Out of the Well

by Regan Keeter

“There are children down there.”

That’s what my Aunt Mary used to say when she came over to visit. With shaking hands playing about her matted black hair, averting her tired, sunken eyes, she swore every time she saw me: “There are children down there.”


She was talking about the old, stone well in our backyard. Although the only purpose it served when I was growing up was as a conversation starter when guests came to visit, I imagine that at one time it was the sole water supply for the area. I imagine it was not simply a deep, black hole surrounded by two feet of rock, but it had fastened to it some sort of rotating arm that could be used to raise or lower a wooden bucket. Maybe it even had one of those small, slanted roofs to keep the rainwater out.

Before I was ten, I must have heard Aunt Mary mention the children a dozen times or more. “She’s just joking,” my mom told me every time. “She’s got a bad sense a humor. Don’t pay it any attention.”

Easier said than done. My little-girl mind ran wild. How could there be children down there? Shouldn’t they have grown up by now? And what did they eat? Bugs? Eww. Disgusting.

But by the time I was eleven, the story no longer scared me. I’m not sure if I’d been scared for so long I just couldn’t be scared any longer or if sometime between ten and eleven I grew up a little.

Either way, instead of seeing a haunting, black hole so evil no light could penetrate it, I saw what must have once been the centerpiece of an active farm. My house wouldn’t have been built back then. Nor would any of the ones around us. And I could imagine the rows of corn, taller than me, stretching across acres of land. I could imagine the farm hands gathering at the end of the day by the well, cranking the bucket up and scooping water out with their hands to pour into their mouths. I could image a young woman holding her parasol as she was escorted by suitors to and from the farm; I could imagine one of those suitors on bended knee in front of the well asking the woman with the parasol to marry him.

Sometimes I would take my dolls out to the well and act out those scenes.

In fact, as I remember, I was in the middle of that last scene when my aunt came over and reminded me once again that there were children down in the well. This time, my mom wasn’t there to correct her. It just Aunt Mary and me in the backyard.

She smiled widely when she told me, her hair, as always, sticking out every which way in clumps and her bloodshot eyes twinkling.

“No, there’s not, Aunt Mary,” I replied. “I know that’s not true. I’m a big girl now. Stop trying to scare me.”

She sighed, smoothed back her clumps of hair, then silently went back inside.

“She’s just crazy,” I said to my dolls. Then I picked them up out of the grass.

Holding my handsome suitor in one hand and my parasol-twirling lady in the other, I stood them on top of the stones surrounding the well.

“Hello, my pretty,” I said in my best masculine voice while I rocked the doll back and forth on its heels.

“Oh, my love,” cooed his lady, also rocking on her heels to speak.

“I’ve come back for you.”

“I knew you would.”

“Even though they shot me fifteen times on the battlefield, I would not die. That’s is how much I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Bouncing the dolls to simulate walking, I eased them toward each other. Then, with arms hanging stiffly by their sides, I pressed their heads together and made kissing sounds.

Suddenly, I thought I heard laughter from inside the well. A kind of light, fluttering tee-hee that almost sounded like it was inside my head.

I jumped back a step, my breath caught in my throat, my hands reflexively releasing the dolls, as if holding onto them would keep me tethered to the well. My lady fell onto her face. My beau, who’d been turned almost ninety degrees to facilitate his passionate kiss, clattered onto his back, rolling, skipping across stone, teetered on the edge of the black abyss, rocking, slipping millimeters more, then falling in.

Oh no, I thought, as I watched his plastic legs slide over the side.

Forgetting momentarily about the sparkly laughter, I thought about how mad Mom was going to be when I told her I lost the doll. She’d just bought it for me and what did I do? Drop it in the well, that’s what. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Probably she’d punish me by taking away my TV privileges for a week, or worse.

And why did I drop it in the well? Because I thought I heard laughter coming from inside. Double stupid. I was too old to believe in ghosts. I didn’t even believe in Santa Clause, anymore, so how could I believe in ghosts?

Pretending I wasn’t afraid, I marched back to the well, hands on my hips, my blue dress blowing in the breeze. Leaning over the side, I said, “Hey, ghosts. If you’re real, why don’t you just come and get me all ready?”

The blackness from the well remained silent.

“See. No such thing as ghosts.”

Then, leaning over the well, I realized my doll hadn’t fallen to the center of the earth. As luck would have it, its shirt had snagged on the sharp corner of one of the stones and now it hung precariously just out of reach.

Sticking my tongue between my lips the way I did when I was concentrating, I tried to grab it, willing my arm to be longer, millimeters longer. But no luck.

Maybe if I got on top of the well, I could reach deeper into the hole, I told myself. So I did.




A little closer.

A little closer.

As the tip of my fingers touched the head of the doll, hope of success coursed through my body. But at that very moment, when I felt I’d beaten the blackness, outgrown my childish fear, I slipped and tumbled into the well.

It seemed like as soon as I lost my balance, I hit bottom. The well wasn’t as deep as I feared and it had long ago dried up.

I had landed on my side. My left arm and hip throbbed.

I groaned, rolled onto my back, and looked up to see that the fall, although brief, had put the top of the well hopelessly out of reach.

I could smell mildew and must and something sickening I can’t quite describe.

Cloaked in black and gray shadows, I slowly got to my feet. Staring at the hole above, I wanted to call for help. I wanted to cry. But I knew neither would do any good. Nobody was close enough to hear. I was a big girl now. And big girls don’t cry.

I felt my way around the walls. With stones protruding this way and that, I thought I might be able to climb out. Taking hold of two stones slightly above my head, I put my right foot on a third that was about knee high. But as I lifted myself up, my fingers lost traction. The stones, worn smooth from years underwater, were too slick to hold onto.

My arms spinning wildly, I fell onto my back with a grunt. Then I heard that twinkling laughter again. A “tee-hee” that was somehow louder, closer, and yet still far away.

I jumped up, looking all around, heart pounding. Squinting to examine the shadows, I thought I saw something. And then I didn’t.

Jeez, Rebecca. How could there be anyone down here? Triple stupid.

Still, I couldn’t escape the feeling I wasn’t alone.

Then, I did hear a voice. And this time, I couldn’t pretend it was in my head. “Don’t you want to play with us?” it said. Maybe a little girl.

“Play with us,” said another. Maybe a little boy.

“What are you?” I shouted. “What do you want?” I turned in circles counterclockwise, my hands held out to my sides as if I was using them to keep my balance. My gaze still had not adjusted to the darkness and I was able to see only slightly deeper into those shadows than I could before.

“We like you.”

“You’re like us.”

The voices were airy, almost as if they were made of nothing but wind, and each word was doled out with emphases on the vowels. Weeee liiiiiike yoooooou.

“What do you mean?” I answered, my voice trembling. If I could have seen my hands then, I would have realized that they’d, likewise, started to shake.

Suddenly, to my right, I saw something. Or I thought I saw something. Something like a little girl, but all white and frayed at the edges, like she’d been made of paper. Black lips. Shapeless gray eyes.

I screamed, stumbled back. But when I tried to look directly at her, she was gone.

Unfortunately, the voices weren’t.

“We really like you.”

“We’ve been so lonely.”

“The other one’s not fun anymore.”

“No fun, at all.”

I started screaming, and I didn’t stop until help came. But no matter how loud I screamed, I couldn’t drown out those voices.

“She’s mean.”

“All of them are mean.”

I covered my ears, but I could still hear them.

“I don’t like her.”

“I don’t either.”

“But we like you.”

“I like you.”

Finally, I heard another voice. Unlike the eerie wind voices that haunted these depths, this one was familiar. It was aged, ever so slightly raspy. “Honey! Rebecca! Honey, what are you doing down there?” shouted Mom. And when she spoke, the wind voices fell silent.

I took my hands off my ears. I opened my eyes; it wasn’t until I opened them that I realized I’d been squeezing them shut. “Mom! Get me out of here, Mom!”

“I will. I promise I will. Just . . . I’ll be right back.”

When she ran away, I heard her calling for Dad. And in the minute or so she was gone, the wind voices said again: “Weeee liiiiiike yooou.”

Hands back over my ears. Eyes pinched closed. Screaming. Crying.



“We’re going to lower a rope down to you. I want you to wrap it around your chest, under your arms, and we’ll lift you out.”

I ran the back of my hand under my nose to wipe away the snot and then ran my fingers down my cheeks to wipe away the tears. My eyes darted between the rope that was slowly descending and the black shadows all around.

I was certain before I was lifted to safety a gnarled arm, skin gray, nails rotted brown, would grab me and drag me into some horrible world.

However, none did.

The rope, I noticed, had been tied into a large loop on the end that was approaching me. When it arrived, I wrapped the loop over my head and under my arms. Then my parents pulled me up, heaving and grunting as they did so. To keep from injuring myself on the jagged stones around me, I held my hands out, walking them up the wall.

Until I reached the top, I was still certain that some monster would grab me and drag me back down.

When I was only inches from the lip of the well, my mom lifted me out while my dad held onto the rope. She was crying and blubbering about how afraid she was, how much she loved me, and how I was never, never, ever supposed to play near that well again.

My aunt was there, too. “I’m glad to see you’re OK,” she said, with a smile. For reasons I couldn’t discern at the time, she didn’t look quite as crazy to me in that moment as she had in the past. Her hair was still matted and wild. Her hands still shook. But something was different.

Soon enough, I would understand why.


For years afterward, I dreamed about the children that were behind those haunting voices in the well. Every night I dreamed about them.

The boy was eight, he told me. He was skinny, always wearing blue jeans and a faded green tee shirt. His blond hair was cut straight across his forehead and, in some dreams, parted on the side.

The girl, his sister, was six. She wore a Hello Kitty top and a long, yellow skirt over blue-and-red stockings.

In my dreams as a child, we played hopscotch or jump rope or any of a dozen other games. Sometimes we would just sit and tell stories about fictional worlds ruled by fictional kings.

In a weird way, they were my best friends.

And as the days turned to years, it seemed like somehow I had not been the only one to benefit by my fall into the well. When my aunt came to visit, I noticed her hands had stopped shaking. Her hair, no longer matted, was styled and clean. The dark circles around her bloodshot eyes had faded.

She seemed . . . at peace. When I was fifteen, that was the only way I could describe it.

But then I got older. And the children stopped playing with me. Instead, all night long, in my dreams, I would sit on my bed and they would stand by the door, staring at me.

From time to time, the girl would say, “Do you think she’ll get younger?”

“I don’t think so,” the boy would answer.

Most of the time, though, they said nothing.

Eventually, I noticed that with every passing dream, their eyes sunk deeper into their heads, their skin turned ashen, their lips cracked, scars began to form on their faces and arms.

And when I turned eighteen, the dreams changed again. Now, I was no longer in my bedroom. In these dreams, I no longer participated at all, in fact. I was simply an observer.

I watched a man, whom I knew to be their father, beat the children. In one dream, he cracked the son’s wrist with his cane hard enough to fracture it. In another, he whipped the girl’s bare back with his belt until her skin was bleeding and raw.

And in the most horrific of moments, he threw both children down the well.

That dream woke me up. But it would be only the first of many to do so.

Night after night from then on, I watched them scream and cry from inside the well. I watched them desperately struggle to climb the walls until their fingers were so badly torn that it hurt to touch anything. I watched them get thinner and thinner until they died.

The day after they died, I woke up with hope that the nightmares had finished. By this time, I was not sleeping well -- many nights not more than a few hours. My eyes had grown dark like my aunt’s had been before and the lack of sleep reigned havoc on my nervous system, causing me to twitch like she had. I desperately needed a good night’s sleep.

But it was not to be. For that night, the torture started over. The children, alive again, were tossed down the well. And reliving the exact same moments, they slowly starved to death.

And then the next night, the dreams started again. At the well.

I knew a psychiatrist couldn’t help since these were not dreams but memories forced upon me by the children. I was afraid to take sleeping pills since I didn’t know what would happen if I couldn’t wake up.




So many years later, I am the crazy one.

My aunt is happily married to a banker and refuses to take my calls, which is frustrating since my mom and dad have both passed and I have no other relatives to turn to. I understand she feels guilty for passing this curse to me. I also understand how desperate she must have been to get rid of it.

I am that desperate now.

Although no one has told me as much, I’m certain she fell down the well as a child. Thus I can only hope another child will fall down the well and I will pass the curse to them.

Homeless and alone, I stay close to that house. “There are children down there,” I tell any kids I meet, trying to tempt them to explore the depths of that well.

I’m so desperate to be free of these nightmares, I’m tempted to throw a child down the hole. I’m tempted to promise them buried treasure at the well’s bottom or other riches that would engage the imagination.

But I don’t because, if I do, I fear the ghost children will hate me even more than they do already. And perhaps then they won’t follow the curse to a new victim, but instead stay to torture me.

So I tell them the truth.

Maybe one will send another down the well on a dare, calling him chicken, telling him he’s afraid of the crazy neighborhood freak show. . . . Maybe.

However, it happens, I hope it happens soon. I can’t live like this much longer.

“There are children down there.”

The End