This is one of the stories that can be found in my Inn Situ collection of short stories. It was originally inspired by a photograph posted by a friend of mine online at Helium.com
Jenny Lynn was seven. Her older sister, Dot was nine. They had been at the Shades of Home orphanage for almost two years. Ever since their mom had died after a loud, long fight with Rick, her boyfriend, and a brief search for their father had provided less evidence of his existence than the two visits she could remember, she and Dot had lived in the orphanage with eight to ten other girls. And Mrs. Kern.
Mrs. Kern, a forty-something year old whore ran the orphanage. Jenny had no idea what a whore was, but she had heard the name, and the disdain associated with it, from some of the older girls, and once even from Dot. If Dot said it was so, then so it must be.
Maybe it had something to do with Mrs. Kern’s age, Jenny had reasoned. Forty sounded impossibly old. Maybe whore was another way of saying someone was old.
Tonight was the last night the girls would spend together in their room. Dot was turning ten tomorrow, and the older girls for some reason, unfathomable to Dot and Jenny, were kept separate from the younger ones. Not that they wouldn’t see each other, but house rules mandated changes in their living arrangements.
Until now, days had been mostly bearable. There was usually enough activity, enough chores to keep her mind off missing her mom. There was always school, or the vegetables to tend to, or yardwork or housework or homework that needed doing. Frequently there would be visitors from town that made the trek out to the orphanage and they needed to be waited on and entertained as the guests that they were. Jenny assumed that they must be important men; they always smelled of after shave and wore nice clothes. Not always a Sunday suit, but nice.
Ravenous beasts haunted her dreams. Not dreams—nightmares. The beasts looked like wolves and roared like dragons. They spent her sleep devouring thoughts of happiness, memories of laughter, gnawing her soul away bit by bit each night. They were nowhere to be seen when she woke in the morning, but that did not make their presence during the night any less real, nor did it do anything to alleviate her trembling each night when "lights out" was called.
The nurse, Judy, had explained on more than one occasion that she thought Jenny Lynn was just missing her mom, and that she should begin to be less bothered by these nightmares as time continued to pass. That’s what the nurse said, but the nightmares kept coming. Jenny eventually quit complaining to Nurse Judy about them at all which made for everyone involved having a greater share of happiness. Not that they were actually happy; it just meant that the nurse was convinced her assessment was right, and Jenny didn’t have to sit through the ordeal of explaining her nightmares again.
The house was a large, two story structure set back from the road and standing just in front of where the wind whispered constantly through a small grove of trees, vibrant silver maples and stout oaks. The trees were fed by the waters of the Old Gray River that meandered through the grounds of the orphanage on its way further East to points unknown. There was a small clearing just where the river began a gradual bend through the soft ground and just before it snaked its way back close to the original course.
Dot and Jenny had visited the clearing often since coming to the Shades. Dot liked the solitude it offered and the retreat from the normal hectic activity of the household. Jenny was not at all fond of the place. The wind blowing through the trees sounded ominous to her and she was forever looking over her shoulder, feeling that they were being watched by eyes unseen.
Lights out was called far too soon for the two girls on this night, each knowing that tomorrow would bring difficult changes and that they would no longer be allowed to share as much time together as they had become accustomed to. Jenny said goodnight and climbed into bed trying not to cry. Her nightmares that night were the worst they had been in months. She saw herself in the clearing, kneeling down at the river’s edge. The howling and the roaring of the beasts frightened her more than ever, but she could not compell herself to get up and run.
In those nebulous, ghostly visions of her sleeping mind, she could see a figure standing behind her, but she could not discern who it was. When she awoke in the morning, far earlier than usual, her legs ached as if she had been running for hours. Her voice was scratchy and hoarse. Her throat ached, reminding her of when her mom had died and she had cried non-stop for two days. The palms of her hands were imprinted with the marks of her nails digging into the flesh from incessant clenching of her fists. She heard murmured voices in the hall mentioning something about calling the sheriff and dragged herself out of bed to investigate.
The conversation abruptly ceased when she opened the door. She glanced over at Dot’s bed to see if she was still sleeping. Dot’s bed was empty and Jenny knew instantly that something terrible had happened.
Late that night, long after lights out was called, Jenny heard the sheriff pay a visit to Mrs. Kern at the orphanage. She knew it was him because she heard the chatter of his police radio before he remembered to turn it down to keep from waking the girls. He left the next morning, apparently satisfied with his investigation, because no further inquiries were ever made into the drowning death in the middle of the night of yet one more little girl. Jenny lay in her bed, unable to stop the tears, knowing that from that day forward, the river was haunted by another shade.