Halloween Ghost Story Contest -- 2020
Adult Winners

Third Place

Our third place Adult winner is Justin Alcala of Augusta, Georgia. His bio:

is a novelist, nerdologist and Speculative Literature Foundation Award Finalist. He’s the author of four novels including Consumed, (BLK Dog Publishing) The Devil in the Wide City (Solstice Publishing) Dim Fairy Tales (AllThingsThatMatterPress) and A Dead End Job (The Parliament House). His short stories have been featured in dozens of magazines and anthologies, including Power Loss Anthology, Rogue Planet Press Magazine, and Castabout Literature. When he’s not burning out his retinas in front of a computer, Justin is a tabletop gamer, blogger, folklore enthusiast and time traveler. He is an avid quester of anything righteous, from fighting dragons to acquiring magical breakfast eggs from the impregnable grocery fortress.

Most of Justin’s tales and characters take place in The Plenty Dreadful universe, a deranged supernatural version of the modern world. When writing, Justin immerses himself in subject matter, from stuffy research to overseas travel. Much to the chagrin of his family, he often locks himself away in his office-dungeon, playing themed music over, and over, and over again. Justin currently resides with his dark queen, Mallory, their malevolent daughter, Lily, changeling son, Ronan, hellcat, Misery and hound of Ragnarök, Fenrir. Where his mind might be though is anyone’s guess.

The Lantern Quietly Screams

Justin Alcala

The Underground Railroad symbolized bravery, civility and hope throughout the nineteenth century. Countless slaves escaped the perils of subjugation through safe routes and organized asylum. Captives crept, crawled and trudged through the wilds to earn their rightful freedom. Unfortunately, not all found abrogation from their servitude. Every tale of liberation sat on the shoulders of a half-dozen failures. Failures that ended in blood. Failures that still scream today.

A short time ago, four students from the University of North Georgia’s Blue Ridge Campus had been working on their group final for an Advanced History class. They wanted to learn why there were so few Underground Railroad routes coordinated through the nearby forests and mountains, an ideal path to avoid slave keeping authorities. There were very few books about the area’s shameful past, and even fewer locals that liked to discuss it. The students, who were nearing their due date, put a desperate ad out in an Atlanta paper asking for professional help. They thought they’d hit pay dirt when the granddaughter of a former slave gone Underground conductor said she’d tell her grandmother’s story.

Alma was an archivist at Emory University, who agreed to drive two hours north to personally meet the students. She gave the group coordinates of where her grandmother, also named Alma, use to guide escaped slaves. Unfortunately it was smack dab in the middle of the mosquito ridden Chattahoochee-Oconee forest. The students secured a campsite within one of the nearest recreation areas along the mountain, and waited for Alma. It was a weekday, and the forest was quiet. By sundown, a campfire flickered as the students waited with bated breath.

It was nearing nine-thirty when the forest went quiet and a flicker, no larger than a firefly’s light, glimmered in the wood line. The pitch black canvas aggrandized the pinprick glow. Slowly, the tiny blaze grew into a bead of dull flame. The students stood at the outskirts of their camp, attacking the forest with flashlights. However, every time they inched their beams to the flare’s base, the flame disappeared, only to return along a new thicket. The students began to angst, drawing closer together for fear of being stalked. The tension grew so loud that even the crackling of their campfire hushed, as if it were trying not to be discovered.

Then suddenly, a voice rang out from behind them.

Hello,” a sweet woman’s call greeted. The students leapt from their skin, some screaming while others raised flashlights like swords. Before them a petite woman with dark eyes and hair raised her hands in the air. She held a red cast kerosene lantern and wore simple tan pants under riding boots and a cozy shawl. “Wait, I’m sorry. Are you not here to hear about the Underground Railroad?”

A collective sigh lofted over the students. Dan Kilmartin, an aspiring anthropologist, pushed up his dark framed glasses as he winced.

Alma?” Dan bleated. “Alma Baker?”

That’s what my birth certificate says,” the woman declared, a weak smile curled across her cheeks. “Is everyone okay?”

The group gingerly broke apart, returning to sitting logs and perching rocks. Diana Mulberry, an endeavoring librarian, cleared her throat.

Sorry,” Diana rubbed the back of her neck. “We’re a bit jumpy.”

We saw something in the woods,” Bonnie Kozlowski, future elementary teacher, defended. “It scared us.”

They were lights,” Billy McCarthy, post-secondary history instructor, explained as he collected his notepad.

Alma nodded. “Lots of strange things in these woods. Sometimes, they try not to be forgotten.” “Likely fireflies,” Dan rolled his eyes. “Anyhow, sorry for the scare Mrs. Baker.”
“Just Alma please,” Alma insisted.
“Alma,” Dan acknowledged, trying to redirect the conversation. “We want to thank you for com-

ing out all this way. We’ve really been struggling to find anyone that wants to talk about the Underground Railroad in Blue Ridge, so any accounts you can give us about your grandmother would be greatly appreciated.”

Shame agitates minds and bites tongues,” Alma remarked before taking a deep breath. “Well, it’s late and there’s lots to do, so why don’t I just get to it. You want to know about my,” she paused, “grand- mother and the Railroad.”

The group packed together, preparing to scribble notes. Alma rested on a dead stump, grimacing as she tried to warm her hands along the campfire. A branch cracked in the distance as an owl called. The group exchanged glances before giving Alma their full attention.

To understand the Railroad of Blue Ridge,” Alma paused, “you need to first familiarize yourself with lanterns.”

Lanterns?” Billy protested, scratching his blonde patchy beard.

Are you going interrupt my entire story?” Alma challenged. Billy lowered his head and pretend- ed to write something down.

As I was saying,” Alma resumed, “if you want to understand the Underground Railroad of Blue Ridge, you need to first familiarize yourself with lanterns. You see, the guides, called conductors, use to navigate north by means of the Big Dipper. Unfortunately for Fannin County conductors, that wasn’t an option. The elevation is so close to the heavens that all the stars outshine any constellations.

So the agents, conductors, station masters and passengers in the area used lanterns for any es- capes. They’d place kerosene lamps on light posts during departure, gaslights along trees to indicate the route and lanterns in the barns of way stations. And before you ask, yes, everyone used lanterns in some sort of capacity, but the Underground Railroad of Blue Ridge turned it into an art.” Diana put her pen down and raised her hand. Alma knitted her brows. “You have a question?”

I’m so sorry to interrupt,” Diana pleaded, “but this is for a grade. Would you mind explaining why it's been so hard to find any of this out on our own? We need to find a confirming source.”

Like I said before,” Alma confirmed, “shame bites the tongue. The masters of Blue Ridge were very protective of their property, especially the living ones. They were poor men gone rich through the copper deposited in these hills, so losing shackled miners wasn’t an option. The white men formed watch- es, and punished heavily for anyone trying to escape. The things they did were so wicked, that any descendants buried the truth.”

Diana nodded and jotted down a note on her paper.

Anyhow,” Alma continued, “my grandmother married a white man and was given her freedom because of it. However, it didn’t sit well with her having freedom while so many of her old friends suffered, so she hatched a plan. Along with her husband, who was supportive as he was angelic, she made

contact with other agents up north. After some coordinating, my grandmother agreed to guide the cargo out of the county via an abandoned copper path that sliced right through the mountains. It was daunting, but my grandmother wasn’t about backing down because something was hard.

The path would be pitch black at night, so my grandmother bought every lantern in town. She set them up along the path just before sundown on the evening before an escape. Her first few treks went without a hitch, but as rumor hit town that the Underground Railroad had found its way to Fannin County, a vigilance committee was formed. These armed white men patrolled any way north with large guns and vicious dogs. My grandmother’s husband tried to talk her out of making anymore trips, but that wasn’t her nature. On a night like tonight, she set up her lantern path and made her way north.

The first few miles went without incident. However, as my grandmother trekked into the mountains with her handful of passengers, she noticed that all her signal lanterns had been extinguished. Still, there was no turning back, and in order to find her path my grandmother lit her gas lantern and tried to veil it as best she could. Everyone has goosebumps and raised hairs as they approached the trade point where a new conductor would take them to safe house for the night. Grandmother blew out her light and escorted her passengers the last mile. However, when they arrived at the checkpoint, her partner was nowhere to be found.

The group hid for longer than they’d like in the near pitch black woods, listening to the oaks moan and winds howl. When my grandmother grew bold enough, she decided that she’d light her lantern again in case her fellow conductor was lost. Only, when my grandmother relit the lantern, she quickly learned the fate of her friend. Hanging like laundry on the line was her colleague, neck cleanly broken by the rope just above them. Worse yet, as her cargo gasped in horror, the shuffling of brush from the vigilance committee closed in on them. The lantern light died along with Blue Ridge’s last Underground Rail- road run. After what those men did to the bodies, no one ever tried to escape again.”

The campers remained silent. The scratching of pen on paper wavered as the students drank in Alma’s words. Finally, after a long hesitation, Dan spoke up.

Alma,” Dan queried, “if your grandmother died, how did you learn any of this?”

Alma took a deep breath before speaking. “My grandmother’s husband donated his possessions to the county archives before he took his own life. Everything you need will be there including his journal and death records. Sadly, some say the two aren’t able to unite to this day.”

Uh,” Billy challenged, “why not?”

You don’t know the stories?” Alma questioned. Billy shook his head. “While my grandmother’s husband stayed buried, it’s said that Alma Baker still walks her route, trying to finally get her passengers to freedom. Rumor has it that on nights when the moon sleeps, you can see her lantern light flickering along the cliff’s woods. Some say she’s just reminding people of these mountains past, while others say she’s come to collect more souls for her journey. Regardless, it’s a bad omen to see her lantern light.”

Well,” Bonnie spoke up before someone could say something rude, “that’s one heck of a story. We’ll be certain to check the archives in the morning.”

Alma gave a weak smile before standing. Before the students could ask any other questions, Alma quietly collected her red cased kerosene lantern and turned the wick knob so that the fount gave out more light.

I hope my story helped,” Alma said as she unexpectedly started to walk backwards. The students stared, puzzled. They still had questions. “It’s all I have.”

All at once the group spotted a flat canopy of tiny flames glimmering in the wood line. Alma turned around and was swallowed by shadow. Diana, Dan and Billy gaped with bewilderment into the dark veil. Bonnie meanwhile spun behind them. Branches were cracking from a brilliant beam of light at their rear. The students, once again jittered in angst, huddled together in preparation for anything. A woman’s silhouette emerged from the weald. A young pretty woman in jeans, tennis shoes and a wind- breaker lit up the area with her flashlight.

Sorry I’m late,” the young woman apologized, “traffic from Atlanta was ghastly.”

Continue to the 2nd place story

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