It is an undeniable truth that in the small hours of the morning, reality becomes distorted. Sometimes a fairly strong breeze sets in, strong enough to make the leaves on the trees shiver and rattle like the bones of long-forgotten creatures, ancient and mysterious. When a person steps outside into this darkness, and stares out across fields and the abandoned road, they become aware that they are utterly alone. Toads grumble in the grass and bats fly overhead. If that person chooses to look up, the surface of planet Earth has a way of racing up to meet the gently smoky sky, a dizzying effect that causes knees to shiver, for fear that the two planes will clap together and crush anything in between. The face of the sky peers back, curious at who dares to break the frozen night. One may feel infinitely tiny yet wildly important to all of time; for if one were not awake to live this moment, it would pass into eternity past having never been known. These were the exact thoughts of Francis Baulden.
Francis believed herself to be a ghost of some sort, though she was, it must be noted, very much alive and in excellent health. But being a ghost of the alive variety for more than five years had turned her into a bit of a hermit, with a touch of madness. No, she knew that she breathed and blinked and bled, but she couldn’t help feeling there was something else to her. Perhaps she spent too much time alone, but she didn’t mind it. People were difficult, she thought.
Francis would put on an impractical, frilly grey dress and very practical rubber boots, grab a flashlight, and set out at four in the morning every day to look at the world in its throes of Slightly Off. Her activities in these precious few hours consisted almost solely of looking for toads in the grass and wading in the shallows of the bog. If she were lucky, she could frighten anyone who came across her by simply shutting off her light, standing there, and staring. This last part she took intense delight in, as a validation of her Ghostliness. It was a misty May morning and someone had seen her.
Francis dropped the toad she had been holding and wiped her hands on her dress frantically. She hadn’t noticed a man in the bog with her until he was less than ten feet away. She fumbled with her flashlight, shutting it off just as the man’s silhouette began to approach her. Her heart pounded in her ears. The bogwood’s edge was her special place. Intruders were supposed to run if they saw her. And yet, here a stranger wandered too close for comfort. It scared her more than she’d like to admit. She stood firm and stared with wide eyes at the man.
“Um. . .are you alright?” he asked. Francis stared. The man fiddled with the zipper on his jacket and glanced around, unnerved. “I asked you a question,” he said louder.
“I am.” Francis said. He was a very average-looking man, she thought. A little disheveled, which made her suspicious. “What are you doing here?”
“What’s your name? I’m Ellis. Are you okay?”
“You already asked me that.” Francis’ eyebrow twitched in annoyance.
“Right. Well. I don’t think you should be alone out here.”
“Why? I live here.” Francis unconsciously stepped towards him.
“Because, you could get hurt or lost. Nobody would find you. You’d turn into a bog mummy!”
“. . .I don’t think I’d mind being a bog mummy, eventually,” she said. “It’s a kind of romantic idea.” Ellis shook his head and let out a short little laugh.
“You’re nuts.” She noticed the humidity caused his brown hair to curl and frizz. It bounced. Ellis turned and began to leave as quickly as he’d arrived. “If you’re sure you’re alright then!” Francis could only watch him go.
“My name is Francis!” She shouted into misty air though his back gave her no indication of hearing. She shivered and frowned; her muddy dress was cold and Ellis had ignored her question. “Not very polite of him,” she whispered to herself. She didn’t see him again for several days.
“Hello,” Ellis’ voice exploded right next to her ear. Francis’ fist jerked backwards instinctively in a punch. She whirled around with her flashlight raised.
“I could have knocked your lights out,” she spat. Ellis smiled and bounced on his toes. She rolled her eyes, but lowered her clenched fist.
“Ah, but you didn’t. Are you hungry?” he held up a tote. “I made oatmeal. It’s maple sugar.” Francis eyed the bag warily, but nodded.
“If you’re trying to poison me, I’ll know. You’ll regret it.”
“I’m not!” Ellis protested. “Why would I want to do that?”
“Turn me into a bog mummy, maybe.” Francis felt her cheek twitch into a smile in spite of herself. “If you want to sit, there’s a good log over here.”
Ellis made fantastic oatmeal, Francis decided. It somehow complimented the stars and the feeling of soft ground underneath her boots, and warmed her from the inside out.
“You never answered my question,” she said.
“Hmph?” he grunted around a mouthful of oats.
“Why are you here?” Ellis said nothing, instead choosing to shovel a final spoonful of oatmeal into his mouth and began to clean up the dishes he’d brought. Francis did her best unnerving stare, eliciting a chuckle from him. Finally, he spoke.
“I wanted to see if you were here again. You intrigue me.”
Francis fiddled with the hem of her dress. The idea that anyone would ever want to see her a second time hadn’t crossed her mind until now. She twitched. Her Ghost Façade was beginning to crack, and yet, she didn’t dislike him nearly as much as she had.
“I am sorry to leave you; I have a real job I have to get to.” Ellis shot a wink at her, collected his tote, and patted her shoulder. “Be safe doing. . .whatever it is you do out here.” She felt heat rise in her cheeks at the gentle weight of his hand on her shoulder.
“I have a real job!” she objected.
“Yeah? What do you do?” Francis studied his freckled face. He was teasing her! The audacity! Francis folded her arms.
“I do illustrations. And paint.” Ellis laughed and turned to leave.
“I should have guessed. That explains a lot,” he said over his shoulder. “Good for you! See ya later, Franny!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she called. He gave her no reply. For the first time in her life, being ignored actually bothered Francis.
Ellis’ visits continued on and off well into the summer, usually with some form of snack in the tote. After that second meeting, Francis had discovered she enjoyed his company. She would give him feathers she’d found, or interesting rocks in exchange for the food, and they’d talk and explore together. Francis’ daily life faded even more out of her central focus, and every minute spent sitting at her desk drawing little gnomes and animals for children’s books was a minute she’d rather be back in the wetland with her friend. She enjoyed everything about that time, especially when Ellis started bringing along a little radio to add some human music. From four a.m. to seven every day was when she felt alive. Their time together grew from unfamiliar caution to comfortable relaxation. But the peace couldn’t last forever.
“There’s going to be a storm here. Just you wait, those big trees over there have a lot of dead limbs. It’s going to be a wreck. You shouldn’t be out here this week.” Ellis was leaned back in a grassier area in his shirtsleeves, his tinny little pocket radio playing some bluesy tune. Francis paused in her wading in the shallows to look at the red sunrise coming through the pines.
“You’re right. I wonder how bad it’ll be.” Like a response, the wind picked up and whipped her black hair back. Ellis grinned and splashed over to stand in front of her. He took her hand, fingers intertwining with her own.
“No matter. It’s a beautiful morning right now.”
Francis’ eyes widened. “Excuse me! What-?”
“Do you know how to dance, Franny?” His eyes sparked with mischief, voice softer than normal. Francis’ ears burned, but she couldn’t tell why.
“Only from what I’ve seen in movies,” she said.
“Good enough. Dance with me?”
“. . .Alright.” His other hand rested on the small of her back and they swayed together, water and lily pads around their ankles. The pink sunrise behind Ellis illuminated his hair like a halo, the toads croaked as if they were singing along to the music, and Francis felt a laugh bubble up inside her. The ghost and the wanderer. They were a good, odd pair.
The red sun said there was going to be a storm.
Late in the evening, a clap of thunder rolled across the bog like it was announcing doomsday and the wind that cracked the dying pines screamed back a retort. The rain had been pouring down for hours and the bogwood flooded quickly. Francis looked out the window of her little cabin to watch. Lightning flashed. A figure stumbled beyond the glass. Francis’ pressed her nose to the window, eyes wide. She squinted against the lighting that flashed again. The figure stumbled, raised an arm, and fell. She shot up, yanked on her rubber boots and raincoat, grabbed her flashlight, and sprinted out into the storm, shouting the only name she could think of.
“Ellis?!” Francis trudged through the mud as fast as her legs would take her, to the place where she thought she saw the person fall. The wind and rain kept pushing her hair into her eyes and the thunder rolled, almost deafening. This kind of lightning could easily strike and kill someone, she thought. Her flashlight caught a cream shape in the dark. Sodden and empty, Ellis’ tote lay on the ground.
Something deep in Francis’ chest broke. Ellis was lost. Her annoyance at him that he dared to invade her alone time in the bogwood’s edge had vanished long ago, transformed into something new. Her friend whom she loved, hurt and alone, flashed through her mind. For a moment, raw terror gripped her so hard she fought to breathe. Rain blinded her, and yet she pressed on. She was going to find him. Francis wandered the howling bogwood’s edge like a spectre, haunting it.
“Ellis!” She shouted into the dark. The thunder rolled over her voice. She pushed her hair out of her eyes and shouted for him again, silently cursing herself for not bringing her phone. A faint cry carried on the wind answered her, so she plunged into the dark towards it. The sun was rising again. She was going to find him even if it killed her.
And she did find him. It took more than two hours of searching. Her flashlight died, and after a while, her voice grew hoarse from yelling, but there Ellis sat, leaning against their log by the shallows. He smiled at her weakly; he looked pale in the dim daylight.
“Hello, Franny,” he said. “Incredible how you can get turned around in this place when it’s this bad of weather.”
“Hello, yourself! Why on earth were you not home?!” Francis sloshed through the water to help him up.
“I got worried about you. You live alone in the middle of nowhere.” Francis glowered at him.
“That’s stupid! You almost got yourself killed, and for what?” She rubbed his cold hands. “I’m fully capable of taking care of myself. Don’t ever do this again! If that’s not the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is. Why I-,”
“Franny,” He said. She continued her lecture, pulling him along towards her house. “Franny!” Ellis said louder and planted his feet. Her arm jerked and she was forced to stop walking. She fell silent. “It wasn’t smart, you’re right. But,” he reached up and pushed her wet bangs back. “I knew you’d find me. I’m not hurt, just a little banged up.” Francis pushed her face into his shoulder without thinking, and he wrapped his arms around her.
“. . .I’m glad you’re alright,” she said.
Francis Baulden, local haunter of the bogwood’s edge and general disliker of people, felt a warmth bloom inside her. Ellis, never once been bothered by her abrasive attitude, had become her closest friend. And so, the pair fell in love with each other as much as they loved the wetlands, though it would be some time before either of them acknowledged it.
It is, after all, an undeniable truth, that in the small hours of the morning, reality becomes distorted. A young woman in a grey dress can look very much like a ghost, a familiar stomping ground can become a dangerous maze, and a young man can look like a threatening figure. Perhaps, it is a good thing that the small hours do not last very long and, like all dark times, it eventually comes to an end.