UA-19541526-1

The Move

by Carolyn Abram

Walter remembered the previous couple as round and undulating—the furniture stuffed to the brim and mattresses crowning upwards. This time, everything was square. The couch and chairs were in cubic sections, laid out at perfect right angles to each other. Men streamed in and out of the entrance, carrying boxes, corners, hard flat screens.

Two of the men struggled to turn a shelving unit through the narrow entryway without puncturing the wall. Walter tried to recall the limitations of physicality. A time when he’d had form and stood in doorways the way these men did, leaving voids of space all around them. Nothing came back.  A wind rippled across the threshold; he fled to his favorite crack in the ceiling. Walter didn’t like open doorways, open windows, open invitations to come inside when all he wanted was to keep everyone out and himself in.

“Michelle,” the man called, “the movers want to know where the bookshelves go.”

Michelle bounded into the room, “Small ones in the bedroom, tall ones in the living room,” she looked directly at the mover and nodded at him until he nodded back.

Josh and Mish, a constant racket of shushing noises. They wore shoes that left acrid scuffs in the hallways, shed layers of clothing as the day progressed, exposing their hard skin. Even their bodies seemed less rotund, more sleek and angular. How faddish, Walter thought. He no longer remembered the fads of his time living in the house.  He’d long ago stopped counting seasons or couples.  They gritted their teeth and heaved the sticky windowpanes open; turned the hot water spigot to fill their buckets; swept and vacuumed and mopped and polished.

Walter fretted. Walter panicked. Walter hid in the broken doorbell in the attic. Its tinny echo hid the screams of the layers of dust being sucked up, the strata of grime being squeaked off the windows, the tarnish and dirt being ferreted out, exiled. I’ll remember you, Walter thought, people are only temporary.

 

Walter was exploring the cotton candy pourousness of the insulation beneath the floorboards in the attic. The fiberglass was oddly unyielding—like being inside a salt crystal. Hollow reverberations jarred him out of his miniature cathedral. He had no choice but to go observe.

Sex, Walter remembered, as the sheets hung over their naked bodies, rippling in concert with the smacks of skin. Walter no longer felt even a phantom pang of flesh, just annoyance at the inevitable crescendo of noise and distress.  The window was open and a warm breeze wafted menacingly through the room. A fallen strand of hair tumbled across the expanse. The feet of the bed chiseled, thrust by thrust, into the floor beneath.  Indelible ink on someone else’s belongings.

 

The house was being reassembled under their rule. Kitchen, dining room, living room, bedroom, office.  One room left vacant. The room was the one where the pockmarks of an overeager hammer had been patched but then sank into the wall. Even layers of paint couldn’t hide the slight ridges. Walter loved pushing against these canyons, feeling their citrus catch. There was also the dust-dried postage stamp that had slid in between the shelf and the wall in the closet. The room was left to Walter, it seemed. Still, it was vacuumed top to bottom, and empty boxes were left flattened in one of its corners like heavy flags.

 

Walter considered his options. He watched, followed, learned the treads of their shoes and the folds of their jackets. He spread himself over the leftover imprint of a duck-shaped appliqué in the bathtub. Michelle ran the water and for a moment Walter was in heaven: heat. Heat was a rarity. Rather, the contrast was a rarity. When it was summer it seemed it had always been summer and the whole house swelled and suffocated.  When it was winter it had always been winter and the house shivered and tucked itself tighter.  The cool tub overwhelmed by the hot water was brand new and familiar at the same time.

“Oh wow,” Michelle said. Walter wondered how she was talking to him, but then she turned her head and called out the door, “Josh, get in here.”

She pointed as soon as he came in, “Do you see that?”

He shook his head.

“There’s like, what are those things called, it’s a rubber ducky, you know, so you don’t slip in the tub. Do you see the outline?” she pointed again.

Josh turned his head, hair so sharp and close-cut it didn’t even change direction. He squinted, “I guess so.”

“Isn’t that funny? I guess someone must have scraped off the decal but the glue stayed.”

“Yeah,” he nodded gravely.

Michelle watched him for another few seconds, but Josh’s face didn’t transform to mirror her elation.

“Okay, you can go. I have shared my discovery,” she waved him away.

Walter wanted to attach himself to the metal rivets on Josh’s pants. They looked smooth and intriguing. But when he followed Josh, he was usually forced to watch more destruction: the light fixtures replaced with stainless steel behemoths, layers of polyurethane and dirt stripped from the molding, dingy brass doorknobs discarded and the fibers of wood beneath them brushed and blown away.

Michelle poured some sort of soap into the tub; Walter felt the long-forgotten pressure of a sneeze.  She took hold of a bristle-brush and began to scrub. She was trying to erase the evidence. She was trying to undo so much history.  Walter hated her. He burrowed into the faucet, sensing the rust inside would not be there much longer. He embraced each droplet of water before it moved on to the sloshing beneath.

 

Michelle liked to lean against the doorjamb and stare into Walter’s room. This, he understood; doorjambs had an almost nutty flavor hidden in their layers of paint and right angles. He wondered if Michelle could taste it too.  He felt the house expand and sigh, good naturedly, making space inside. This worried him.

 

He started simple, seeping himself into the floorboards and the water pipes, tugging and clanking and moaning in the evenings.  The problem was volume. They were always listening to something. They talked and they sang and their screens talked and sang. At night, he tried to wait till they were nearly asleep, watching the disturbed rustles of blankets and covers.  They thumped their pillows, rolled towards and away from one another.

“I’ve been sleeping terribly since we moved,” Michelle said at breakfast.

“It’s the stress,” Josh said, “Plus this house sounds like it’s falling apart.”

“House settling,” she took a sip of her coffee and looked at the walls around her.

“Maybe we have rats,” Josh looked down at the table, at the words on his shiny tablet.

“Oh that doesn’t help.”

In the exploration of the peculiar tackiness of the traps Josh laid out, almost electric in their bite, Walter was sure he’d lost several days of haunting. When he returned to their bedroom, they had plugged something into the wall. It was emitting a sort of noise. Ocean, Walter remembered, the word building and crashing like the noise of the thing itself. He lost entire nights ebbing with it, thinking about a wide expanse of sea. Salt. Stinging. Sunburn. Something wonderful had happened to him there, he was sure.

Every morning, when they shut it off, Walter would worry he’d somehow accidentally left the house. He’d rush to rediscover all of his favorite spots, cobwebs in unreachable corners, his attic doorbell, the postage stamp and dent in the wall, the strand of spider silk hanging from the ceiling of the closet in his room.  These were his benchmarks. When they were gone, he would have lost.

 

Walter hid in the outlet in the bedroom. The window was open; even the screen had been removed and this made Walter nervous. Josh and another man—older, but with a similar face—hauled a large metal box into the hole, blocking the outside. Each of them glistened and grunted.  Josh wiped the back of his arm against his brow.  He steadied the box as the older man closed the window above it. He snapped something in against the sides of the window.

“Okay,” he said.

Josh released the box, stepped away as though it might catch him leaving.

“Plug ‘er in,” said the older man.

“My life is about to get exponentially better,” Josh said.

The prongs sunk their teeth into the space Walter was occupying. He felt a rush of dizziness as contact was made and a satisfying shock of electricity leapt out and snatched Josh’s hand.

He snapped his hand back, “Fuck,” he said.

“Old house, old wiring,” said the other man.

“Fucking fuck,” Josh muttered, “One more thing to worry about.”

He stood up and flicked the switch on the box. Walter felt the current pass over him, hum and shudder the box to life.

Cool air flowed out into the room. Josh stood directly in front of it, eyes closed, face relieved and slack.

“One thing at a time, son,” the man clapped Josh loudly on the back.

Walter hated the box and its duplicates throughout the house. Their growls reminded him of the word monster. It changed the quality of the air wherever it was. Only a few places were left unsullied.

 

When Michelle walked out of the shower one morning, the mirror was fogged. “GET OUT” was written across it, rivulets of water running off the edges of the letters.

“Very funny,” she snorted, shook her head, “I’m done, I’m done.” Then she raised her voice to call out, “Your turn.”

She held out a finger and drew and heart through the center of the mirror.

Hmmph, thought Walter. He ran himself across the grooves in the steam created by Michelle’s finger. It was comfortably smooth, with pulses of water droplets every now and then. Small consolation.

Joshua came into the room, towel around his waist. He surveyed the mirror, smiled, reached out and traced an arrow through the heart. He turned on the fan, shaking his head.  The whir ate away all of it.

 

GO AWAY, the mirror said.

“Josh,” she called out, “if you have some problem with me taking such long showers could you at least talk to me about it, because passive aggressive notes are not helping.” She listened to the scuffling beyond the door, “Go away,” she mumbled to herself, “idiot,” she reached out and wiped the mirror clean with the side of her hand.

Josh opened the door, “What are you yelling about?” Steam swirled and Walter rode the eddy up into the ceiling.

She leaned close to the mirror and opened her eyes wide, pulled something out of her lashes, “I wasn’t yelling. The shower. I wasn’t even in there for that long.” She blinked a few times at herself.

“Who said you were?”

She turned towards him, pointed to the mirror, “You did. You left the notes.”

Josh furrowed his eyebrows, raised his voice a bit, “I have no clue what you’re talking about.”

“The mirror. Have you not even noticed my little messages back to you?”

“The hearts? I noticed. It was cute.”

“So why are you heckling me about the shower?”

“I’m not.” He rocked the door back and forth. The hinges squeaked and reverberated from shingles to foundations.

“So why the notes?”

“What notes?”

She stamped her foot, “You are impossible sometimes.”

His tone shifted, “You woke up on the wrong side of bed.”

“Fine,” she turned back towards the mirror, “Forget the whole thing.”

“I’m not going to leave with you all mad at me.”

Their voices echoed off the tiles, Walter remembered the word headache.

She shrugged.

“Mish,” Josh jiggled the doorknob, looked at her dripping reflection. His face softened.

She picked up a comb and attacked the ends of her hair. “Will you at least own up to the mirror?”

Josh held up both his hands, “I give up, okay?”

She sighed.

“Here,” Josh closed the door behind him as he stepped into the humid room. He took a bottle of shaving cream off the counter and sprayed it into a hand towel. He traced something across the full expanse of the mirror. Michelle kept combing. He cranked the shower back on.

Walter bounced in the puffs of steam that poured out of the showerhead. It emerged slowly, but with greater clarity than any of Walter’s messages.

MICHELLE = THE BEST, the mirror said.

Walter skated across the surface of the letters. The shaving cream clung so closely to the fabric of the glass, anything Walter wrote would pale by comparison.

Michelle smiled. Josh put his arms around her.

Walter submerged himself in the toilet tank, where he could hear nothing but the faintest trebles of their voices, soft and cooing. He always enjoyed the toilet tank; it brought back vague memories of swimming, of being submerged and new and bright.  It had the added benefit, for whatever reason, of clogging the toilet, which wound up costing several hours in overtime for the plumber.

 

They were painting his room. The paint was yellow, it filled him with memories of salivation. The sun was streaming into the room and Josh and Michelle were blasting music and singing along at the top of their lungs. The sounds echoed and were absorbed by the walls.

Michelle wore a cloth cover over her mouth. A shame, she was becoming prettier, as though something about the house was softening her, like she was ripening. Peach, Walter remembered, soft and luscious and immersive.

Sometimes when Michelle was sleeping Walter poured himself around her face like a mask, feeling the smooth grooves of air hugging her nose, the slight tickle of her eyelashes, the rougher terrain of her lips.

The entire floor was covered in plastic spotted with yellow boot prints; Joshua kept stepping in the paint tray.

“I am some kind of klutz today,” he said, though Michelle seemed not to hear him over the music. He pushed his roller back and forth over the dent in the wall; the wet paint made it even more noticeable.

Walter trembled, sending small ripples across the paint tray. Moving things required focus and energy.  His work was going unnoticed.

Michelle climbed up a stepladder to reach the awkward corner above the closet. The drifting pendulum of spider silk and the face on the postage stamp watched from the other side of the wall.

Josh spun a dial on the speakers and the noise softened, “Babe, you shouldn’t be on that top step, I think.”

“Don’t be silly. That’s just those crappy plastic ladders. This one will be fine.” She leaned and raised her heels to stand on her tiptoes.  The far leg of the ladder copied this motion, rising slightly off the ground. If she leaned a little more, if Walter just added a little more torque, she would slip and fall. He hesitated; it seemed so drastic. Before he could recover and push on the lifting leg, Josh had put his painted shoe on the bottom step, weighting it.

“Jesus Mish, the whole thing was about to tip,” he snapped.

Michelle looked down and pulled her shoulders up to her ears.

“Okay, you don’t have to say it, just come down,”

Michelle rolled her eyes, drawled, “You were right. I should be more careful.”

She stepped down and Josh smoothed her hair, leaving yellow prints along her scalp. He kissed her forehead.

Vomit, Walter remembered. He wrapped himself around the strand of cobweb, waited.

 

He started slamming doors.  If they were both home they would jump, turn and stare at each other, then burst out laughing.  He tried to slam more, ones where the windows weren’t opened, where they couldn’tblame it on a draft.  He knocked over picture frames, anything precarious. They fought about the piles of dishes—Josh left them by the bed, Michelle in the office—about the cheapness of the frames for their wedding photos.

“This house is not safe,” Michelle surveyed one day, “Too many corners.”

This made Walter optimistic. But then, just when he thought maybe he could turn them against the house and the house against them, they learned to shut doors as they moved between rooms. They bought doorstops.  Walter vented his frustrations by clanking harder on the water pipes. The plumber came back; gooey layers of insulation were added, thick and deafening as honey.

 

Apparitions were difficult, and consuming. Required good timing. Walter felt certain he didn’t usually have to resort to this. He waited for the full moon, constructed himself as visible and ghoulish across the threshold of the bedroom. Joshua washed his face, turned out the light, walked out of the bathroom towards his room. Walter braced himself for a scream.

Joshua squinted at him and walked straight through.

Walter remembered what it felt like to knock a fork over his metal fillings. Remembered the twinge of knees scraped over hard red earth. Joshua paused, shivered, crossed into his room.

This was a mistake he tried not to replicate. Touching people overwhelmed him with sensations of pain. He would need to retreat, recover his strength. All the hard work of haunting would have to cease.

Joshua climbed into bed. Told Michelle that he thought his vision was getting worse. He could hardly see a thing once he took out his contacts. Michelle murmured something. There was the rustle of bed sheets, the bunching of their bodies in the center of the bed.

Josh said, “Jeez, I guess it’s really getting to be winter, glad you warmed up the bed for me,” The quilt rose and fell with their breathing.

Walter banished himself to the darkest corner of the basement, between the cold concrete wall and the hot water heater. As he curled around the curves of the water tank he thought briefly of Josh, folding himself around Michelle in the dark, then of the house, folding around all of them, containing them, keeping them safe.

 

Once he felt his strength returning, he made his rounds. The broken doorbell in the attic had been touched.  It had been picked up and left on top of a new pile of boxes; Walter could taste the whorls of greasy fingerprints left on the chimes. His room had been filled with furniture. In its closet, the postage stamp looked at him mournfully. It had slipped slightly—Walter realized the closet had been painted too—and a corner was now visible beneath the shelf.  The cobweb had been painted into the ceiling, the faintest scent of yeast accompanying the small bump it created. Walter was losing. He had maybe already lost. They were stronger than he’d anticipated, more mulish.  The house seemed content. Beyond content—it was buzzing with life and energy.  Not you too, Walter thought.

The sea sounds were gone. Walter fluttered in the draft streaming from the closed window. Something severe. Something to fix all of it. To get everything back to normal. If he waited any longer the house would forget him entirely.

Michelle’s hand rested next to her lips on the pillow. Walter coiled himself around it, felt the hard nails and their rough-hewn edges. The skin was dry; he could slide into the cracks without yet touching her. Maybe he could get her to understand that she was unwanted. He should have tipped the ladder when he had the chance. He wrapped the coil tighter, spinning through flesh.

She sat straight up, looked down at her hand. Walter felt woozy.

“Oh,” she cried out, doubling over.

Walter rushed to the outlet under the window to recover.

“Joshua,” she screamed.

They left immediately. They had even packed a suitcase.

 

Walter was rolling around in the pilot lights on the stove, enjoying the tiny rumble of flame when the lock clicked and the door fell open.

Walter sighed; he’d allowed himself to think maybe they had gone for good.

They carried something.  They brought it to his room, laid it down in the miniature bed. Baby, Walter recalled suddenly. He molded himself to the dent in the wall, but couldn’t get a good view of it.

They left it alone for a little while in the afternoon. Walter hovered over its crib, trying to recall when he had last seen something of this type. None of the couples before this had had babies.

She opened her eyes, looked straight up at Walter. Walter felt like he had a head and a body and a face again, and like she could see all of it.  She yawned and her curled fist leapt into the air, passing through Walter.

The same shattering hum, but different somehow. Words long obscured floated from him. Beauty. Innocence. Daughter.

“Oh,” Walter thought, “I had a family, once.”

She blinked rapidly, her mouth opened and a wail emanated from it. She had the same force as a vacuum cleaner, but in the other direction. Michelle rushed in, followed by Josh. “Shhh, shhh,” she said, scooping the baby into her arms and pressing her close, “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

+

Carolyn Abram welcomes your comments on The Move at ceabram[at]gmail.com.

photo by tim ebbs.

A Ghost Story

by Cleo Brinkman

It was a dark night. The moon had gone behind a cloud when one of the scouts said, “Let’s tell ghost stories.”

Rock had just finished one of those stupid stories that make the rounds. We all laughed and one of the kids yelled, “Way to go, Rock!” We called him Rock because his mother said he has rocks in his head. Sometimes we were almost convinced ourselves. We were getting restless and our fire was dying out when our Scout Master, Mr. Deedon—or Ray, as we called him—said, in a scary voice, “Would you boys like to hear a real ghost story?” We looked at each other, eyes glassy, faces flickering in shadow and nodded and tried to act like we weren’t already spooked.

Here’s what he told us:

One Saturday, the neighborhood boys and I were swimming down at the old swimming hole. It was getting late, about sunset, and we all had to be home for supper or we’d be grounded for a week. We yelled our goodbyes and Fats waited for me. I don’t know why we called him Fats. He was the skinniest guy we knew. But he liked the name so Fats it was. I discovered my pocket knife was gone so I ran back to the beach where I left my shirt while we swam. There it was. I bent to pick it up when I saw something on the water. At first, I couldn’t make out what it was. Then I could see it was a girl! Floating face up in the water. I yelled for Fats and took off my shoes and swam out, clothes and all. I towed her to shore. Checked for signs of life. She was dead! I was sure. I called after Fats again and he finally came running.

“What are you doing?’

“I turned to meet him as he climbed the hill.

“I found this girl in the water and she’s dead-”

“What girl?’ he asked.

“This girl—are you blind?!” I turned around and there was no girl.

“She was here a second ago!”

“Yeah, yeah. Some dead girl you found got up and left,” Fats laughed and then got mad. “I’ll probably get grounded thanks to you and your stupid joke.”

By now, he had reached his bike and off he rode.

I was grounded that night. My mother tried to explain away what I’d seen. It was a reflection on the water or shadows, I was tired.

“At sunset you see strange things that don’t exist.”

I was convinced I knew what I’d seen and felt.

Sunday, after church, I snuck out and rode to the swimming hole. When I got there, well, there she was again, sitting in the sand. I approached, steadying my knees, swallowed deep for courage and asked her point-blank, “You’re a ghost, aren’t you?”

She nodded her head. Now we were getting somewhere!

“You want my help?”

Another nod yes.

“We were on a roll. Now, let’s see, ghosts are earthbound due to sudden death and unfinished business—or they were murdered! Ha! Good thing I watched that television show last winter when I was sick and had to miss school.

“Do you have some unfinished business you need help with?’ I asked.

She nodded yes again.

“You need your folks to know you love them?”

NO, a violent shake of the head.

“You were… murdered?”

Yes, a vigorous nod.

“And you want me to find your killer?”

Yes!

“Can’t you talk?”

She shook her head.

“How can I find your killer? I don’t even know who you are.”

She got very excited now and began writing on the sand with my stick.

“E L I S H A—I could barely make out the scratches.

“Hey, you got worse handwriting than I do!” I began to wonder what I was doing talking to a dead girl. But I think I saw her smile.

“So does whoever killed you live in our town?”

Yes again!

“Was it a man?”

“Yes.

“Can you write his name?”

NO.

“Why? You wrote yours.”

She shook her shoulders.

“You aren’t sure of his name?”

Yes.

She began scratching in the sand. M M M. I knew it was someone whose name began with the letter “M.” I thought of all the men in town.

“Martin the butcher?” I asked.

No.

“Mike at the Food for Less?”

No.

“Milburn, our only homeless person?” He recycled and lived in an empty house down by the tracks, but seemed harmless enough even though he was a little strange.

No. Now she was getting impatient.

“Well, so long! I’m the wrong one to help you ‘cause I’m fresh out of M’s.”

No! No! No! She shook her head so hard I was afraid it would snap off.

I paused, scratched my head. “Well, the only other M I can think of is Mo, our Sheriff.”

She began shaking her head yes!

“No! No! No!” now it was my turn. “His name isn’t even Mo. His mother nicknamed him Motor Mouth and Mo it became. His real name is, Clarence, I think.”

YES!

“No! He’s our Scout Master and one of the nicest guys!”

Mo was my personal hero; no way he killed her. But she went on yessing me and it was getting late. I was through arguing with a ghost. I got up and headed home. It was already late in the day, almost sunset. I knew I had to hurry ‘cause if I got caught, there’d be hell to pay. Remember, I was raised in the days of dad’s belt and if I was sore the next day, everyone would know why.

I didn’t eat much supper that night. I was thinking Mo, a murderer, and a child murderer at that? No way! This ghost was mixed up. Maybe there was another Mo back then. I mean, something wasn’t right.

Next morning, my mother asked me if I was sick since I hadn’t touched my breakfast; eating was usually my favorite thing. But I had no interest in food.

“Mom, is it possible for someone to do something unspeakable and then change and become a nice person?”

“Oh, Son. You haven’t done anything wrong, have you?” She looked concerned.

I decided I had better get to school and, afterward, I climbed the hill and let my eyes scan the water. Nothing… but there!: on the beach was the girl, right where I’d left her. She wasn’t a ghost no more, just a body, but I felt like someone was watching me from behind. I had this feeling like I should be somewhere else, anywhere else but here. But I couldn’t help myself. I crept down to the beach, slowly approached the body. I pushed it with my toe. Nothing.

“You’re dead, alright,” I told her. “Maybe this time, Missy, you’ll still be here when I return with the police.” I found a stick and pierced her calico dress, right between her legs just so she’d stay put. Then I ran up the hill to pick up my bike and pedaled as fast as I could the whole way home.

I came clean, told my parents everything. And after my mom and dad yelled at me, dad went to call the sheriff.

“Not Mo,” I said. “Don’t call Mo.”

Dad looked like he was going to hit me and about an hour later Mo came out and took the report.

“Took you long enough,” my dad said.

“Sorry, we had another call.”

We followed him to the swimming hole in the car. Of course, wouldn’t you know it, there was nothing there once we arrived—no trace at all of the girl—and Mo gave me a stern lecture on how unsafe the swimming hole was. But then I remembered the stick. Everyone was already walking down the hill when I found it. On the other end was a piece of cloth! A perfect match for that little girl’s torn calico dress.

I didn’t say anything more. My dad talked to me all the way home about fantasies and stuff. My mom just looked sorry for me but I knew now something was out there and I was going to have to find out what.
The following night was Scout Meeting. I’d just ask Mo straight out. “Hey, Mo,” I’d say, “do you know some girl named Elisha?” He’d say, “No” and it would all be over.

So, after the meeting, I hid my bike and said, “Mo, can you give me a lift home? I got a flat.”

“Sure,” he said. “Hop in the car. I’ll be right out.”

He had his police car. We were a small town and the police took their cars home at night. Once he got inside the car, he began asking me about school. I didn’t hear the question because my mind was already forming a question of my own: Mo, do you know a girl named Elisha?

I couldn’t believe I’d asked him out loud!

He didn’t reply right away but suddenly he turned to look at me. His face was white as stone. He said, “Where did you hear that name?”

I noticed we’d gone past my house. “Mo, you missed my house.”

Now I was becoming nervous. He was headed out to the old swamp and no one messed with the old swamp. There was quicksand and snakes and all sorts of terrible stuff out there. Once we’d reached that miserable place, he stopped and told me to get out of the car. I didn’t at first but when he unbuckled his gun holster and made a move for his pistol, I moved and right quick.

“You don’t want to do this, Mo! Whatever happened to that girl, no one else knows.”

You know,” was all he said.

He was pushing me toward the swamp when suddenly he stopped. His face went pale again and he began making all sorts of terrible noises. He seemed to be fighting something only he could see. He fired his gun in the air a few times and fell to the ground. He looked terrible. His face was ashen and still.

“Mo,” I said, and I tapped him with my toe. I knew he was dead. I hightailed home like the devil himself was after me.

Next morning, I looked so bad; Mom said I should stay home from school. It seemed like a bad B-movie but that night in the news there it was: our Sheriff Clarence “Mo” Smith had died at the old swamp. He was chasing someone, it was believed, and he’d suffered a stroke. The suspect got away.

Oh, there is one more thing: when they dried up that old swamp for that new shopping mall a few years ago, among the other things they found out there was the skeleton of a twelve year old girl.

 

+

Cleo Brinkman is the grandmother of the Samizdat Literary Journal’s editor, Jeff Von Ward.

photo by mike love.

A Skeleton Witness

by Ellen Lee Jakeman

I have noticed that most people sneer at ghost stories, but I am free to premise that they hallways had a great fascination for me. Let those scoff and deride the “notion” who will, there is too much evidence, founded on irrefragable testimony, for all such things to be disdained, except by fools.

Science has not yet reached that state of perfection where it can capture a “spook,” resolve it into its original elements, bottle and reconstruct it at will; and until this can be done of course there will always be a great majority of disbelievers.

There may be a difference in the quality of our eyes; of our physical or spiritual natures, which enables some to see what to others is a sealed book.

It would seem that those who have had the clearest and most forcible demonstrations of this kind have been possessed of finely-strung, highly nervous organizations, and who, under sudden blows or protracted grief, have succumbed to madness or death.

I believe, in spite of the popular contempt expressed for ghosts, “their sisters and their cousins and their aunts, “that there is yet some latent credence accorded them, unconsciously perhaps, by all persons—and it is not a significant fact that those most loud in ridicule and denunciation take the greatest pains never to place themselves where they could possibly pass through such an experience?

Then the imagination is generally charged with facts and exaggerations of some horrible crime, and as the very thought appeals to the dark and superstitious side of our nature, it is not wonderful that there are many errors committed, optical illusions, and mistaken identity, to say nothing of the clever tricks of rogues, and practical jokers. I notice, however, in the recently translated works of a profound German scholar, this footnote: “There is sufficient evidence to establish the fact that disembodied spirits, or ghosts, have been seen.”

With this preface I will proceed to state some facts in my possession, and you, dear reader, may be both judge and jury.

In 1866, or thereabout, among twenty families, deeming a certain valley and stream capable of giving agricultural sustenance to that number of souls, selected a town site at some distance from the creek, and proceeded to lay out a town. The streets where surveyed broad, and crossing each other at right angles, leaving building blocks of four lots each. Every fellow selected the lot that pleased him best, and they all huddled as close together as possible, since there is nothing like isolation, poverty and suffering to make people sociable and neighborly. In general the town site was very level, and most of the hoses were build on the corners of the lots so as to face two streets; but the particular house to which I wish to draw the reader’s attention was built near the center of the lot it occupied. I must not use real names, as some of the actors in this drama are still living, so we will call the original builder Mr. Brown.

Why Mr. Brown chose that spot for his house is not known, unless he wished to get nearer to his neighbors, or more probably because there was a bare spot of earth just there, while the rest of the lot, and in fact the whole valley, was covered with a heavy growth of scrubby sage brush. However that may be, there he erected his little log hut, and thither he brought his youthful bride. Not long after, he joined a wagon train going to California, and left his young wife alone, expecting to return with a load of goods in about three months.

About a week after her husband’s departure Mrs. Brown frightened her nearest neighbors, the Smiths, nearly out of their senses, b walking into their house at midnight, half-dressed, pale as death, but making desperate efforts to control herself.

“There is a man in my house,” she said, “and I don’t know who it is; the house was dim and I couldn’t see him very well but he had a red flannel shirt on, and I’m afraid of him.” After a pause she continued: “He didn’t try to keep me from coming out but I felt like he was following me all the way, “and she shuddered. “I thought perhaps your husband would go over and see who it is and what he wants. I think he must be a crazy man, I felt so queer when he looked at me.”

Mr. Smith very obligingly got up and dressed, taking his gun down from its place above the door; told her that “mor’n likely ‘t was an Injun,” and adding that “he’d stold all there was in the house by this time,” bade her go to bed with his wife. With this he trudged off across lots to the Brown domicile and there spent the remainder of the night in as sound a sleep as he had ever enjoyed. There was no trace of an intruder.

Before noon next day it was known all over town that some man had visited Mrs. Brown’s house the night before, and she was subjected to the most rigid cross-questioning. She solemnly assured those whose business it was to guard against attacks from Indians, that it was not an Indian, it was a white man, but as she did not get a good sight of his face, she would be unable to identify him. Of one ting she was sure—he did not belong to the settlement.

Three nights after the first appearance, Mrs. Brown again waked in on the Smith family. This time she was fully dressed, but her manner was more strained and excited than before.

“Mr. Smith,” she gasped, “if you will hurry, I’m sure you will find him there, for he was kneeling in front of the fire and preparing to cook something. He had a frying pan and a grub-box with him, though I didn’t see them brought in. He did not speak to me, but he looked at me and flung his hands up so, when I took my shawl down to come away;”—and she spread out both hands and raised them to a level with her face in a gesture plainly indicative of dissuasion.

Again Mr. Smith hastened with more (or less) alacrity in quest of Mrs. Brown’s persecutor. As he approached the house he felt some trepidation at entering and attempting to capture single-handed perhaps a maniac, who having brought his belongings had evidently “come to stay.” So, making a detour, he woke up two or three men nearest the place and they proceeded in a body to the house. The door stood wide open as Mrs. Brown had left it; the firs of “fat pin” had burned low, the covers were thrown back from the bed, as if done in haste, but the house was empty of any living being. There was no sign of “grub-box” or frying pan, and the men solemnly rubbed their shins, opened their eyes wide and gazed at vacancy. Next day it was determined that Mrs. Brown should be furnished with a sleeping apartment elsewhere, and two men remarkable for pluck and skill in shooting were to occupy the house.

This they continued to do for a month; at the end of which time, as nothing had been seen by them, they concluded that who ever the miscreant was he had betaken himself to other quarters. So once more Mrs. Brown returned to her own house, though with evident reluctance. At midnight the neighbors heard the most terrified and agonized shrieks, and hastening to her relief, found her lying in a dead swoon across the door-step. But there was no sign of any other human being to be seen, although it was a bright moonlit night, and the view so open that it would have been a very adroit character indeed who could have concealed himself. Several women among the half-dressed, gaping crow busied themselves in restoring the terrified woman to consciousness, while the others advanced theories.

“It’s my opinion,” said Mr. Smith, “that she’s dreamed it, poor girl.” “Women often have queer notions in her state of health,” said a middle-aged lady with an apologetic simper. “There is one thing sure, she must not be left here alone any longer, though it may all be imagination. I have noticed that there has been something queer about her ever since that first night and I don’t believe that she has eve undressed any night she has spent here since,” said No 3.

It was hours before she recovered, then her symptoms were so alarming that the last speaker took her home and nursed her with the tenderness of a mother.

In he silence and secrecy of their bed chamber, she confessed to Mrs. Jones that she had never believed since is second appearance that it was anything but a spirit. Why it should persist in appearing she could not guess. Perhaps her husband was dead, or it was to warn her that the coming trail would be death, or else, if she had not seen it, she was mad.  And she whispered the last word with such an agony of appeal that Mrs. Jones hastened to assure her that she believed she had seen something; though far from being settled as to what was her opinion. She gently soothed the poor distracted child refusing to talk on the subject, employing her hands and thus keeping her mind off the dangerous topic with a tact and delicacy that would have done credit to the head and heat of the most refined. But she could no protect her guest from the wondering stare of children, or the incredulous sneers and ridicule of those who believed it “imagination,” or the furtive scrutiny of those who considered her on the road to insanity.

The time was approaching when her husband was expected to return. To the great surprise of everybody Mrs. Brown went home and made arrangements to live there. She had induced a neighbor girl to go stay with her, but that did not save her from the dreaded apparition.

Punctually at midnight the man, his red flannel shirt looming bright red through the gloom, approached the fire, and—horrors! there were tow dim shadows following him!

She sat bolt upright in bed and stared at them. Her furniture disappeared from the vicinity of the fire, and was replaced by a camp outfit such as pack-horse travelers are accustomed to make use of. There were two pack saddles, three riding saddles, frying-pan, camp-kettle, coffee-pot, blankets and various other articles scattered around.

Fear seemed to have left her, and she took in all the details of the strange scene.

Dim and shadowy as the dissolving view of a magic lantern was every object in the picture except the one form with the red flannel shirt. That alone seemed like a reality. The tri proceeded to get their supper, the two new figures keeping ever in the back-ground, and seeming to shrink form taking any part in the grim spectacle.

When the entire process of the supper was over, tin cups, plates, etc., put carefully away, he of the red flannel shirt produced a pack of cards, and dragging a hitherto unseen sack of flour into the best light, proceeded to deal them to his companions in a thoroughly professional manner.

Mrs. Brown observed all this with the great unnatural calm that was upon her unbroken. Indeed she seemed to herself as thou she had suddenly become one of the horrible shadowy group, to divine their thoughts, and to fully understand the true inwardness of the representation.

The game progressed he of the red flannel shirt became an object of suspicion to his tow comrades. He was offensively obtrusive and exultant over his somewhat doubtful successes. Just as the last play was being made for an unusually “big pot,” an ace dropped out of the sleeve of the red flannel shirt. Then one of the other figures sprang into sudden prominence, and drawing a pistol from his belt, he shot the man wit the red flannel shirt. Then the tow dim figures blended into one, and the entire picture faded.

Like one awakening from a strange and horrible dream, she sank back on the bed where she lay in a stupor, which was neither sleeping nor waking, until daylight.

Determined to make no sign that would give grounds for the suspicions entertained by her neighbors, it is hard to say what that delicate woman suffered during the next ten days.

Her husband came home one evening, just at dusk, two weeks sooner than expected. She flew to meet him and clung to him and cried, till he became alarmed.

Returning her caresses with the most heartfelt tenderness, he tried to soothe her, but she only wept the more, and said over and over, “I am so glad to see you once again. I am so glad you have come home alive.”

Seeing that something serious was the matter, he requested a neighbor to look after his team, and lifting the half-fainting form of his wife in his strong arms he strode into the house and locked the door, drew the curtains, and sitting down in an easy chair before the fire, sought with all the blandishments of a lover to discover the cause of her grief. “Could she tell him?” was the question that had passed through her mind a thousand times. Would he, too, think her crazy? But at last love prevailed, as it ever should, and leaning on that true and sympathetic heart, held close by those strong arms, she sobbed out the story of her bitter fear.

Strange to say he neither laughed at her nor scolded her, although he was far from taking the same view of the matter that she did. In reality it was to this being he had sworn to protect a soul-torture much harder to bear than any physical pain, and she should no longer endure it. Holding her at arm’s length, and seeing for the first time with an undefined fear the terrible ravages that this constant terror had made in her health, he said: “My darling, you shall not spend another night under this roof, and now, for my sake, try to forget it, and,” looking deep into the pathetic eyes, “for the sake of the one we both love.” With a sweet conscious blush she whispered, while a cold shudder shook her from head to foot, “I will try.”

True to his word, he never let her sleep in the house again; he sacrificed time and means to be ever with her, never letting the shadows of night find her alone. He sought with all the ingenuity of the tenderest love to win back the lush roses to her cheeks. He had brought dainty muslin and delicate lace for the tiny wardrobe, that would have delighted any feminine heart; and as he watched her fashion the little things, though a great anxiety tore at his heart-strings, and he bitterly reproached himself for having left her alone, he was absurdly happy.

At last the fatal day came, and after a night of suffering, the angel of death claimed two victims, and the fair young mother was laid to rest. The babe so tenderly beloved, wrapped in the fleecy garments fashioned by the dead hands, lay on her frozen heart. She had wasted too much nerve force in enduring a concealed horror.

The heart-broken husband went no one knew whither, and the people, so skeptical before, now shook their heads sagely and called the apparition a “warning”—whatever that may be—reasoning profoundly, as the majority of people do, “from effect to cause.

The little house stood empty for a long time, for though the lot was in a very desirable situation, nobody who heard the story ever looked a second time at the little desolate place.

Time passed by, and the spot chosen for the location of the town proved a very good one, and quite a settlement grew up. At last a man with a wife and two children came to find an abiding place. He desired to rent as it was in the fall of the year and likely to snow at any time. He inquire of Mr. Smith. “Well,” said Smith, “there’s only one empty hose in the town;” and he gave him a history of the Brown home, “and I guess there’s not anybody will object to your taking it, lot and all, if you want it.”

The new comer, Mr. Bush, and Smith went over to look at the place, found the house would do, with a little repairing, to move into, and the situation was just what he would have chosen for a blacksmith shop, which he intended to erect.

Laughing the ghosts to scorn, and considering himself a very lucky man, he formallytook charge of the place, requesting Smith and his wife to say nothing about the former occupants to Mrs. Bush. He spent a week in fixing up the windows and doors, getting things moved in, wood hauled and cut, etc., and then started back to their former home to bring the rest of her household goods.

Strange to say, his presence seemed to discourage the ghosts. As long as he remained at home there was no visitation, but the fist night after his departure, Mrs. Bush was awakened from a sound sleep by the entrance of a man with a red flannel shirt and slouch hat. He walked up to the fir, and took a seat as though he was t home. Indignant at the intrusion, Mrs. Bush sat up in bed and sharply bade the intruder be gone. He slowly arose and walked out. Mrs. Bush got up to fasten the door (there was no lock) and glancing out, saw that, although the stars were shining brightly and the sky was cloudless, a light fall of snow lay on the ground.

Mrs. Bus was a strong, self-reliant woman, and, great incensed, she greeted this snow as a means of tracing her midnight visitor, and exposing him to the townspeople. So, pushing a heavy piece of furniture against the door, she went back to bed and to sleep. What as her surprise in the morning to find the snow white and untrodden except where her own slippered foot had pressed it down on the door stone.

Mystified beyond measure, she took her two children and went over to Mrs. Smith’s and told her all about it. To her great surprise, Mrs. Smith burst into a flood of tears, threw her apron over her face, and called her a “poor dear” and Mr. Bush a brute.

A little adroit questioning elicited the whole story, and Mrs. Bush returned to her house in a very perplexed state of mind. She had always rather believed in ghosts, and a deep sympathy for the troubled wandering spirit possessed her. She was a woman with plenty of blood and brawn, iron nerves and a clear conscience, and she determined to stay and if possible find out the object of these nocturnal ramblings.

When midnight came, however, and with it the man of the red flannel shirt and his two companions, neither physical strength nor moral courage, neither conscience nor religion, suffice to keep at bay the horror and chill that froze the marrow in her bones and almost robbed her of consciousness. Twice she tried to speak; she could utter no sound, but with a great effort her lips parted to emit a groan, which sounded as if miles distant when it fell on her own ears. The ghostly drama went on to its tragic end without interruption and without result.

During the tend days which intervened between her husband’s departure and return, she was visited again and again by the man in the red flannel shirt.

When Mr. Bush returned, he laughed long and loud. He made a great jest of it. If a tool was missing, he said, “the ghost has it’” if the fir burned brighter, “The ghost is fanning it;” and avowed his intention of “trading shirts with him if they ever met.” It did seem as though his presence had “laid” the man with the red flannel shirt.

Three weeks had now elapsed since the return of Mr. Bush and his majesty the ghost had not been seen, when one evening, just at dusk, as Mr. Bush stepped inside the door, someone brushed past him and went out. “What was that?” he asked hi wife, who stood looking at him with frightened, wide-open eyes.

“That,” she ejaculated, “was the man with the red flannel shirt!” And although her husband laughed, it gave him an uncomfortable sensation when he recalled the fact that no part of the intruder was very distinct except the glaring red of his flannel shirt. That night, he, too, saw the three actors and witnessed their weird drama; and so absorbed did he become, and so excited that when the pistol was drawn, eh sprang out of bed with the true instinct of a western man to stop a row.

The next day, Mr. Bush moved, and his wife was so grateful to him that she forbore to return the deluge of ridicule he had given her.

They were the last occupants of the haunted house. The lot became city property; the house fell to pieces bit by bit, as human habitations ever do, left to emptiness and desolation. It was shunned and feared.

Years passed by, I do not know how many, and nothing was left to mark the spot where the house had stood, save the heap of stones and dirt that had once composed the fireplace and chimney.

It was determined by the enterprising citizens that this ground should be devoted to a “central school house,” and the committee appointed to look after the erection of the building decided that the centre of the lot would be the most desirable place, and accordingly men began to dig a deep trench in which to lay the foundation. The north side of this trench passed directly through the heap of stones and dirt, which had once been the fireplace of the ill-fated little house. Directly beneath the diggers found—a human skeleton. It was all there, and still clinging to it were some shreds of a red flannel shirt! The proper persons were sent for, and the skeleton was coffined and interred in more suitable ground. The proposed building was removed further south on the same lot, and the odium under which the place rested so long gradually faded. The very last reference that I ever head made to it was in a bombastic speech made by Gen. M., when he gave a garbled account of the affair, as a reason why he should carry his “banner” to St. George. Those well acquainted wit the story could form but one opinion, and you, reader, may form yours.

The poor wandering spirit slept at last.

+

Ellen Lee Jakeman is the second great grandmother of the Samizdat Literary Journal’s editor, Jeff Von Ward. This story originally appeared in Western Galaxy Magazine, March 1888, Vol. 1. No. 2, p. 184-188.

photo by steve snodgrass.


UA-19541526-1