Halloween Ghost Story Contest -- 2020
Middle School Winners

Third Place

Our third place middle school entry was written by Lorien Strange, a thirteen-year-old homeschooled resident of Cavendish, Vermont. Ms. Strange also won last year. She is an aspiring author and the elder sister of Luke Strange, author of Spooky Times.

They Fly Out In Winter

Lorien Strange

The warm smell of crackling logs dominated the air in the barn, mixing with the sounds of low murmuring and the occasional bought of gay laughter. Ko opened his eyes. He was warm and curled up against his mother, letting her sleepy breathing sway him back and forth. He burrowed into her dark hair—a rush of good smells washed over him—and slowly he let himself drift into a half-sleep.

He was home: safe, with no intention of moving. Their wooden home—once an old barn— was high above the glistening waters, the once pounding waves of Lake Champlain stilled into an icy winter silence. 

And back in the barn, the men downstairs laughed and drowsily conversed as Ko and his mother relaxed into and undisturbed sleep. He liked it this way: just Ko and his mother. No one else.

He fell asleep, murmuring softly to himself, Just Ko, just Ko… 

Big brother?” Amy shrieked from below, disturbing Ko’s reverie. He looked down at his vivacious younger sister somewhat reluctantly. He gave her a wide-eyed raised-eyebrow look that said, Are you seriously bothering me right now? But a playful smile flicked underneath it, and Amy giggled as Ko slowly climbed down from his bed. 

Come on, Ko, come play with me!” She grabbed his leg and dragged him as far as a young girl not long out of toddlerhood can. “I want to play tag with you!” 

Ko sighed and looked down lovingly at his little sister, who was latched on to his leg pathetically. 

All right,” he said, scooping her up in his arms. “Just give me a moment and I’ll be right there.” 

But that’s what you always say!” Whined the ever-dramatic Amy as she slumped out of Ko’s arms. “Can’t you just play with me for once without daydreaming about Rema for an hour first?”

Ko turned bright red. “She’s not my girlfriend.”

Did I say she was?” Amy danced about with a mischievous smile. “Ko loves Rema, Ko loves Rema!”

If Ko had crimson on his face, it was scarlet now. 

Let’s just play.” He muttered and rushed out of the room. Amy giggled and ran after him, her arms flailing wildly. 

The maple’s glittering leaves swayed gently in the autumn breeze Ko reflected on his situation. He could hear his mother calling not too far from where he hung quivering with the leaves. Amy and his mother didn’t know where he was, and even though Alice did, Ko knew he wouldn’t be told on. After all, neither of them wanted Amy nosing around their special tree. 

He knew that he’d have to move soon or else risk his mother discovering his hiding place. Ko and Alice used this tree to get away from their mother, as well. He pressed closer to the age-roughened bark and closed his eyes. How had it all happened? 

He had been running after Amy, Alice, and their friend Sadie. They were playing a particularly rambunctious game of tag when it happened.

You can’t catch me, Ko!” Shouted Sadie as she leapt across the room. Ko sped after her, trying to satisfy her by not running too quickly.

You’re too fast!” Said Ko, feigning exhaustion. He bent over and pretended to pant heavily for a moment. The little girls exploded in laughter as he dragged himself across the floor, tripping over his toes before finally sinking into the ground.

Amy ran up to Ko and looked down on him with glee. “You’re too slow, big brother.”

Ko panted a few more times as if accepting defeat, then suddenly swung his arm out. “Tag!” He shouted and sprinted off.

Amy shrieked and ran after him. She soon realized that Ko was too fast for her and careened around to go after Sadie. 

The room was alive with giggles as the two girls rushed around the room, knocking into the walls and anything else that happened to be in the way. Ko and Alice waited for Amy to tag Sadie in a corner of the room, narrowly avoiding a crash.

Then Sadie put on a burst of speed and put several more feet between herself and her pursuer. Suddenly she stumbled and fell, giving Amy the chance to catch up with her, and—

Tag!” Shouted Amy, and ran away shrieking.

Sadie panted a few times, then flopped down onto the floor.

Amy turned around, confused. She ran back up to the other girl.

I said tag, Sadie,” said Amy, tapping her friend again.

Sadie continued panting but didn’t say anything. She wasn’t smiling anymore.

Ko walked over and bent down. “Sadie, are you okay?”

At first she was silent. Then, after several more shallow breaths, she whispered, “I can’t get up.”

What did you say?” Asked Ko.

I—I can’t get up.” Sadie said, slightly louder.

Ko looked around at his sisters grimly. 

Alice,” he said, “do you think you’re strong enough to help me carry Sadie?”

She nodded, and ducked under one of Sadie’s arms. Ko took the other one, lifting the young girl off the ground and carrying her up into the loft where their mothers were. Amy followed behind in a daze.

Why aren’t we playing tag anymore?” She asked. 

Ko looked at her compassionately. She still doesn’t know what’s going on, he realized. None of us do. 

Mom?” He called once they reached the loft. Ko’s mother turned from her conversation with Sadie’s mom.

Sadie fell down while we were playing tag,” he explained, “and wasn’t able to get up on her own.”

The two women looked at each other, confused.

Set her down, then,” said Ko’s mother.

Sadie’s breathing hadn’t improved at all. Instead it got worse and worse through the evening. The little girl wouldn’t respond to anyone’s questions, only saying, “I’m so cold…so cold…”

About thirty minutes before their bedtime, it was obvious that she wasn’t going to get any better. Ko’s mother called him and his sisters aside.

You all know what’s going to happen, don’t you?” She said grimly. Ko and Alice nodded, but Amy stood stock still. Their mother looked at each of them for a moment, sorrowfully.

I want you to know that you’ve all been very brave, and that sometimes these things happen—” Suddenly Ko’s ears began ringing. He knew what she was saying, and he didn’t want to hear it.

However, there’s a good chance that Sadie’s been sick for a long time, and we just didn’t know about it—” No, he thought desperately, this isn’t happening.

“—and if she was, we might already have the same disease—”

On impulse Ko rushed out of the room, out of the house, anything to escape the cold dread that followed him. He banged through the door out into the forest, brushing past scratchy branches and over sharp rocks, straight for the place he went every time ran away like this: his tree.

And now, here he was, underneath the swaying maple and wishing the whole thing had never happened. He didn’t know how long he had been there, just hanging upside down and letting the blood rush to his head.  

As he listened to his mother’s distant calls rush through the trees, Ko finally pulled himself up onto the branch. He sighed, slightly lightheaded, and jumped down from the branch. This had lasted long enough, and everyone was already too anxious for one evening. He went jumped back across the cool stream and ran home. 

When he arrived, Alice stared up at him with quiet eyes. No one said a word. They didn’t have to.

Over time, the sickness spread not only between people, but into the hearts of everyone in the barn. The signs were scarce and hard to see, but they were there. Ko dreaded the day he or his sisters suddenly would drop into the numbers of the diseased, just like Sadie had.

As autumn waned, his anxiety increased. No one was interested in packing up to move to their winter home this year. With half the adults sick, it was impossible. Halloween was skipped without notice.

Those who were diseased lingered a few weeks, slowly driven insane until they finally died. The barn stank of bodies that no one had the heart to remove. Amy didn’t tease Ko about Rema anymore. There wasn’t anyone to tease him about. And every day it got colder and colder: winter was coming.

Everyone who was sick was moved into the common room, and soon almost everyone in the barn was piled up, their breathing ragged and hope destroyed.

Ko and his family were one of the lucky few who hadn’t shown any signs of the mysterious disease yet, but as the days and nights blurred, it seemed like it was impossible to tell anymore. He lost track of how many families had died:  twenty-five, thirty-seven, maybe even more…

And then one night it happened. The wind was roaring, moaning, tugging the walls and ripping at the roof of the barn. The trees outside groaned and stretched in the howling wind. The cold entered faster than the snowflakes fell outside, leaving Ko and his family shivering, huddled together in a corner of the loft. 

The wind was nothing to silence the howls of the sick from downstairs, the common room that had once been so comforting and warm was now more frightening than the deadly owls outside their home. 

Suddenly a horrible howl erupted from downstairs, and with it the sound of bodies shuffling past one another, trying desperately to escape the barn— they exploded out, screaming into the cold of the night, the darkness swallowing them whole like a hungry animal—rushing, whooshing, the cries of the sick echoing into the night.

Ko felt an urge to join the masses and escape the terror and pain inside the barn, the endless weeks of dread. But clutching his sisters he knew that those who went out would never be seen again.

Amy’s voice was shrill as she lunged past Ko. The pressure was unbearable. What little protection they had against the darkness would have been broken if Ko hadn’t pulled her back into his arms. Amy thrashed and bit him, overcome by gregarious urges.

Ko held her tightly, refusing to let the instinct of the masses take her away. Silent tears that had been held back for so long flooded his vision and heart. He felt a quick pressure on his hand from his mother— proud recognition flashed in her eyes.

The wind whipped away through the bare branches of the maples outside, taking the storm with it. A thin layer of snow began to form in the sudden stillness. And Ko held tight to his family, awaiting the distant moment of daybreak.



Location: Champlain Valley Maternity Colonies #21-34

Date: 11/25/2020

Suspicions of WNS outbreak from reports by locals…

The report forms went on and on, but by now I should have expected nothing less. I’ve dealt with an out-of-season bear and some raccoons in my first month with Vermont Fish and Wildlife, but this trip was to inspect something much more humble: bats. 

We’d gotten sightings early that morning of hundreds of bats swarming above the snow. That’s usually the first sign that something’s going on.

I drove out with two other guys I’ve worked with before. One was Bryan Fletcher, who was in the bear problem with me, and the other was Rob Reed, who I’d been on patrol with twice.

This particular colony has had far more than its fair share of trouble. About fifteen years ago a couple of construction contractors had tried to build a farm out here, completely ignoring the bat habitat restrictions. They were sawing away at the trees and got an entire barn built before law enforcement caught ‘em. Let’s just say that the fines weren’t pretty.

Normally the state would’ve just torn down the structures right away, but during their trial, the builders mentioned that “the darn bats” had been messing with their construction, immediately taking up residence in the barn’s loft. So the structure stayed up, providing a home for the endangered bats and making it easier for Game Wardens to check in on them.

Namely, it made it easier for me to check on the bat colony.

I was pulling up to the abandoned barn with Bryan and Rob in the white Fish and Wildlife van that we were borrowing. It was surrounded by a dense pine forest, unusual in this part of Champlain Valley. The builders hadn’t got around to painting the barn when they were caught, so the barn was a mass of solid grey hulking out of the pine needles. The scent of Evergreen was everywhere, making it feel a little like Christmas.

Well,” I said, looking up at the building, “Let’s get to work.” 

Evidence of bats was everywhere, scattered around in little black piles. It could have been mouse droppings if not for the healthy scattering of insect parts. There were our presents, right on time.

The barn smells strongly of a mixture of guano and pinewood, so we thought we were going to see bats any moment.

But as we ascended the creaking stairs to the loft, the truth began to set in.

We scanned the ceiling with our flashlight, checking and double-checking every nook and cranny. We checked both floors of the barn several times before I gave up.

Well, what can we do?” I sighed about an hour after we arrived. “They’ve obviously left or moved, and we only have several hundred piles of poop to show for it.”

Bryan looked at me, and I’m sure I would have seen him wrinkle his nose if we weren’t wearing masks. “Well, we still have to fill out a report,” he said with a slight edge to his voice, “so we may as well keep searching.”

I kept silent for a while after that.

I threw my flashlight beam over the ceiling a few more times to satisfy him before going back down the stairs. Suddenly I hear something squeak above me, and it isn’t a floorboard.

Over there!” Shouts Rob. I run back up the stairs to see if he’s really found what I think he has. 

There, in the yellow-white glow of the flashlight is an unmistakable clump of black and brown. We realize that the once thriving maternity colony had been reduced to just this one family of bats, huddled together a corner of the loft. M. Lucifugous, otherwise known as the little brown bat.

What are they doing out here? And so late in the season, too.” Rob mused as he peered up at them.

I shrugged and reached up to pick one up. I had almost gotten a young one down for inspection when Bryan put his arm out in front of me. I backed down. You should have seen him with that bear. 

After that I mostly stood back and let the other guys do the work. At least it was easier to social distance.

Bryan didn’t attempt to pry the little family apart like I did. He took one look at their noses and said that we were looking at the only bats in the colony free of the fungus.

We left the barn soon afterwards and trudged out into the thin layer of snow. About halfway to the barn, Bryan stopped for a moment and gazed off into space.

That was a mother and three pups.” He thought aloud. “Bats usually have only one at a time, you know.”

I did know, which was why I was so annoyed for the rest of the trip.

Within half a mile of the barn, we found the tiny furry bodies of the infected bats that confirmed our a priori diagnosis. Their minuscule noses were less than the size of my fingernail, covered in what might have been frost. The three of us exchanged solemn expressions: White Nose Syndrome.

My brain rushed over the facts. A deadly fungus, White Nose Syndrome (or WNS for short) is spread by contact between bats. Once infected, the victims of the disease linger while the fungus slowly takes over its body. Driven insane, they swarm out of the colony, dying before the very eyes of someone who chances to see them. 

Fortunately, humans cannot contract WNS, but we can spread it. We’d be wearing masks and gloves even without the coronavirus. 

We collected samples and a few wings to be tested back at the lab. It’s not going to do anything except back up our report: Champlain Valley Maternity Colony #21 is gone. 

We left as soon as we loaded the samples and suits into the van. No one wanted to stay and dwell on the fate of the bats. Rob sat in the back and I was shotgun, giving Bryan the wheel. Social distancing didn’t get me out of filling in our report. 

Suddenly I felt sick in the stomach. Here we are, worrying about a pandemic that’s only lasted for a year, when bats have been fighting one for a decade.

I was about halfway through the paperwork when I gave in to the urge to look outside the window. The trees were grey and barren, all except for the tiny leaves of frost. The only sound was the van’s constant droning, mixed with what I suspected to be Rob snoring. A road sign informed us we only had a few miles to go. The hills rose up around us, creating a textured white world that was perfect for silence. 

I thought the roar of the van was already loud enough. 


He grunted.

I hesitated, picturing the horror inside the barn. “Do you think—  do you think those bats’ll live?”

There was a long pause. I suspected there was more emotion hidden behind his mask than he was letting on. Just as I was giving up on getting an answer, I saw his chest rise: a moment I knew would lead to speech. 

Well,” he said, his voice grim, “there’s a chance. They might already be infected and wasting away as we speak. That’s the more likely possibility.” He paused again.

Or they could be one of the rare lucky few who have a natural resistance to White Nose Syndrome. If so,” he looked right at me, his dark eyes deadly serious, “they might be able to pass on those genes to a new generation and win a small victory against the fungus.”

The corners of his eyes crinkled up in an unseen smile before he turned back to the road. He’d found a way to best me.

But you already knew that.”

The End

Continue to the 2nd place story

[home] [up]
Copyright © 2020 & Lorien Strange;
See original rules for an explanation