I had a dilemma. Should I write a Writing Wranglers and Warriors post detailing the history of Halloween or undertake a risky move and write a scary story to mark trick-or-treat time? Well, I solved the dilemma. Here’s The Ghost Lady Who Didn’t Know She’d Died. Hope you enjoy my tale.
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The antique table’s oil lamp provided enough light to draw attention to the wrinkles on Old Man Tucker’s craggy face. Eighty years of hard work produced those age lines – cutting and hewing trees and sawing and hammering until Tucker had fashioned himself a cabin in Southern Ohio’s Dungannon Valley. He’d made the cabin’s furniture himself, including the kitchen table and the chairs the two of us now sat in. In one corner a wood-burning stove expelled heat that drove back the October chill. A pot of coffee percolated on the coal-burning stove behind Tucker. My hand fingered the lip of a mug as I inhaled the rich aroma of Nicaraguan coffee. Tucker loved the old ways; he’d built his cabin miles from the nearest electric utility pole. Sitting in his cabin was like stepping back into the 19th century.
Tucker stepped away from the table to pick up the coffee pot and fill our mugs. For an instant, I thought his scruffy gray beard would splash into my mug, but at the last moment he threw back his head and laughed. “These tired bones don’t miss your modern ways, Billy Boy. Apple pie tastes better cooked on a coal stove.”
“That’s what my Grandpa Frog used to say about his mom.” I sipped the boiling-hot coffee and nodded my approval. “She cooked the best apple pie – until the day she poured coal oil into her stove not knowing there were live coals in the fire box.”
“Sweet Lord, Billy Boy! Burned bad?”
“Killed her. Died in Wooster Memorial. 1940 or thereabouts. Mom really missed her. Her and Grandpa Frog would take Sunday afternoon drives to the Apple Creek house to visit her.”
Tucker opened the oven door and investigated the apple pie baking inside. “Not quite ready.” He settled back in his chair and leaned his elbows on the table. “Is your great-grandma’s death part of a Halloween tale? Do I need to set the oven alarm so I don’t let the pie burn?”
“No. After last Halloween, my creative spring dried up. You had me waste eighteen hours hiding near the abandoned railroad tunnel waiting for ghosts who never showed up.” I threw up my hands in feigned disgust and waited for Tucker to laugh.
He giggled like a five-year-old girl. “You expected spirits to show up after you filled the air with ‘60s and ‘70s rock music for the entire eighteen hours? You’re lucky they didn’t. They’d have drowned you in gooey ectoplasm.”
One year ago today I’d trekked out to the abandoned rail bed and tunnel to get a photo of a spirit killed in a 1911 derailment. The steam engine had run off the tracks just before entering the tunnel. It smashed into the tunnel abutment, squashing the engineer and fireman. Like an accordion, the coal and passenger cars crushed together. More than a hundred passengers died that cold October night just before Halloween, including the young husband of Tucker’s Aunt Lilly. I’d hiked out to the site with a lawn chair, camera, daypack full of coats and snacks, a flashlight, two Harry Potter novels, and my iPod downloaded with rock tunes.
“Your dare didn’t work out so well, did it?” I grinned, remembering him forking over $1,000, the agreed-upon amount for me spending eighteen hours at the tunnel, with or without a photo of a ghost. It had been a cold night with a sliver of a moon that provided just enough light to make the dense terrain at the tunnel a paradise for spooky tale spinners. “You’d been better convincing a guitar-playing bard to bring a class of seventh-graders to the tunnel. He’d been able to sing-up a scary tale. I didn’t see one ghostie, although a small rockslide nearly made me pee my pants.” I did my imitation of a giggling five-year-old girl.
“Man enough to accept another wager, Billy Boy?” Tucker rose and stepped to a set of family portraits on the wall next to the cooking stove. He pointed to a framed photo of a young couple attired in Edwardian dress, a garden tea gown and a velvet-trimmed gentleman’s morning coat. Tucker’s index finger centered on the woman’s angelic face, her brown hair piled atop her head in a swirled pompadour. Instead of looking at the camera, her green eyes gazed lovingly at her husband. Behind him, a train headed into the so-called haunted tunnel.
“Of course. I enjoy spending your money.” I held up my iPhone as if I intended to capture his grin. “What can top the haunted tunnel?”
“Laugh all you want, youngster. The Blue Diamond did smash up on that bridge abutment. Few survived. I’ve seen dozens of ghosts walking along the railroad bed on foggy nights. No doubt one is my Uncle Charlie. Your blasted music kept them away. Charlie must be looking for his Lilly, so close yet so far away. The fog hides the house he built for Lilly on top of the nearby hill, Mount Harding. If it isn’t the fog, then Death’s rules must somehow keep him from venturing beyond the railroad bed.” He turned from the couple’s portrait, picked up his coffee and sipped gingerly. “I haven’t seen her, but there’s been reports of folks seeing a woman in an upper-floor window of Lilly’s house. I want you to spend eighteen hours there starting at 9 a.m. tomorrow and concluding 3 a.m. Thursday. You’ll stay in Lilly’s bedchamber where she’s been seen in the window. Agree?”
“Can’t wait to win your money,” I responded, nodding.
Tucker shook his head. “The arrogance of youth.” He resumed sitting, scooting the chair closer so that he could tap his fingers on my forearm. “One thousand dollars if you stay the whole eighteen hours even if you don’t see Lilly. Five thousand if you get a verifiable photo of her.” He soaked up tears with two fingers before they could dampen his sweater. “My dad loved his Aunt Lilly. He’d hiked over to the house shortly after Charlie’s burial and found her hanging in her closet. He never got over it.”
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I nearly decided to rely on my iPhone video camera, but decided at the last moment to take my Nikon camera and tripod. This time I toted a full backpack with an attached sleeping bag, a camping stove, MRE meals, iPad with a writing app, and a Harry Potter hardback novel. I was ready to face the gates of hell itself as I plodded up the rutted drive toward Lilly’s tumbledown house. The decades hadn’t been kind to it. The concrete porch steps survived but the front porch had collapsed. A few strips of bright yellow paint still clung to the wall planks, but most had been blown away by the winds of yesteryear. Along the roof’s edge, the chimney had toppled into what had once been Lilly’s garden, but was now a jungle of vines and skeletal branches. Truly, the house made me think of the time I’d seen a petrified tree trunk in the desert, its surface latticed with gouges and cracks. At the time I thought even a tiny tremor would shake it to dust.
At where the drive jutted away from a crumbled carriage house and the warped remains of two carriages poking through the debris, I turned and looked back at the railroad bed and the tunnel. Thickening fog skulked up the bank of Round Bottom Creek. Soon, it would blanket the bed and most of the tunnel. For a crazy instant I thought I saw gossamer bodies inside the fog, and then laughed at my feverish imagination. Stop it, Billy. Don’t let Charlie get the best of you. Just a couple of branches rippling in the wind.
I looked up at the master bedchamber windows. Rotting two-by-fours partly covered broken glass, just like the windows on the other first and second floors. You up there, Lilly? Hanging back by your bed, trying to decide if you should tiptoe up to the window and look out toward the tunnel? Maybe this time he’ll be there, luggage in each hand, a grin on his face. No, you’re not there, Lilly. Perhaps once, when you still breathed. But not since the night you hung yourself in your closet. Poor Tucker’s father… having to see the yellow groove in your stretched neck, your face swollen and ugly, the tip of your tongue blue and sticking out from between your lips, saliva dribbling down your chin.
The front door no longer hung in its frame, so I could yank out one of the wall planks and drape it from the concrete top step to the bottom sill. The plank held as I navigated my way past the porch remnants. I left it in place. Might need it, although I had other plans – just in case Lilly showed up. The plans lay in the bottom of the backpack.
The walk from the foyer to the spiral staircase took longer than I anticipated. Morning sunlight pouring through the front door and the windows lit the floorboards, revealing gaping holes and warped wood. I stepped gingerly, half expecting each next step to pitch me down into whatever remained of the basement. Whenever the wood made a crackling sound, I stopped and chose a different route. If the wood groaned, I kept going.
At the staircase, I studied my options. The staircase was made of metal, even the steps, and after more than a century, the stairs looked safe even with all the rust. I took a hesitant step, then another and another. The stairs grumbled, as if Lilly’s spirit inhabited them and complained she hated visitors. But I kept going. Once, a large rust spot caved in… my foot and leg slipped into the hole… my thumping heart tried to slip up my throat and out my mouth. I seized the bannister, and digging my fingernails into the wood veneer, dragged my leg out of the hole. “You hear me, Lilly,” I shouted. “You’re not stopping me. I’m coming up to your room.” Don’t be stupid. Her ghost doesn’t exist, I thought as I rearranged the pack so it set properly against my knotted back. Yes, I was rapidly becoming a meater, a cowardly man in Lilly’s time.
Luckily, the master bedchamber lay just off the top of the staircase. A careful two-step dance around rotted flooring took me into what had once been the bedchamber of Lilly and Charlie. The floor looked comparatively safe except where water stains had weakened the wood. I looked up to see holes in the ceiling above all the stains, and beyond the holes more gaps, this time in the roof. Hopefully, it wouldn’t rain in the next eighteen hours… the forecast didn’t call for it. I didn’t want rain pounding my head.
I set the backpack down beside the bed. Not much remained of the canopy or the quilts – mostly dust and mildew and a few slivers of material. I knew better than to sit on the mattress; I’d tumble through it to the floor. Untying the pack, I initially removed the camera and tripod and set them in the center of the room where I could maneuver for a perfect shot – if dear Lilly honored me with an appearance. Next, I set a sleeping bag on the floor next to the tripod, and placed the one-burner cooker under the stand. Two flashlights, my iPad and the Harry Potter novel later, and I’m ready to relax and wait for my beautiful lady to show up. Well, not quite. I reached into the bottom of my backpack and emerged with a small hand axe and a coil of three-strand nylon rope, enough to reach the ground. I had no intention of going back down the staircase and out the front door, not with the precarious state of the flooring.
Rope strapped to my shoulder, axe in my hand, a careful walk brought me to a window. I decided I could probably tear out the boards. But I was lazy; I reared back and smashed the axe blade against a two-by-four. The wood shattered and tumbled to the overrun garden. With the glass long gone, it didn’t take me long to send all the crumbling two-by-fours groundward.
I nailed a rope hook into the wall, completed an eye splice and secured the eye to the hook. Then I draped the rope across the windowsill and watched it fall to the garden.
“What are you doing?”
I about jumped out of my skin at the sound of the woman’s voice.
I whirled. Sunbeams floated through a myriad of back windows; dust motes from my hammering and footsteps drifted within the beams. A woman – the one in the portrait pointed out by Tucker, except this one had straight hair that fell to the middle of her neck – stood between two windows, some of her solid as a living creature, the rest so transparent it shouted out: Ghost!
“Don’t be dumb. Of course I am.” She touched her neck, squinted her eyes as if ruminating. “Something’s wrong. Very wrong.”
Sweet Jesus… she doesn’t know she’s dead. Should I tell her? I decided not to scare her. Some ghosts can kill, I’ve been told.
Again, she probed her neck. “You shouldn’t be here. If my husband finds you, we’ll both be in trouble. He’ll think we’re lovers.” She turned her gaze to the bed. “Strange. One moment it looks normal, the next it looks like it’s a hundred years old. Am I crazy?”
I shook my head and glanced at the camera, thought of the photograph I needed to get. Too far away. But I did have my iPhone. “Your husband, Charlie, wanted me to take photographs of your beautiful house. For your scrapbooks.” I gestured to the Nikon.
“It looks like no camera I’ve ever seen.” She stepped toward it, reached out. Her hand passed through the Nikon. She screamed. “The Good Lord save me!”
I lifted my cellphone and snapped a photo. No time for video, though. “It was nice meeting you, Lilly, but I have to go.” I snatched the rope and swung my leg over the windowsill.
“Don’t jump. Suicide isn’t the answer.” Her hand again touched her neck, and this time her fingers closed as if imitating a noose. She glanced at the walk-in closet, the door off its hinges and on the floor. “I’m dead, aren’t I?”
I nodded. “I’m sorry. Yes, for a long time.”
A train whistle blew. I swung my gaze out toward the railroad bed, heard the chug-chug-chug of the engine barreling toward the tunnel. Couldn’t see anything in the fog, though. But I did hear the screech and grinding sounds of metal smashing against stone. Can’t be! This is impossible. Where’s the rock music when I need it?
I dropped below the windowsill and shimmied down the rope. Just two stories, but it felt like two hundred. I looked up. Lilly stood at the window, looking down at me, then gazing out toward the sounds of people shrieking. Her face and chest no longer looked solid; I could see the ceiling through her. Her hand reached out into the outside air – and vanished. She drew it back; again, I could see it.
“Look what you’ve done!” she screamed at me. “We’re having to live it again.”
Done? I hadn’t done anything – except set up in the bedroom and wait to see if she showed up. I had no idea why the train decided to make an appearance. Tucker wanted me to stay eighteen hours. No way!
She touched the rope where it looped over the windowsill. It vanished – and kept vanishing, the blackness speeding down the rope toward me in the late morning sunlight. I let go and plunged maybe ten feet to the garden ruins. Landed with a thud into a cushion of overgrowth and soft dirt.
I rose to my knees, tested my muscles. They ached, but didn’t feel broken. I stood and turned toward the railroad bed where the fog clung to it, and men, women and children screamed. A few tendrils of fog snaked toward the house. More and more followed until the whole fog bank seemed to hurl toward me.
No choice… I plunged through the garden toward the fog, angling toward where I figured the driveway must be.
“You can’t go!” I glanced back at the house where Lilly glared at me. “You’ve got to fix the mess you’ve made.”
I ignored her and ran toward the fog.
A man, his face shredded as if cut by glass, an arm hanging limply as if shattered, stumbled out of the fog and wobbled toward me. Other train riders, all bloody, some even crawling, emerged from the fog.
I tensed my body, fixing to spring away from the spirits.
“Don’t go,” the wobbly man said. I glanced back at him; he was no longer bloody and his broken arm rose in greeting. In Tucker’s portrait, Lilly had been looking at that handsome face – Charlie, her husband. “We need you. This is the farthest we’ve ever managed, and it’s due to you. Lead us home.”
I had a choice. I could run. Or I could cavort with spirits. I chose the spirits and led them up to the house. I didn’t go in; instead, I watched them cross the wrecked porch as if it was undamaged – and I smiled. Somehow, I’d fixed it. I brightened my smile, suspecting at that very moment Charlie and Lilly were hugging and kissing.
Whistling a 1920s tune I’d heard on YouTube – Waiting for a Train – I walked into the fog. Didn’t go far. A train blocked my path. It wasn’t moving, although I could hear the engine idling. A conductor stood on the nearest passenger car’s lowest step, studying me with a crazy grin on his face. “Want a ride? You’ve got a first-class seat reserved for the work you’ve done today. Hop aboard, Billy Boy.” He reached out and took my hand.
“Reserved for me? I don’t understand.” I gazed back at the house. It now looked brand new, painted a glorious yellow, smoke spurting from the chimney.
“Yep, for you.” He laughed joyously. “You took a hard fall back there, Billy Boy. Sorry to say… you didn’t make it.” He patted me on the back. “Well, that’s not entirely true. You did make it. You’re bound for Glory.”
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I’m the author of fantasy novels The Emperor’s Mistress and Thief’s Coin. http://www.amazon.com/Michael-Staton/e/B007ZSSNRM
My publisher is Wings ePress. http://wingsepress.com/
I’ve a personal blog called Live Journal. http://www.lareniashadow.blogspot.com/
Be sure to check out my Facebook Author’s Page. https://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/Michael-Staton/257163720993943