THE GHOST SHIP

Ariel and Flounder started out early, one autumn morning, to explore a shipwreck that someone had told the girl about. Ariel looked around at the waving seaweed beds; they had already turned orange and red and brown, with the fall season. Ariel thought the new colors were a delightful change from the normal shades of summer green. Squirrel-fish were busy gathering sea-nuts to stock up, before the coming of winter. It was true that the weather was not as harsh here as it was farther north, but even the Merfolk noticed when the water temperature dropped a few degrees and they had to wear seaweed jackets in the morning.

Ariel grinned, happily, as she spotted the shipwreck. It was a big old ship, but Ariel was surprised that it showed so little damage. "Look at that, Flounder! There's hardly a hole in it! I bet we're gonna find lot's of neat stuff inside!"

Flounder looked at the old sailing ship and trembled. "It,...looks kind of different, doesn't it? Kind of all,...grey and spooky."

Ariel laughed. "Spooky? Silly; that's just the way the light is hitting it!"

Since the ship was resting practically upright, the girl swam up to the top and looked around. "This is how Humans see the ship", she noted.

"Kind of flat; isn't it?", asked Flounder.

Ariel nodded."Yeah. Humans must have flat fins or something." The girl swam over and examined the wheel. "Look at this roundamajigger! Wonder what it's for?"

The little fish puzzled, as looked at the hand-grips. "Maybe it's hat-rack."

Ariel put her finger to her chin. "Or, maybe Humans wrap their seaweed on it,..."

The girl sighed. "Guess I'll ask Archemedes when I see him again." She swam over to the hatch and pulled at it. "It's stuck!"

Flounder smiled. "Guess we'll have to go back now,.."

"Wait! It's coming loose!", announced the girl.

"Ratfish", grumbled Flounder.

Ariel lifted the hatch and looked inside. "Sure is dark in there,.."

"I told you it was spooky!", answered the little fish, as he stared into the darkness and shivered.

Ariel smiled and looked at her friend. "You think every shipwreck is spooky! It's only dark cause it hasn't got any holes to let the light in."

"We can't go down in there!", moaned Flounder. "We can't see anything!"

Ariel sighed. "You're right. We'll have to go home and bring back a lantern."

Flounder gasped. "You mean,...you're listening to me? Wow! That don't happen very often!"

Ariel smirked at her friend. "You make it sound like I never take anyone's advice or something!"

Flounder grinned. "Really? Why would I think that?"

While Ariel was at the palace, looking for a lantern, Urchin dropped by. "Hey. What's up?", asked the young merboy.

Ariel talked from out of a storage cabinet. "I'm looking for a lantern,... Me and Flounder found a new ship to explore,... But it's too,.. Ah! Here it is!" Ariel brought out the lantern. "It's too dark to see in there."

Flounder shuddered. "Dark and spooky! The whole ship is white,...like a spook ship!"

Urchin snapped his fingers. "I know the one! That is a spook ship!"

Ariel giggled and blew the sand off the lantern. "Oh Urchin! Don't be silly!" The girl swam towards the kitchen; with Urchin and Flounder following her."

Flounder stammered at the merboy. "Is,...is it really a spook ship?"

"Sure is. At least; that's what I've heard. The "Lost Dutchman" it's called. Had some crazy Human Captain sailing it in a storm and it went down. Nobody got out. Now; it's haunted by the ghosts of the sailors."

Ariel smirked down at Flounder. "Don't listen to him; he's just trying to scare you." The girl swirled into the kitchen and opened the ice-water box.

"No; really! I'm not pulling your tail! I had a friend who didn't believe me either, and he spent the night in there,.."

Flounder's eyes got big. "What,...what,...happened?"

Ariel found some fresh kelp and put it inside the clear shell lantern.

Urchin voice sank to a whisper. "He said that he heard something inside the ship. Something he had never heard before."

The little fish gulped.

Ariel smiled at Urchin. "He heard the ship creaking, is all."

"Okay. Don't believe me", answered the merboy, " but don't say I didn't warn you. There's something in that ship that ain't from the ocean."

"Now,.. to find some glow-worms", said the little mermaid.

They went back outside, and the girl soon found a bunch of little worms wiggling on the sand. She gently picked them up and put them in her lantern. They started munching on the kelp and began to glow. "Now; remember where we picked up these little guys so I know where to let em go", noted Ariel.

Flounder tugged at Ariel's arm. "Do we have to explore that ship? Can't we explore a different ship?,... That doesn't have spooks?"

Ariel shook her head. "We explore the spook ship."

Urchin smiled and waved goodbye to them. "I'll see you guys later,....maybe.

As Ariel swam towards the shipwreck, Flounder lagged further and further behind. Ariel looked back at him and smirked. "Flounder! Are you coming with me or not?"

The little fish stared at the ship, ghostly white and creepy, with a shudder. "I,...I don't think I can do it, Ariel. I just can't,...go in there,.."

Ariel put her hands on her hips. "Urchin's really got you upset about this, doesn't he? Flounder; there's no such thing as spooks!"

"Oh yeah? Then,..then what was it his friend heard; huh?"

Ariel shrugged. "Could have been anything." The girl smiled; kindly, at her friend. "Okay; Flounder. You stay out here and be the look-out. If you see any spooks, just holler out; okay?"

Flounder trembled. "Then you'll be going in there by yourself! The spooks will get you!"

Ariel sighed. "Hmm. How can I convince you,..."

"Maybe if Urchin went in there with you," offered the little fish.

Ariel's face lit up "That's it! We'll have a party! In the ship! A spook party!"

Flounder gasped. "What?!"

Ariel flipped around and started swimming back to Atlantica. "Yeah! I'll invite Urchin, and my sisters, and Sebastian, and you! We'll tell ghost stories and play games and have lot's of fun!"

Flounder shook his head. "The spooks aren't gonna like that,..."

The first thing the girl had to do was get permission from her father to have the party. A party, by itself, was no problem: it was the location that Triton would protest. The girl put on her best smile and swam up to the King. Triton looked at his little girl, with a sly smile: she wanted something.

"Daddy; would it be all right if I have a party?"

"Certainly; Dear. Who's going to attend?"

"Oh; just us girls, and Flounder and Sebastian and some guys."

Triton raised an eyebrow. "Which guys?"

"Urchin, and Aquata's boyfriend, Adrian, and Dusten and Philip."

The King nodded. "That will be all right."

Ariel kissed her father on the cheek, "Thanks Daddy!"

"Where is this party going to be? The palace?"

Ariel gulped. "Well,...not exactly. It's gonna be,...on a shipwreck."

"That won't do. Have it someplace else, Dear."

Ariel cringed. "But Daddy! It's a spook party! We gotta have it someplace scary! There's this old ship, and it's supposed to be haunted, and it'll be the perfect place!"

"I don't want you playing inside a Human ship. They are full of dangerous things."

Ariel nodded. "I guess you're right. It'll be such a scary place; I'd probably never go near one of them again,..."

Triton paused. "You say Aquata's going with you?"

Ariel nodded; casually.

"Then I guess it will be all right, then. Go get your big sister; I want to talk to her."

Ariel nodded and tried to keep a somber face.

Aquata swam in and went to up to the King, "You wanted to see me, Father?"

Triton nodded. "You're attending this party of Ariel's? I want you to keep an eye on her. Don't let her play with any Human things on that ship. I'm holding you responsible for her."

Aquata nodded. "I'll watch her, Father."

The next evening, Arista and Philip followed the directions on Ariel's map to the ghost ship. Philip pointed to a sign stuck on the hull: "Welcome to the spook party! Enter above."

Arista smirked at her boyfriend. "This really is silly! I only came because Ariel begged me. You know little sisters." Philip smiled and nodded. "Yeah. They can be a big nuisance sometimes."

The two teenagers went down into the ship to join the party. Ariel had hung-up lot's of phosphor lanterns on the cross-beams, which flickered with a warm yellow, or orange glow. Decorations (draped across the ceiling) hung down over the party-goers: red and brown and orange seaweed; fake sea-spiders, batfish, and "ghosts" made from seaweed sheets. A spooky coral tree stood in one corner, and a fake mer-skeleton in another. Arista's sisters were already there; they were dancing to the music supplied by Sebastian and his band. Right in the middle of the room was a big table, covered with party-food. Ariel had taken a big sea-pumpkin from the palace's kitchen, carved scary eyes and a mouth into it, and set the pumpkin in the middle of the table. A red phosphor candle flickered from inside the sea-jack-o-lantern.

Ariel was trying to get Flounder to dance with her, but he was too nervous. He kept staring at the hatch to the ship's hold, underneath them. "The spooks are down there!", he whispered.

Ariel smiled. "If there are spooks down there, then they must be deaf, if they haven't noticed the racket we're making!"

The girl stood up. "Come on, Flounder! Dance with me! I'm the only one without a partner!"

Flounder looked anxiously at the floor. "What if the spooks don't like us dancing?"

Ariel blew at her curl, with frustration. "Okay; let me just open that hatch and I'll show you there's nothing down there!"

The little fish shook his fins frantically, "No! No! Don't bother them! I'll dance with you!"

Ariel took Flounder's fin, and joined her sisters and their boyfriends. Urchin and Adella danced over to the girl. "Cool party, Ariel!", exclaimed the merboy. "Bet those ghosts haven't seen this much fun in centuries!"

Sebastian waved his baton, as he frowned over at the teenagers. "I could be home working on a new concert piece, but no,... I gotta play stuff like de Sea-monster Mash and babysit some kids." The crab looked around at the ship. "What a place to have a party! Dis place gives me the creeps!"

The merkids danced a while; then they started playing games. Adella won the "Bobbing for sea-apples" and Philip got closest in "Pin the tail on the stingray". As a prize, Philip got a fake "sea-spider" pin, which he stuck on Arista's seaweed shaw. The girl glared back at the grinning boy.

After the games, everyone sat down to eat cake and sea-ice cream. Ariel poured everyone a cup of "boo-berry" punch.

Arista looked at her party hat and sighed. "Ariel; do we have to wear these ridiculous things?"

Aquata smirked at her younger sister. "Don't be a party-pooper, Arista! Put it on!"

Arista reluctantly stuck it on her head, and looked at Philip, with a frown. "You better not laugh now!" The boy smiled and shook his head.

Everyone enjoyed the sweets, and even Sebastian had on a smile, as he finished off his cupcake with "little seaweed-candy sprinkles on top".

Ariel grinned with delight: now was the time to tell ghost stories! She put out all the lanterns except one, which she set on the floor. The kids all huddled around it in their sleeping bags; their faces reflexing the eerie red glow. Flounder shivered, as he snuggled up against Ariel.

Ariel looked at them; excitedly. "Okay! Who's gonna be first?"

"I've got a good one!", offered Urchin. "This one is really scary cause it's about this ship!"

"I was afraid of that", moaned Flounder.

Urchin leaned forward and grinned with a scary face, " Years and years ago, there was this sea-Captain, see? And everyone was afraid of him cause he was real mean! He liked to catch fish and just throw-em on the deck and watch em gasp for breath! If he ever saw a mermaid above the water, he'd order his men to throw harpoons at her!"

"That's terrible!", whispered Adella.

"Yeah!", answered the merboy, "And all his sailors hated the Captain, but they would do what he said cause they were so afraid of him! He was big and nasty and always walked around with an evil scowl!" Urchin gave an evil glare at the girls; Ariel giggled through her hands at his expression; Flounder trembled and drew up close to her.

"One night, this Captain decided to set sail; just cause everyone else was afraid to. "There's a terrible storm comin!", they said to him and he just laughed a cruel laugh: "HA! HA! HA! HA! A STORM?! THA' STORM BETTER BE FEAR'D OF ME!"

Arista whispered,"Is this really a true story?"

Ariel smirked at her sister, but Urchin nodded his head. "As I live and swim! So the Captain grabbed some poor sailors out of their beds and he hauled em to tha' ship! And tha' women folk cried and wailed cause they knew they'd never see their men again. And tha' Captain just laughed at them! "HA! HA! HA!"

Uchin laughed so harsh that the girls drew back in fright. Even Ariel lost her grin.

"And the wind screamed through tha' sails that night, as they set off, and the folks watchin' from the dock said that the ship looked white under tha' shine of the moon. And the clouds flew across the sky like shredded ghosts, and all tha' sailors knew they weren't comin' back."

Flounder looked up at Ariel with fright. "He's just making it up; isn't he?" The girl looked uncertain, and the little fish shivered.

"The waves crashed against tha' hull and the sailors tried to hold on, as the black water roared into the ship and tried to pull them over tha' side. The waves looked mad; like the mad gleam in tha' Captain's eyes, as he watched the sails stretch in the howling wind. And the First mate screamed at tha' Captain to drop tha' sails or they'd all drown, but tha' Captain just laughed, "HA! HA! HA! HA! I'M BIGGER THAN THIS STORM! IT'LL OBEY ME! " And the wind shreeked in their ears and the rain whipped at them with a frenzy, and the first sailor was torn loose from tha' rigging and lost over tha' side!"

Ariel felt her heart pounding. The fear around her was making her afraid too!

Urchin lifted his arms, "And the lightening bolts cracked down onto the ship and split the main sail in two! Sailors fell screaming all over tha' deck as tha' sparks flew all around them! And tha' ship tossed like it was gonna capsize any second, but tha' Captain just stayed at tha' wheel and shook his fist at tha' lightening! "THAT'S THA' BEST YA CAN DO?!", he thundered! "I'LL RIDE YA OUT TIL DOOMSDAY!"

Ariel gulped and held Flounder close to her.

"Tha Captain laughed at tha' storm: "HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!" and a bolt of lightening hit em square in the head! And there was a flash and he was gone! And tha' ship reared-up like a wild seahorse and dove straight into tha' water!

Urchin paused, to catch his breath, but no one spoke. Ariel watched him with frightened eyes.

"Then,...then what happened?", whispered Aquata.

Urchin rose up over them and lowered his arms. "Tha' ship sank down,...with all the poor sailors still inside tha' ship, down to the bottom of the ocean,...down to,...RIGHT HERE!".

The girls jumped.

"Right here is where it lies", whispered Urchin. "Those sailors never got out". The merboy pointed down to the floor. "They're down there. Every night; when the moon is full,...you can hear em down there. Trying to get out,...trying to get back to their wives and children,..."

Urchin sat back down and smiled. "How was that? Okay; who's next?"

Adella whispered. "I,..I don't want to hear any more ghost stories!"

Ariel nodded. "Yeah,.. Let's go to bed."

Everyone nodded and spread out their sleeping bags. Flounder was still pressing up against Ariel. "Flounder; don't you have a sleeping bag too?", asked the girl.

The little fish looked up at her, with frightened eyes, and nodded.

Ariel smiled, gently. "You'd rather sleep with me?"

Flounder nodded.

Ariel opened her bag. "Okay. Come on in."

The little fish snuggled up against her.

"Pleasant dreams!", offered Urchin.

"Yeah. Thanks", replied Arista.

"Don't let the sailors get ya."

"Quiet, Urchin", warned Arista.

It took Ariel a long time to get to sleep. She kept thinking of those poor sailors who never made it back to their families. What had happened to their wives and children? Why didn't the cruel captain think about them? Then Ariel realized that every shipwreck might have caused the loss of Human lives. Why did the Humans risk so much to enter her world? The girl fell into uneasy dreams.

Ariel was awakened in the night by a noise. She raised up suddenly; in a cold sweat. The fear around her was thick. Everyone was wide awake; looking at the floor. From below her came a faint sound,...like bones scraping across the wood.

"What's that? What's that?", whspered Arista. Flounder squeezed against Ariel, with eyes wide with terror. Even Sebastian was shaking with fright.

Ariel looked over at Urchin; his pale, frightened face was hard to see in the dying red glow of the lantern. "I,..I,..didn't think that story was,...real,..", he whispered.

Suddenly, they heard more scratching; like bony fingers clawing across the floor. A faint, high-pitched scream echoed under them; it was short, but sounded terrible.

"Daddy!', whimpered Adella.

"It's de sailors!", moaned Sebastian. "Human ghosts are worse dan Humans!"

Ariel shivered in fright, as she looked at the frightened faces of her sisters and their boyfriends. The scraping went right underneath the mermaid and she jumped up to get off the floor. Flounder clung to her.

"I,..I don't believe in spooks", whispered the girl, "but whatever that is is doing a good job of sounding like spooks!"

"Let's get out of here!", cried Arista. Everyone rushed to the top hatch. It was shut!

"Who shut the hatch?!", cried Aquata.

Arista stammered. "I,..I did. I thought I was supposed to close it!"

Adrian pushed against the hatch, but it wouldn't open! "It's stuck!", cried the merboy.

Arista shreeked, "We're trapped! We're trapped! The sailors are gonna get us!"

Ariel looked down at the floor and swallowed. She could hear the scraping, and the short high screams echoing through the floor. Flounder was almost frantic beside her.

"I,..I don't believe in spooks!", whispered the girl. She hesitately swam to the lower hatch.

Flounder looked at her with wide eyes. "What,..are you doing?!"

Ariel took a deep breath. "I'm,...gonna find out what's making that noise!"

Arista shreeked from above. "No Ariel!! You'll let them out!!"

Ariel grabbed the hatch and pulled at it. With a loud creak, it flew open. Nothing came out, but the scrapping grew louder. The screams suddenly sounded,...familiar to the girl!

She took her lantern and lowered it down into the cargo hold of the ship. Ariel gasped in surprise!

It was SEAHORSES! Giant baby seahorses! They were swimming in the hold of the ship; having fun! The "screams" were really their playful whinnys! The scrapping noises were the sounds of the seahorses scratching their backs on the roof! Ariel could see seven or eight of the cute little animals swimming around. The mother seahorse was resting on some old blankets; sleeping, as her children played.

Ariel looked back at her sisters and grinned. "Come everybody and look at the spooks!"

Flounder breathed a sigh of relief, as he saw the baby seahorses. "Those little guys were making all those scary sounds?"

Ariel smiled and nodded. "Yep! See; there's the mother, down there!" Ariel looked around and spotted a single hole near the front of the ship. "And that's how they get in and out! She must bring her children here, at night, where it's safe to sleep."

Arista swam up and gasped. "Why! It's little seahorses!"

Sebastian laughed. "Dose little fellas had me shaking in my shell!"

Urchin grinned. "Well; so much for the spooks! Maybe this is tha' wrong ship!"

Ariel laughed. "I think those are the cutest spooks I've ever seen!"


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