Tom twisted and turned, waking up in a sweat despite the chilly air. It was the same dream again, the one with the old lady in the cabin. He lay there, eyes studying the faint shadows on the ceiling, thinking. Ben had been so sure she was a ghost.
He swore she'd walked right through the wall. It had looked like that, true, but in the shadows Tom couldn't be certain there hadn't been some opening they'd missed. She might have been a real woman, not a ghost at all.
You'd think that would bother him less, but she was so very old and frail. He started wondering if she'd needed help. He hadn't thought of that at first. They'd run back to town and told their friends about the ghost. Ben's certainty swept him along.
Then, a few weeks later, Tom started wondering. When they ran off, what happened to her? He didn't think she could have walked very far on her own. There wasn't any food or water at the cabin, and it wouldn't offer much shelter from cold or damp, either.
At night, when he tried to sleep, it tormented him. Had he let Ben talk him into running off, abandoning a woman who'd needed their help? Had she survived? By the time he began wondering, it was already too late to matter.
So he tried to put it out of his mind, but that didn't work. He kept dreaming of her. Once, a few months later, he thought of going up there, just to see. But that wouldn't help. By then, he thought her body would have decayed.
If he found bones among the rubbish on the floor, how would he know when she died? It might have been long before; they could have missed them in the dimness and clutter. Ben had been convincing, so perhaps he was right and she was only a ghost.
If he found nothing, it could simply be that she wandered outside, and lay hidden in the underbrush at the bottom of some ravine a hundred yards away. Either way, he would never be sure. He tried to talk to Ben about it once.
"I'm telling you, Tom, I saw her walk through a wall! And, even if I didn't, how could some old lady get all the way up there?"
"I don't know. Maybe she lived there once, and escaped from a nursing home somewhere. She might have come back if she was out of her head..."
"You're the one who's out of your head! Forget about it. We saw a ghost, that's all." Ben paused, then laughed. "See how crazy this is? I just said 'a ghost, that's all.' Any idea that can make a ghost story sound normal is too far out for me."
Even Tom had to laugh at that, but it didn't settle anything. He just couldn't manage to forget. After he married, he didn't have the dream as often, but it still came sometimes. When his wife died and left him alone, it began coming nearly every night.
Without warning, the old house creaked. Tom felt his heart race within him for a minute. At the sudden surge of fear, something snapped within him. He got up, fumbled in the dark for his jeans, flannel shirt, and wool hunting jacket, and slipped on a worn pair of moccasins.
He let one hand trail on the wall as he felt his way downstairs, and strode out the front door, letting it slam behind him. Under the starlight, in the chill late autumn air, he almost changed his mind, but this had been going on too long.
He ignored the battered green truck beside the house, and walked briskly along the side of the road. After about two miles, he came to the narrow track that led to the cabin. He began climbing, moving more slowly now, but he advanced steadily.
By the time he reached what remained of the cabin, the moon was up, and he could see most of the roof was gone, and one wall had collapsed. He stepped inside despite the rotted floorboards that sagged under his weight. He stood as close to where he'd first seen her as he could recall and set his jaw.
"All right. Whatever you were, whatever you are, I've got to settle this."
He waited, and thought he heard a faint murmur, but couldn't tell what it said. When his legs grew tired, he sank down among the heaps of leaves that had blown inside over the years. Overhead, an owl hooted, but he ignored it. He shut his eyes and waited.
Wind, or maybe small animals, rustled the leaves around him. Branches creaked, and more wind sighed in the treetops. Now and then, he thought he heard a voice, murmuring just too low for him to hear clearly. Finally, he thought he understood what it was saying.
No one who knew Tom suspected he'd ever go near the place again. He'd avoided the area, ever since that day so long ago. Eventually, of course, the search for him widened, and men with flashlights and walkie talkies began combing that side of the mountain.
The police sergeant who found him forgot his walkie-talkie. He stood for a long time, staring at what remained of Tom, stretched out in a hollow in the leaves. Clutched to his chest was a skull and a few bones. His father had told him the story many times, of course.
He'd even told him, once, of the time Tom came to him with his doubts. But was this just the sad result of those doubts, or was it something more? He couldn't be sure. Animals and birds had found the body long before, so he couldn't even judge by the expression on his face. He hoped he wasn't going to have nightmares about this...