Tiffany Michelle Brown
Rachel believes in the dark power spun between teenage girls at sleepovers. It’s a special magic that crackles in the air when they gather, a product of their collective energy. It’s the type of magic that allows girls to levitate during rounds of Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board. It renders no truth is too personal, no dare too dangerous. It allows girls to defy the rules of the universe and stay up all night without experiencing so much as a flash of fatigue.
This magic, Rachel feels it deep in her belly. She knows it’s real.
Ghosts, however? They’re just the stuff of stories.
The stench of musty straw makes Rachel dizzy as she steps into the dim of the Ryans’ barn. According to Kirsten, the hulking structure dates back to the 1700s. It’s dark and deserted and spooky and just might be the perfect place for late-night shenanigans.
When Kirsten invited the girls to her grandparents’ home in the country—an old farmstead complete with a tractor, no neighbors in sight, and a surplus of space—Rachel’s brain whirled with possibility. She and her girls could get into quality trouble there.
However, the farm has proven to be less romantic than expected. While the girls have plenty of room to gallivant and shout, it also smells like a petting zoo, and Kirsten’s grandparents are, like, a thousand years old and kind of curmudgeonly. Rachel feels strangely out of place amid the green expanse.
But it’s just for the night, and the girls are pros at this sleepover thing. They’ll make their fun, come hell or high water or horses that are bent on biting little-girl fingers. The horses are in the stable, so Rachel’s safe in the barn.
“Take it off,” Ashley shouts. She’s huddled next to Kirsten and Malia right outside the barn door. The threesome is nothing but dark silhouettes in the night holding blinding flashlights. Malia wolf whistles, and then the group swing their flashlights and they catch Rachel in their beams.
This is an epically stupid dare, Rachel decides. But they’re just getting started, so what did she expect? It’s only eleven, a respectable hour, and nothing good will happen until around two when they’re sugar-addled and bored and that teenage girl-magic has its claws in them.
Rachel tosses her flashlight into the straw and pulls her nightshirt over her head, revealing the lime-green bra she bought specifically for this get-together. She knew she’d get the chance to show it off during the course of the night.
Cool air bites her skin, and she holds a shudder hostage between her shoulder blades. She can’t show an ounce of discomfort or insecurity. If she does, she loses, and she can’t possibly lose at such a lame dare.
“Rach, that colour on you, yes,” Malia shouts.
Rachel does a little shimmy (more catcalls) and then clears her throat, signaling the start of her performance. She has a shit singing voice and the song is out of her range and it’s kind of cold, so Rachel’s voice snags and breaks as she belts out the first few lines of her favourite witchy pop song. She struts around the barn while the girls giggle and shout approvingly.
Once she’s found her groove, Rachel goes on autopilot, singing and sauntering like she’s in a music video. Beneath the spectacle, she’s low-key bored and lets her mind wander.
She glances up at the roof of the barn, which is high and feels like a million miles away. There’s a lofted area that cuts the space in half horizontally, but she doesn’t see a ladder, so Rachel wonders how anyone gets up there. Perhaps the ladder is elsewhere, but Rachel doesn’t remember seeing one anywhere on the property. Odd.
“My grandma won’t set foot in there,” Kirsten had said earlier that day, smiling conspiratorially, twisting blades of grass between her fingers. “She thinks it’s haunted.”
“Bullshit,” Rachel said.
“No, it is. Back in the 1800s, there was…an incident. A bunch of girls our age died in there.” She inclined her head toward the barn.
“What kind of incident?” Ashley asked, making excellent use of air quotes.
“A fire, a murder, a flood, I don’t know,” Kirsten said, waving off the question.
“So something happened, but no one can say what, and now there are ghosts?” Rachel rolled her eyes. “I’m pretty sure that’s the story for every rickety barn out here.”
“God, you’re killing our fear buzz,” Ashley said, elbowing Rachel.
Kirsten replaced her smile with a serious, melodramatic expression. “Grandma says she hears giggling.”
“Giggling?” Malia asked.
“Laughter is so terrifying,” Rachel said, sarcasm pouring from her lips.
Kirsten shrugged. “Your funeral, Rach.”
The only giggling Rachel hears as she traipses about the barn, singing about witches and warnings and seduction, is from her friends, who are eating up her one-woman concert. She moves her body and grinds her hips and at one point even sinks to the ground and rolls around in the straw, because why the hell not?
It happens when Rachel pushes herself to her feet and brushes the straw from her pyjama pants. She’s suddenly enveloped in darkness. Complete pitch, thick as smoke. She hears a deafening thwack and realizes the barn door has slammed shut.
She remembers where the door is supposed to be and sprints through the gloom, her palms outstretched, hoping her memory is right. But she runs too hard and her arms buckle when they grasp for purchase. Her forehead cracks against wood, and Rachel tumbles backward. Straw scrapes her skin, and pain throttles through her. She feels liquid trickle down her brow. She wonders if that’s a splinter she feels embedded in her skin and if she might have a concussion.
Rachel hears screams and shuffling on the other side of the door. She leaps to her feet, ignoring the pain, and bangs her fists against wood. At first, her cries are angry—“This isn’t funny, assholes! Let me out!”—but they quickly turn tearful and desperate—“What’s going on? Kirsten? Somebody help me”—when she realizes her friends are just as confused and frantic.
Rachel hears Ashley telling a 9-1-1 operator about their emergency, and Kirsten says she’s going to wake up her grandparents. Rachel doesn’t get the opportunity to thank them for trying to save her. Something cold as stone covers her mouth. An alliance of freezing hands grabs her arms, legs, torso, and pulls.
Rachel is flying backward, she knows that, but it’s so dark, she’s lost her orientation and it feels like a dream. No, a nightmare. She closes her eyes, the only control she has left.
Her flight ends, and Rachel’s body is lowered to the ground. The majority of the icy hands flee her body, but the strongest remain clamped around her ankles and wrists, holding her down, gagging her mouth. Rachel struggles and flails and twists and tries to scream.
They let her, the things in the dark, knowing she’s human and she’ll tire quickly.
When she finally stills, Rachel hears scraping noises and then her skin is stabbed and tickled by fine pieces of…something. As more and more of it falls against her, Rachel sniffs. It’s straw. She’s being buried.
The hand clamped over her mouth is so cold, her lips grow numb. The tears that streak down her cheeks are hot as boiling water in contrast. The burial continues until the weight of the straw is thick and oppressive. Even if they leave, let her go, Rachel will never be able to dig herself out.
The burying noises cease. Finally, the hands are gone. Rachel opens her mouth to scream, but dirty straw tumbles in. She sputters and spits and gasps, but quickly discovers there isn’t a lot of air under here. It’s dense and hot and scarce, and Rachel knows what will happen next.
She closes her eyes and prays for magic.
Rachel is sitting in the loft of the barn. Luminescence hangs in the air around her, providing just enough light for her to see in front of her. As she adjusts to this new landscape, a thought, hard and sure, sparks through her head. She doesn’t feel right. She feels…insubstantial. Like a dollar store plastic bag. The paper casing for a straw. The skeleton of a leaf.
Also, they’re staring at her.
Teenage girls sit in a circle in the middle of the loft. Their figures are pearly and fluid, like opalescent smoke. They sit and drift and disappear and reappear and stare all at the same time. Rachel makes out glimpses of clothing: a bonnet and a long dress – the kind girls wear in period films, a Scrunchie around a wrist and lace-adorned socks, a choker and midriff top featuring a band Rachel’s never heard of, a pleated plaid skirt – short and creased just so.
She knows whose hands drew her into the darkness, held her down, and covered her with straw. This time, it isn’t the smell of hay that makes her dizzy.
Rachel wants to scream, wants to run, wants to rewind time. But as she stares at these eager beings, as she senses their energy, she knows none of that is possible. She’s one of them now. And you can’t escape yourself.
Suddenly, she wants to laugh, because she was right. Teenage girls are brimming with collective magic. They know how to get in trouble, how to get their kicks, whether in life or in death. The ghost with the choker speaks, and her voice is an echo through an empty well. “Hey, new girl, truth or dare?”
Tiffany Michelle Brown ran away from the scorching deserts of Arizona to live near breezy California beaches. Despite a sunny disposition, she’s inspired by the macabre and once had a heart-to-heart with a ghost over a pumpkin beer. Tiffany’s work has been featured by the NoSleep Podcast, Cemetery Gates Media, Sliced Up Press, and Fright Girl Winter. You can find her online at her website or on Twitter @tiffebrown.