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"Something's Different"

   The first time I saw her, I didn't think anything of it. I was bicycling home after a varsity baseball game--my first shutout of the year--and replaying the highlights in my mind so I could share them with Dad at supper like we always did. As I turned down our dirt road, I caught a glimpse of movement in the doorway of the old Mennart place.
   Nobody's lived there since before I was born, so I slowed up a little, thinking it might be kids fooling around. The place is supposed to be haunted, and kids dare each other to go inside, but the floor is rotten and the whole place is falling in. Dad and I chase kids out of there all the time. We're scared that someday the house is going to come down on one of them.
   At first I couldn't tell who it was. My eyes were kind of blurry, and I had to rub them a couple of times before I saw her clearly. It was a girl, about eighteen or nineteen. She was standing in the doorway, watching me ride past--really staring, her body rigid and tense. It made me uncomfortable, so I poured it on for the last half mile, yelling for my dog, Strider, as I skidded expertly to a stop beside our back porch.
   Dad was out on the tractor, mowing the hay in the front pasture. From the look of it, he was going to be out there for another hour or two. By the time I'd taken care of the animals, showered, done my homework, and gotten supper going, I'd forgotten about the girl.
   I saw her twice the next day. In the morning she was sitting on the porch steps as if she'd spent the night there. I knew Dad wouldn't like that. He hated that old place, but he wouldn't want some careless camper burning it down and setting our fields on fire. If she was still there that afternoon, I figured I'd better tell him.
   She was still there, leaning on the corner where the fences joined, so I had to pass real close as I turned into our road. I couldn't pretend I didn't see her, so I stopped.
   She smiled at me, kind of a slow, sexy smile. Whoa, I thought. You've got the wrong guy, lady. I smiled back, but I could feel myself blushing. Dad is the ladies' man in our family. He started going out again after Mom left us, and he still goes out more than I do.
   "You buying the Mennart place?" I said. She didn't answer, just went on smiling like she hadn't heard me. Maybe she's deaf, I thought. "Well, I gotta get going," I said. "Watch out for the floors in there." You're a real helpful guy, Zach, I told myself as I pedalled furiously up the road. Warning a woman who can't hear you about a rotten floor.
   "Hey, Dad," I said at supper. "Did you see the girl at the Mennart place today? Are they finally going to sell it?" I was really freaked by Dad's reaction.
   He jerked as if I'd kicked him. The spoonful of chili on its way to his mouth went flying. I could hear Strider gobbling it up as I stared at Dad's face. Under the tan his skin was greenish gray.
   "What girl?" he said hoarsely.
   "The girl down at the Mennart place. She was there yesterday too. You didn't see her?" How could he have missed her? He'd been haying all day in the pasture across the road from their place.
   "What did she look like?" He still hadn't moved. He was staring at me as if he were trying to see inside my head.
   "She's blond, about eighteen, kind of small, sexy smi--"
   Shifting from paralized into high gear, Dad was out the back door while I was still talking. His chair smacking against the wall and the slam of the screen got me going too. I sprinted up the road after him.
   "What's up?" I said breathlessly as I caught up to him. He was half running himself.
   "Wait," he said. "I'll tell you later...if I have to."
   We stopped where we had a clear view of the Mennart place. She was in the backyard, wandering aimlessly around in the waist-high weeds. I waited for Dad to say something, but he just scrutinized the place inch by inch as if he were looking for someone in a crowd and not finding her.
   "There she is," I said impatiently. He would have been blind not to see her.
   He turned on me. "Where?"
   "Right there," I said. "In the backyard." I didn't like this game we were playing. It gave me the creeps. "Dad...come on."
   He stared at the yard, but I could tell he wasn't seeing her. "Dad...?" My voice came out high and squeaky, like I was five years old again and scared of the dark.
   Dad came back from wherever he'd gone and looked at me as if he wasn't sure who I was. Then he slung an arm across my shoulders, gave me a rough, reassuring hug, and we headed home. When I glanced back, she was leaning on the fence watching us go. Behind her, half hidden in the black rectangle of the open door, someone else was watching too.
   As soon as we were inside our house, Dad shut the door and locked it. That really spooked me. Even though we're the only ones on that stretch of road, I'd never been scared of being alone...until now. He picked up his chair and made a gesture that meant I should sit too. When we were staring at each other across the table, he started in.
   "How much do you know about the Mennart place?"
   "Just what I've heard from the kids at school. The last guy who lived there killed his wife, and when the sheriff came for him, they had a big shoot-out, and he was killed. And nobody's lived there since."
   "What I'm going to tell you, Zach, stays right here. Okay?"
   "Okay," I said. What I really wanted was for him to drop the whole thing.
   "It happened when I was your age. They moved in just about this time of year. Gene his name was, and hers was Sue Ellen. They were looking for summer work. He was gone all day during the haying season, and there wasn't much for her to do. She struck up a kind of friendship with me. We talked over the fence a couple of times until he came home early one afternoon and ran me off with a shotgun. He probably wanted to beat me to a bloody pulp, but he knew he'd be run out of town. So he beat her instead.
   "He was a lot older than she was, and jealous. I understand him better now, but when I was sixteen, I hated him. So when she asked me to help her run away, I was all for it. We worked it out that she'd wait until he passed out after one of his late-night drunks at the Wicked Eye. Then she'd come up to our place, and I'd drive her to the bus depot in Big Elk."
   Strider suddenly shoved his cold nose into my hand, and I jumped.
   "The night she came, it was so late I'd fallen asleep. The banging on the door and the screaming woke up the whole family. I didn't know it, but my mother had been locking the door at night. She didn't trust Gene. Your grandparents and your uncle Joe and I were all heading for the door when the blast came."
   Dad ran his fingers through his hair, rubbing his scalp the way he does when he has a headache. His voice slowed. "The pounding and the crying stopped when the shotgun went off. I remember staring at the door and hearing something soft and heavy sliding down it on the other side.
   "I just stood there, watching her blood creeping toward me under the door. Then I started screaming at Gene for doing that to her and at the rest of us for letting her down."
   We stared at each other for a long time without saying anything. Finally I couldn't stand it any longer. "You really couldn't see her today?"
   "Then how come I can?"
   "I don't know. Unless...unless it's because she thinks you're me."
   "Dad...." I didn't want this. My own personal ghost? Forget it. "How do I make her go away?"
   Dad didn't answer right away. When he finally looked up at me, he looked old and tired. "Zach," he said quietly, "I've been asking myself that for twenty-five years."
   He half turned in his chair. I looked where he was looking, at the oddly shaped stain like a watermark on the floor under the back door. Once a year Dad would do a spring cleaning and really give the floor a going over. When he was through, the shape would be different. I remember when I was seven, it looked like a brontosaurus. Now it looked like South America.
   I'd never asked where it came from. I'd always figured it was just from water leaking under the door in the winter. Now I was staring at it and thinking about blood pumping out of a torn-up body slumped against the back door. "You mean...?"
   "Every year. I come in one morning during the first haying, and there's a new bloodstain on the floor under the door. I've tried sitting up all night more times than I can count, but I've never seen her...or heard her."
   I wished Dad hadn't told me all this. It wasn't the Mennart place that was haunted. It was ours.
   "Something's different this year. Something has changed. If you can see her, maybe we have a chance to play the whole thing over again, make it come out differently."
   " way!"
   "I've lived with this thing for too long, Zach. I don't want it hanging over you and your kids too."
   I thought about sitting at this table twenty-five years from now with my son and telling him about the stain, passing on the burden. It was a bad thought. Dad was right. But how could we change something that had happened years ago...?