Jess sat on the front porch rocker between her dad and Uncle Jimmy. The fall evening air was thick and sticky, almost as if summer hadn’t ended. All three members of the Honeycutt family were sweating as their chairs moved back and forth, back and forth. It was closing in on midnight and the thirteen-year-old felt lucky that she was being allowed to stay up. Her mama and two younger brothers had been asleep for hours. But it wasn’t a school night and the more her daddy and uncle sipped from their mason jars, the less she worried that she would be told to run off to bed.
It was quiet out there on the porch save for the creaking of the three chairs and the crickets chirping away in the distance. Moths swarmed the porchlight by the front door and Jess watched their shadows dance across the side of the house. Her eyes were getting heavier by the minute and she knew if she wasn’t careful, she’d fall asleep where she sat. Her head started to tilt forward but shot upright when she heard it. A screeching sound that came from far out in the field beyond their yard.
Her dad and uncle stopped their rocking. All three of them gazed out into the dark. A few seconds later they heard it again and this time, Jess jumped.
“Daddy, what was that?” she asked.
“Nothing you need to worry about,” he said.
“Yeah but what was it?” she asked again.
“Oh, just tell her,” Jimmy said. “She’s old enough to know about the hollering.”
Her uncle stood up from his chair and walked over to the railing. Her dad started rocking again.
“When Uncle Jimmy and I were just boys, not much older than you are now, we heard that same noise. Your grandma called it the hollering. She said she’d been hearing it on the farm all her life and that her mama had heard it when she was just a girl.”
“But what is it?” Jess asked.
“No one knows for sure. That’s why we’ve always called it the hollering. Because that’s all we ever hear. Sometimes, I think it sounds like an animal. Like a big jungle cat or something. Other times, I think it sounds like a woman screaming.”
“It is a woman,” Jimmy said. “Or at least it used to be a woman.”
“What do you mean?” asked Jess.
“I mean it’s some kind ghost or spirit. Of a woman who died a long time ago.”
Goosebumps formed on Jess’ arms. She looked back out in the dark but couldn’t see anything beyond the porch. She squinted her eyes, trying to find any sign of what might have made the noise. Jimmy sat back down in his chair and took a sip from his jar.
“Is it really a spirit?” Jess asked.
“Course it is,” said Jimmy.
“No one knows,” her dad said. “Because no one has ever seen it. A few family members have gone looking for it, but the hollering never comes from just one place. Sometimes it comes from the barn. Sometimes, like tonight, it comes from out there in the field. One time, before we had indoor plumbing, it was late and I was coming back from the outhouse and I swear to you, the hollering came from right behind me.”
“What did you do?” asked Jess.
“I ran as fast as I could back to the house. I had never heard it so loud and so close to me before. Didn’t get any sleep for a week.”
“You didn’t drink anything at supper for a week either,” Jimmy said.
Jess’ dad laughed at his brother’s joke and she felt a little better until they heard the noise again, making the two men leap up from there chairs.
“That’s a lot closer, right?” Jimmy asked. “I’m not just hearing things.”
Jess’ dad nodded but she couldn’t move. He reached over and gave her hand a squeeze as they looked out at the darkness beyond the porch.
“I’m going to look for it,” Jimmy said before he disappeared into the house.
“How come I’ve never heard it before?” Jess asked.
“Well it only happens at night,” her dad said. “After you’ve gone to bed. And it doesn’t have a rhyme or reason to when it calls out. Sometimes, we’ll hear it night after night. Sometimes we won’t hear it for months. This is the first time I’ve heard it all year.
Jess could hear and feel her heart pounding in her chest. “Was it really that close to you?” she asked.
“It could have reached out and grabbed me if it wanted to. After that, I felt like it was always around me. Watching me. Even on nights when we didn’t hear it, I felt like it was following me. Always getting closer. Always just about to get me.”
Jimmy emerged onto the porch holding two kerosene lanterns. He held one out to his brother who didn’t take it. A big, toothy grin spread across Jimmy’s face and he began to laugh.
“Not scared, are you?” Jimmy asked.
“I came close enough once before,” his brother said. “That was plenty for me.”
Jimmy laughed again and then held the lantern towards Jess. She took a couple of steps back from her uncle.
“Oh come on now,” Jimmy said. “I thought you were braver than your daddy.”
Jess looked at her dad. His face said she could go if she wanted. She turned back to her uncle and reached out and took the lantern from him. It wasn’t as heavy as she remembered it being when they’d lost power during a bad storm the year before and she needed it to make it up the stairs to her bedroom. She followed him off of the porch and away from the house. When she looked back, her dad was sitting on his rocker. He was smiling at her, but the color was gone from his knuckles as he gripped the armrests.
Jimmy didn’t seem to know where he was going. He just walked around, leading them further and further away from the house and holding his lantern out in front of him as if he expected to catch whatever made the noise by shinning his light on it. Jess could see the old outhouse off in the distance. No matter what her uncle said, she wouldn’t walk over there for anything. So far, their aimless wandering didn’t seem to be heading that way.
A few more minutes had passed, and Jess began to relax. They hadn’t heard anything since they had left the porch and she felt hopeful that it was gone for the night. She wasn’t sure where a phantom hollering went when it wasn’t scaring people, but anywhere was better than around her. The hollering cried out again, further away than it had been, but still loud enough to make Jess jump.
“That sounded like it came from the other side of the house,” he yelled as he ran towards the sound.
“Uncle Jimmy, wait,” she called out after him. She tried running after him but everything around her went dark. She began to fiddle with the switch on the lantern, but the flame was out. She shook it back and forth. There wasn’t much kerosene left, but enough that it shouldn’t have gone out. It didn’t matter. Without a match, the lantern was useless to her. The moon and stars would be the only light she would have until she could make it back to the house.
The hollering cried out. It had moved again. Closer than it was before. And louder. When it stopped, there was no noise. The crickets Jess had heard since they first sat on the porch were gone. Her breath floated away from her like smoke and she realized how cold she’d become. She dropped the lantern and began to run.
The house was further away than she remembered but she could just see the porchlight. She picked up her pace until she was at a full sprint, cold air filling her lungs as she ran. The welcoming glow was growing brighter and brighter. If she could just make it the last little bit, she would be safe. When she heard the hollering again, she froze. It was in front of her, cutting her off from the house. She still couldn’t see it, but she could feel it. In front of her at first but then moving all around her.
She turned, hoping to see the light from her uncle’s lantern, but there was only darkness. She turned back to towards the house and wanted nothing more than to be there, in the comfort of the porch light, close to her dad. But she couldn’t make her feet go. The hollering cried out again, louder and closer and clearer. More like the sound of a woman screaming than it ever had. It was almost as if it was saying something to her. It couldn’t be more than a few inches from her face. Her eyes were closed tight but she reached out a shaky hand, trying to find it in the dark, hoping that she wouldn’t. When she felt something grab her outstretched hand, she screamed.
“Take it easy,” said her uncle. “It’s just me.”
She opened her eyes to see him standing there, holding up the lantern and looking around. Its glow helped her feel safe enough to move and the two began walking towards the porch. The chirping of the crickets could be heard again and a gentle breeze blew in from the field. The cold she’d felt in the yard had vanished just as quick as it had appeared.
When they got to the porch, Jess turned to the darkness. There had been nothing to see all night. But as she entered the house, goosebumps formed on her arms and she couldn’t shake the feeling that something had come inside with her.
Matt Stephenson was born and raised in North Carolina. He received his bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte as well as his MFA in creative writing from The University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He currently lives in Morrisville, North Carolina with his wife, Alex and their two dogs. You can find more of his work in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and The Odyssey Online.