Better than a Ghost Story by Reine Bethany
“Tell the truth, Firinne. Feer-inna, what a weird name,” said Stephanie. “Anyway, you never tell anything but the truth, so let’s hear it: Do you think you’ll be beautiful?”
Stephanie had cruelly guessed aright: rock-steady Firinne had her soft spot. Firinne’s gray eyes dropped to the pine needles coating the campground. Her chestnut hair frizzed in bangs over her strong brows. Her wide lips pursed under her shapely, outsized nose. She hugged her knees with one arm and with the other hand aimlessly sifted pine needles over a little rock.
“Firinne is a cool name,” her friend Zuri said defensively. “It’s Gaelic for truth.” Karen and Aisha nodded their heads.
“I’d hate for my parents to load me with a name like Truth!” sneered Stephanie, tossing her long, wavy blond hair.
“Yeah, on you that name would be a lie!” snapped Zuri.
“Girls!” barked Counselor Janet, stepping out of Tent Eagle’s Wings and striding up the short slope into the ring of eleven-year-old girls. “Stop bickering!”
“I’m going back to the tent to get the flashlight and the ghost stories book, and you be in the right mood when I step into this firelight in three minutes,” the counselor commanded. Mutely the girls watched her stomp down the hill.
“No,” said Firinne, looking suddenly and directly at Stephanie. “I won’t be beautiful. Not on the outside.”
“See? She can’t help saying what’s real,” triumphed Stephanie, avoiding Firinne’s gaze. “She’ll have to marry some nerd, the way her veterinarian mom married her veterinarian dad. No cool guy wants a girl that pitches balls like a boy, looks like a cartoon, and tells the truth. Guys want a sexy girl who makes them feel like aaaaaaaAAAAHHHHHH!!!!”
Stephanie’s words ended in a shocked little scream. The other girls, too, jerked upright or jumped to their feet, except for Firinne, who involuntarily clenched her knees more tightly, frowning, head cocked. From the woods some ten feet beyond the campfire issued a growling, rushing sound, then a terrified wail that rose and fell.
“It’s a baby, isn’t it a baby?” cried Zuri, her graceful dark hands gesturing futilely. Her words were drowned out by the wailing, which burst from the line of trees in the form of a huge, terrified orange cat. The cat streaked right through the ring of girls, almost brushing the fire with its tail, followed by the growling muscular sleekness of a black Labrador retriever. The Lab soared right over the fire and chased the cat down the slope toward the little creek that ran by the tent.
“Aaahhh, leave it alone, leave it alone,” shrieked Stephanie, rushing in pursuit of the dog, her long tanned arms flailing. Zuri, Karen, and Aisha spurted after her, but Firinne stood where she was by the fire, took aim, and hurled the little rock that had lain on the ground by her feet moments before. The rock smacked the dog smartly on its rump. It yelped, looked behind itself, stumbled on a loose stick, and rolled splashing into the creek, landing at the foot of a small tree growing slantwise over the water. The cat had leaped into this tree. It crouched on the slender trunk, its tail a huge brush quivering straight upward from its trembling body while it hissed and yowled at the wet, snarling dog three feet below. Counselor Janet, roaring and waving her flashlight, erupted from the big tent. The confused dog glared at her, snapping its long teeth. Stephanie and the other girls shrieked and yowled, sounding a lot like the cat, while Firinne galloped down the hill with another rock in her hand, not realizing that she herself was being followed by a gangly dark-haired boy who had just emerged from the same spot in the line of trees as had the cat and dog.
“Rashmatazz!” bellowed the boy. He had almost caught up with Firinne, who still did not realize he was there. She stopped, raising one hand. The boy tripped over her foot and tumbled down the hill. Hesitating only momentarily, Firinne let fly another rock, which struck the dog on the skull. The combination of wildly waving flashlight, feminine screams, and bruising rocks was too much. The big animal bounded onto the bank on the other side of the stream and rushed away into the woods. Its yelps faded into the distance. For several moments no one moved except for the boy. He scrambled to his feet and planted himself in the stream below the panting cat.
“Come on, Rashmatazz, come on, girl. It’s okay,” he crooned. The cat clenched the tree trunk and stared down at him.
“Nyaanyannyowyowwerrrlerrleerrrrrlllll,” it said, wide-eyed.
“It’s gone now,” the boy replied. “You’re safe.” He stood in the cold trickling water, comforting the traumatized pet. Firinne came to stand on the bank behind him.
“It’s okay, kitty, you’re safe now,” she echoed. Stephanie chimed in, as did the other girls and Counselor Janet. Gradually the cat’s fur lay down and her tail came to rest on the tree trunk. Counselor Janet brought a three-legged stool and held it still in the stream so the boy could stand on it and stroke the cat’s head. Finally she jumped into his arms and hid her face in his armpit. The girls and Counselor Janet cheered. The boy stepped off the stool onto the bank and smiled at them all.
“Thanks, everybody,” he said. They chorused, “No problem, no problem.” His eyes came to rest on Firinne’s face. Everyone fell silent.
“You threw that rock, like, mad accurate,” he said admiringly to Firinne. “Made that dog run.”
Firinne’s eyes shone. She glanced at her friends. Her eyes locked with Stephanie’s. She looked again at the boy.
“It wasn’t just me,” she said. “We all helped.”
“Right,” said the boy, still looking only at her.
“Tad! Where are you?” shouted a voice in the woods.
“My cabin’s up the slope,” said the boy. “I gotta go. See you tomorrow? Maybe?” “Uh. Like—yeah,” smiled Firinne. The boy nodded and strode away, rubbing his cheek on his cat’s soft back, watched by the group.
Clearing her throat, Stephanie faced Firinne squarely. Firinne cringed, but all Stephanie said was, “You GO, girl!”
Firinne’s smile stretched huge.
“Thanks,” she said.