You hear the uneven footsteps first.
That’s how you know she’s behind you. The heel is broken off of her left shoe and she drags it across the ground with every step, a sharp contrast to the steady click of her still-intact pump.
“Help me,” she whispers.
It’s an urgent, anguished plea.
“Please, I’m hurt; help me!”
Don’t turn around. That’s when she gets you.
Don’t run. She still gets you, but this time, she’s going to make it hurt.
At least, that’s the rumor, anyway.
Every small town has at least one; a local urban legend that everyone knows and swears is true because their sister’s best friend’s cousin’s neighbor’s grandson knew a fella who actually encountered it!
Ours was the Limping Woman, so named for her aforementioned distinct gait.
It was said that she was a teacher at the elementary school some decades before. Young, beautiful, and the victim of a terrible murder. She had been walking home to the house she shared with her parents one night after school when she realized she was being followed. She sped up and so did her pursuer, until both were running down this dark country lane with only open farmland on either side.
Her heel broke and her ankle snapped and she fell and her pursuer became her murderer.
It was a slow, torturous affair that left her beaten and covered in stab wounds and, when the killer was done, he just left her to bleed out beside the road. She wasn’t found until the next morning and, by then, all anyone could do was search for the person responsible. While some believe the man was caught and dealt with not long after, others think he or she is still at large and the Limping Woman, as the victim came to be known, won’t rest until her killer is caught.
I was always skeptical at best of the story. I’d passed the spot where she was supposed to appear a hundred times without incident, as did everyone else I knew. If a murderous ghost lived there, I was pretty sure I’d have seen her.
I said as much to my friend Stefi when she brought up that a friend of a friend of a friend had met the Limping Woman during lunch at school one day.
“It’s true! She was out on the old highway a couple nights ago and saw her!” Stefi insisted stubbornly over our sandwiches.
“If she actually saw her, wouldn’t she be dead?” I asked. “I thought you weren’t supposed to turn around.”
“Heard her, whatever, you know what I mean, Rina.”
“Sure,” I said with a roll of my eyes. It always frustrated Stefi that I didn’t share her willingness to believe the unbelievable. “So how’d she get away?”
“She said the words, duh!”
“Oh, right, the woman’s last words. Last words we all somehow know without ever having caught the one person who would have heard them.”
“We know them because the real killer was never caught. He told people who told other people-”
“And we all just magically knew to use them to ward off being killed,” I finished for her.
Stefi frowned. She loved all things spooky and supernatural and had spent a lot of time researching our local legends, especially the Limping Woman.
“It’s not magic, it just reminds her of her own mother and she gets distracted by her grief and leaves you alone.”
“Ok, ok,” I said, hoping that that would be enough to put an end to the topic. It was an argument neither of us would win and I didn’t feel like getting into it (again) over whether or not a ghost was real.
At fifteen, it was starting to feel silly.
Stefi, however, wasn’t going to let me off so easily. “They say she remains because they got the wrong guy and she’s angry about it. Like, everyone knew it, but no one cared because they wanted to blame someone. Don’t you feel at least a little bad for her? She’s still waiting for justice after all this time.”
“She only goes after people who don’t believe in her, you know.”
I didn’t like the way Stefi said that, like she had an idea forming that I wouldn’t approve of, and I shook my head.
“Whatever it is, no.”
“We could go out there, out to the spot she haunts.”
“No, don’t be dumb,” I said.
“You don’t believe anyway, so what’s the big deal?”
“I’ve walked past there a lot, ok? Nothing’s ever happened.”
“Have you gone after dark?” Stefi had started to smile.
“No, but so what?”
“That’s when she’s active; going in the day doesn’t count.”
“This is dumb,” I said again.
“We’ll go tonight!”
Every argument I had was met with questions of whether I was too afraid and Stefi mocking me for being chicken. She kept it up for the rest of lunch, through our shared science class, and then passed me notes in the halls between classes after that. By the time the final bell rang, she had worn me down.
“But not because I believe she’s there,” I made sure she knew. “I’m just going so you shut up.”
The sun set just after five that evening. At seven, we met up on our bikes in front of my neighborhood. Her parents thought she was doing a project at mine, mine thought I was at her’s, and we had two hours to ride out to the farm where the Limping Woman was said to haunt and get back before they started trading phone calls.
We peddled hard and fast, leaving behind the glow from windows and streetlamps until darkness swallowed up the world around us. With only moonlight to guide us, we wove our way across town and passed into the outskirts, where the insects were louder, the stars brighter, and the safety that came from feeling like you were surrounded by other people fell away.
It was hard not feel entirely exposed out on that old road, where flat fields rolled off into the distance on either side. There was the occasional barn or farmhouse set a ways off down long, dusty drives, but otherwise, it really was just us and our bikes and the night.
“Up ahead,” Stefi said from behind me, “see the cross? That’s the marker for her.”
We skid to a stop a few yards away from it and exchanged a glance almost lost in the shadows.
“Scared?” She asked, breathless with excitement.
“No,” I said. It was an honest enough answer. I was nervous, sure, but who wouldn’t be when you’re outside after dark?
“Remember, if you turn around, she gets you. If you try to run, she makes it worse. Just stand still when she’s close by and say the words.”
Stefi spoke so seriously that I had to stifle a giggle. It was ridiculous! I kept trying to tell that to all the butterflies stirring in my stomach, but it didn’t do much good.
We climbed off our bikes and set them on their kickstand. Stefi groped about for my hand and entwined her fingers with mine. She was shaking.
“Let’s just get it over with,” I replied.
We walked up to where the cross was placed and paused. Stefi squeezed my hand and took in a slow, shuddering breath. Her fear was starting to have an effect on me, quickening my heartbeat, but I squared my shoulders and clenched my jaw and took a step forward.
We crept along the roadside, careful to keep our eyes pointed straight ahead. Stefi kept reminding me in a trembling whisper that looking anywhere else could lead to trouble. A minute or two passed, it couldn’t have been longer despite feeling like it, and nothing seemed to happen. My fear began to ebb, replaced by an admittedly relieved giddiness that I had been right and I almost turned to Stefi to say “I told you so”.
And then I realized how quiet it was.
All the insects that had been singing loudly when we arrived had gone silent. There were no distant calls from night birds, no breeze passing over us, nothing.
Just the sound of our own breathing.
To my surprise, Stefi sighed, disappointed. I wondered if she realized how quiet everything had become. How could she not feel how claustrophobic it had become out on that open road, how closed off we were in the dark and the silence?
I wanted to ask her, but the question was like a knot in my throat that I couldn’t untangle.
Behind us, grass rustled, followed by the crunch of loose gravel underfoot. Like someone was pulling themselves slowly out of the field and onto the road.
Every hair on my body stood up at once.
“Rina?” I hadn’t realized that my grip on Stefi’s hand had tightened so much. I could feel her eyes on me, but couldn’t bring myself to look at her.
From somewhere over my shoulder, a woman started to sob softly.
“Help me,” she cried plaintively.
“Rina?” Stefi said again.
“S-she’s coming,” I managed to whisper.
Instead of being scared, Stefi snorted. “Real funny. I get it, ok? The Limping Woman is just made up; I’m convinced now. You don’t have to rub it in.”
The unmistakable sound of someone inching towards us, slowly, painfully, crying out with each step.
“Please,” she begged, “I’m hurt and he’s still out there.”
“Stefi,” I hissed, tears burning in my eyes, “she’s coming!”
There must have been something in my voice, a tightness that only true terror could cause, that convinced my friend that I wasn’t just pretending. She grabbed my forearm with her other hand and clutched it until her nails were digging into my skin.
“She only goes after people who don’t believe,” Stefi said. “That must be why-”
“What do I do?” I begged, my mind white and blank.
My entire body was screaming to run, to get away from that thing that was getting closer and closer, but Stefi’s firm grasp and my own mounting dread held me in place.
“Please,” the Limping Woman sobbed, “turn around. Help me!”
“The words,” Stefi said hurriedly, “you have to say the words when she’s right behind you!”
What words? I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t speak or think, I could only hear her.
The legend said you’d hear her uneven footsteps and be forced to listen to her pleas, but no one ever mentioned the smell. The stench of rot and earth and blood oozed through the air, slowly surrounding me and wrapping itself around me like tentacles. Smothering me. I gagged and pressed my free hand over my mouth and shook my head violently, trying to clear it, trying to make sense of things.
Stefi was jerking on my arm and saying something to me, over and over again, but I could barely hear her over the Limping Woman’s cries. The smell was getting so strong, making my stomach pitch and heave until I thought I’d be sick.
I leaned heavily on Stefi and she pulled me in close so that her lips were beside my ear. Through the veil of panic and nausea, I heard her scream.
“Say the words!”
The Limping Woman was so close behind us now that I could feel the chill radiating off of her.
The words, I thought. I had to say the words.
It just reminds her of her own mother and she gets distracted by her grief and leaves you alone, I heard Stefi’s voice from the previous day echo in my head.
Her mother. The words remind her of her mother. The Limping Woman’s last words.
“P-please,” bile rose in the back of my throat, “my mother’s waiting for me.”
The footsteps stopped and were replaced by a high pitched, heart wrenching keen.
From somewhere off in the night, a dog started to howl.
Insects began to sing again. The wind whistled across the field. Sounds of normalcy. Of life.
The Limping Woman continued to screech while I found my legs again and, with Stefi in tow, tore back to the bikes. I never once looked up from the ground. The only thing I saw as we darted by was a pair of feet in torn stockings and pumps, the heel of one of which was missing.
We didn’t stop riding until we made it back to my lawn and, when we got there, I raced to the bushes on the side of the house and vomited.
Stefi claims she didn’t hear or see anything that night, but she believes that I did. She believes that I encountered the Limping Woman. I tried to come up with some kind of rationalization for it, like power of suggestion or something, but when I think back to those footsteps and those sobs and that final scream, I know that there is only explanation.
And now I, too, believe in the Limping Woman.