhappy to be with her, after all. She was his closest friend, he guessed.
“Complicated doesn’t make it right,” Emilia said, sitting down again, folding her long legs gracefully.
“I never said that it did,” Jazz replied, softly. Emilia looked across at him, and felt the remorse that was positively emanating from him. She reached across and squeezed his shoulder. He felt the chunky charm on her silver bracelet butt against his shoulder.
“Hey,” she said, removing her hand, “I know you wouldn’t suggest that. After all, you’re gonna be a philosopher, aren’t you? And philosophers know everything...”
Jazz snorted. “Yeah, right. A philosopher named Jazz. I’m not going for it anymore.” The perfect sense of adamant clarity had finally arrived.
Emilia looked puzzled. “Why not?” she asked. “Isn’t it what you said you wanted to do?”
“I did, but now... it seems as though I’m not doing it for myself anymore. Maybe I don’t want to be a philosopher. I wouldn’t be able to make you – I mean, a woman – happy if I was locked up in my study all day.” He glanced across at Emilia, to see if she’d noticed his slip up. She didn’t appear to have; she was staring across the water contemplatively.
“I guess so. But you have to make sure that changing career paths is what you want, not what a woman wants.”
A thoughtful silence ensued. Jazz was starting to wonder what he was going to say next when Emilia solved the problem for him.
“So, you’ve stopped sulking?”
“I might well have,” Jazz said, straight faced. “So, why choose a lake for a day of sightseeing?” he asked.
Emilia shrugged. “It’s supposed to be inhabited by rock monsters or something,” she said. She caught her friend and classmate staring, and conceded. “All right,” she said, “there aren’t any monsters here. It’s just that it’s such a nice lake, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I guess I would.” Jazz crawled to the bole of a tree and leaned against it. Emilia followed, and sat next to him, her elbow nearly touching his.
“I think that we should go on trips like this more often,” she said, almost sleepily. Jazz hadn’t shared a room with her, so he didn’t know what sort of ridiculous hour she’d stayed up to, calling home; Switzerland was quite some time behind Australia.
“Maybe,” Jazz replied, noncommittally. There was no way he’d have time, assuming he got where he wanted to...
“There you go again, Jazz, always over thinking.” Emilia’s voice had grown quite faint. Jazz turned to see her eyelids drooping, and her head was tilting slightly.
“Oh, go ahead,” Jazz said, nodding as best as he could at his shoulder. Emilia smiled her gratitude, and leant her brunette head against his shoulder.
“It’s okay,” he murmured, but heard her breathing change; she was asleep.
“Some company you are,” he said with a smile, and tilted his head back to lean against the trunk of the tree.
The Swiss air was cool, fresh and crisp. The proverbial and physical birds were singing in the trees, loving the blue sky, and the water lapped against the edge of the lake with small splashing sounds. The soft grass was the ideal seat for such a view. Jazz admired the picturesque surrounds, and reflected that it was so beautiful that not even a postcard deserved to be graced with such an image.
At that moment, he didn’t hate Emilia. He loved her as his closest friend.
He didn’t know how long he sat there, admiring the scenery, listening to the sounds around him. It was so natural, he thought, the birds, the water, the wind in the trees. And Emilia’s soft snores.
It was when he lost track of time that the unease started to grip him, but he didn’t know why he felt uneasy. It was this that got to him the most. Emilia was still asleep, though she moved for the first time since she’d laid her head on his shoulder. So, even the sleeping knew that something was amiss.
Jazz tried to discern what exactly was wrong. There was no clichéd dark cloud obscuring the sun, no cold creeping up on him... no, it was that the birds had stopped their chirping.
He knew from his reading on topics tangential to biology that these things happened when something dangerous was near. A predator. Birds stopped singing, and got the hell out of there, he recalled. But strange; he hadn’t heard them fly away yet.
Although he’d deny it, he felt apprehension begin to get the better of him. This wasn’t right. The birds were still in the trees, and deep down inside, Jazz knew it, and also knew that they should have flown away.
The breeze also seemed to slow and halt, too, which Jazz vehemently disagreed with. His conscience told him that he was insane; the breeze just didn’t do that. And as soon as he said that, the temperature dropped, too.
The trip really wasn’t going so well.
“This is just freaking me out,” Jazz mumbled, and he reached across his torso with his left hand to gently shake Emilia. Later, he would insist that he had no idea why she’d woken up at that point in time, but then, all he wanted was for another human being to be awake and confirm what he had detected.
“Emilia,” Jazz said as Emilia lifted her head, “what do you hear?”
Emilia seemed puzzled. “Jeez, it’s cold,” she muttered. Jazz’s heart plummeted. On one hand, he now knew that he wasn’t insane, but on the other hand, he wasn’t sure if being insane wasn’t such a bad idea right about now.
“And,” she continued, slowly, “Why is it so damn quiet?”
Jazz’s restlessness reached a climax. His eyes flicked around, seeking a rational explanation.
And he found an explanation, though not a rational one.
Later, Jazz and Emilia would try to remember what exactly what they had seen, but weren’t able to; they could only remember what they heard. And Jazz would also give up philosophy for life, and study science instead. He’d always enjoyed Chemistry and Physics at school, anyway.
The wind had completely stopped, and the water of the lake had gone totally still. It wasn’t even remotely moving, Jazz saw. He commented in a whisper to Emilia, who just nodded, and moved closer to him. Jazz didn’t protest when she took his hand and squeezed it, hard. He could feel her pulse racing, and realised that his heart was about ready to beat right out of his chest. There was something so strange about the scene that unnerved him.
Something seemed to be floating on the still water, but there was not a single ripple coursing from it. Physically, there should have been, and Jazz knew that he wasn’t hallucinating when he heard Emilia’s breath catch in her throat.
The trip really, really wasn’t going so well. Jazz wondered if food poisoning was involved.
Things got worse when the floating object started to float towards them, on the motionless water, leaving no ripples, unlike the pebbles skipped earlier.
It was silvery and grey, and didn’t seem completely there; it didn’t seem tangible. Jazz’s eyes were riveted to it, and he knew that Emilia’s were, too. It wasn’t until the first pebble was hurled that he tore his gaze away.
“Oh my God! Don’t do that,” Emilia begged.
Jazz was startled; he hadn’t been aware of him lifting his left arm, pebble in hand, throwing and following through. The pebble had hit the thing square; it had been a perfect throw. Things weren’t so perfect when the pebble passed clean through.
“Oh my God,” Emilia repeated when the stone went straight through. And the silvery substance was still moving closer.
“I’ve decided that if we get out of this alive, we’re not coming here again,” Jazz said, weakly.
“I’ll second you on that,” Emilia said, voice faint.
“We’ll find somewhere else to go,” Jazz offered.
“Th-thanks,” Emilia replied, her voice shaking so hard that Jazz hadn’t quite recognised that one word when he first heard it.
The silver object was close enough to see clearly now, and Jazz was nervous enough to throw up. He was further alarmed when he saw it for what it was.
“That’s a head,” Jazz said, feeling thin bile rising up his oesophagus. He swallowed it, and forced himself to focus on the translucent head. “I don’t believe it.”
“You’d better start,” Emilia whispered hoarsely. “It’s a head. But what is it?”
The head seemed to grow from the water, just as insubstantial as ever. The water didn’t even react as though anything was moving in it; it was as still as ever.
It grew a neck, shoulders, arms, torso and legs, before stepping clean from the water. The figure didn’t compress the grass underfoot, and there was no water dripping from the pearly knee-length dress she wore. Her hair was braided down her back, and she had a boater that appeared to be waterlogged in one hand. She was hauntingly beautiful, and looked like she belonged to an era long past.
She walked towards them, and Jazz saw a space in the translucent forehead. He recognised that as the point where the pebble had passed through.
“I don’t believe it. She’s got a hole in her head...”
“I told you not to throw,” Emilia whimpered.
“What is it?” Jazz asked, whispering. He’d read so many tales about creatures that lived in lakes such as this. She could be one of those... but the stories were myth. There was no scientific proof.
“A ghost of a holiday,” the pearly woman, born of the water, rasped.
Emilia squealed and buried her face into Jazz’s shoulder. Jazz gripped her arm, swearing to himself that he’d never let go.
“I have been here for ninety six years,” the ghost continued. Jazz shuddered; the air was still cold, the birds were silent and there was no breeze to stir the water.
“I was here on a holiday, much like you and your companion here, with a beau. We were young, and I thought that we were in love. I had agreed to meet him here. But he betrayed me. I ended up in the lake, a dead wench.”
Emilia was sobbing by now, a complete shadow of her normal assertive self. The school bully of their earlier years? No sweat. But a translucent paranormal life form? Forget it.
But Jazz wasn’t handling it much better either, he had to admit. He was about ready to get up and run.
“Why are you silent? Surely my story merits some sort of recognition,” the ghost said, crossly.
“It’s a sad story,” Jazz said. At least, that’s what he meant to say. He never knew afterwards what he said.
“Don’t trust him, young one,” the ghost said, addressing Emilia. “I learnt the hard way.”
Emilia clutched at Jazz, and he instantly felt protective of her. “Don’t trust me?” he demanded, angered. “Emilia knows me a lot better than you do.”
“Just go away,” Emilia choked. Jazz glanced down at her, and took in her deathly pale face. Her eyes seemed to be unnaturally large, and he wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold out.
The woman met Jazz’s eyes, gaze boring into them. “Heed my warning, young girl,” she said, still addressing Emilia. “Those to whom you bequeath the most trust are the ones who will betray you worst.” And with that, she began to fade away, disappearing into the returning breeze.
The trees swayed again, leaves brushing together. The birds started to twitter once more, and the lake rippled with the light wind. And the warmth of the sun reached Jazz and Emilia again. In fact, it seemed as though nothing had happened.
Jazz had expected Emilia to leap up and run the moment the ghost had disappeared. But she had stayed where she was, gripping him like there was no tomorrow. They had stayed like that for a good half hour.
“I wonder why her lover did that to her,” she asked, voice completely normal.
“It turned out that he didn’t love her,” Jazz commented.
“Well, why he did it, anyway.”
Jazz sighed. “You had the chance to ask her,” he said, carefully testing the boundaries.
Emilia laughed lightly. “I was too scared. Do me a favour and not drown me, all right?”
“If you insist,” Jazz smiled, about to add more. But Emilia reached around and hugged him, hard, and then kissed his cheek.
“I’m sorry if that was out of line,” she said, seriously. Jazz could hear the smile in her voice.
“No,” he said, softly, “it wasn’t.”
Emilia laughed again. “Well, then, I suppose that we’re now official.”
“If that’s what you want. It’s what I want,” Jazz hastily added.
Emilia sobered up. “And that’s good. Because it matches what I want. So,” she said, as though she had ascertained what she had wanted to know, “we’ve got to come back here again, and see if we can find our silvery friend, right?”
“Well, if you’re up for it, then I am too,” Jazz replied, grinning.
Emilia smiled, and stood up, stretching. She met Jazz’s questioning gaze. “Well, I have to go and get some more rocks, don’t I?”
“You’re not trying to summon her, are you?”
“Nope. Just want to skip more stones.”
Jazz watched her walk to the lake’s edge, and retrieve more stones. He smiled, contented, knowing that he was now grown up and ready to play.