The old shipwreck had been sitting down by the coast for as long as any of us can remember. My mother said it washed in with the high tide one night — completely abandoned — and never went back out to sea. It was the talk around Hanson’s Market, the corner store, when it first showed up.
“Don’t mess with it,” she told me once. “It’s just a mess of rusted nails and rotten wood. You’ll end up in the hospital.”
It was reason enough to stay away, but there was something else: If you believed what people said, the old shipwreck was haunted.
I never believed, even as a kid. The whole notion just seemed foolish to me. When we die, our spirits pass on to the next life. It’s the natural order of things.
Thomas, though. Thomas was a believer like none I’d ever seen. He was homeschooled, so I never saw much of him. He struggled to get the other kids to like him, so when he came to me one autumn evening nearly in tears, I knew what it was about.
“They said I was scared,” he told me. “They said there was an old journal in there, a sailor’s diary to his wife and that I was too scared to go get it.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Are you?”
He nodded. “Will you come with me?”
I shrugged thinking back to my mother’s warning about the nails and rotting boards. If Thomas managed to fall and break his leg, he’d be stuck there until morning.
“I’ll go,” I told him.
The night, the waves lapped against the shore, leaving the wet sand sparkling in the moonglow. In the middle of it, the old ship sat like a shadowed husk against the starlit night.
I went up first near an old ladder near the bow. The rusted metal held my weight as I climbed onto the upper deck and turned to hoist Thomas up behind me. He was trembling when I hauled him aboard.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked.
“Let’s just get this thing and get out of here,” I said.
“They said it was on the lower decks. We’ll have to go farther down.”
I walked at a crouch across the slanted deck and kept my center of balance low. Thomas followed. We reached the stern in one piece, where a wooden stairwell descended into the belly of the beast.
A soft wind howled through the boards, and Thomas grasped my shoulder. “Did you hear that?”
“It’s the wind,” I told him.
He listened for a moment and relaxed his grip with a half-laugh, half-shudder, then settled in behind me as I eased carefully down the stairs. I counted ten steps, each all of them held firm. The wood cracked in protest twice. Thomas jumped.
Then we were into the thick of it, the two of us looking around in near-darkness for something we would never find. I was staring into that blackness, trying to get some sense of bearings on the place, when a beam of golden light flickered to life at my feet.
“You had a flashlight this entire time?” I asked.
Thomas jumped. “S-sorry. I didn’t know how good the batteries were. I wanted to save it until we really needed it.”
I snatched the light out of his hands and waved it around the room. The place was a wreck of waterlogged wood and decay. It would’ve made sense to turn back, just to avoid the things my mother had warned us about, but we needed that journal and we’d come this far.
“Watch your step,” I said.
“Ghosts?” Thomas’s voice leapt up an octave.
I pointed. “Nails.”
We scoured the lower deck carefully over the next half hour. Thomas lingered at my side like an errant shadow. Every time I swiveled the light around to a different corner of the ship, he let out a squeak.
Finally, I rounded my light on a stack of debris that looked as though it had washed out through the main cabin. Sitting neatly atop a pile of splintered wood — almost too perfect to occur by true happenstance — I spotted the old journal.
It looked pristine in the fresh light, almost new. Shining the light on the floor, I crossed to the journal, snatched it off the pile, and turned it over in my hands.
Hanson’s Market, the rear label read.
This journal had come from the corner store in town. Someone had planted it and made fun of Thomas in order to send him scrounging around in this shipwreck to find it.
I waved it over my shoulder so that Thomas could see. When he took it from my hands, I felt a chill slip through my fingers — an unnatural cold that whispered up along my bones and wrapped itself around my heart like an icy fist.
From the corner of my eye, I caught the sight of a wispy figure floating beside my shoulder. It glowed like blue ice in the moonlight, a pale figure wearing ragtag clothing.
I heard the journal drop onto the floor behind me, the bulk of it landing with a flat slap against the surface of the deck. Every part of me trembled, but I dared not make eye contact.
Instead, I sprinted hard toward the stairs. I felt the nails lance into my feet, but I ignored the pain and pushed ahead. Behind me, the ghost wailed and followed. Taking the stairs two at a time, I ran to the stern and launched myself over the side, into the shallow water below.
A fisherman found me the following morning and returned me to my mother, who scolded me for my foolishness. She took me to the hospital, despite my insistence that we scour the ship for Thomas.
At the name, she winced and fixed me with a strange frown. “Who’s Thomas?”