ghost stories for october, pt. 7

There's been a strange flickering light on in front of a house down the street for a while now. It's not flickering in the traditional horror movie sense, where the flickers are fast and faint. It's flickering like someone toggling the switch, on and off, trying to send messages in Morse code. As far as I can tell, no one lives in that house. It's not abandoned, as such, but it's vacant.

I'm okay with abandoned houses, but vacant houses terrify me. There's life to an abandon. A vacant house is a soulless icon of our weird society. So for the longest time I've avoided walking down that street. But then the light started to flicker. I couldn't make out any pattern or code, but I became convinced that it was calling to me. People told me it's probably just the electric going weird. These things happen. But not in a vacant house like that. They keep them pristine.

So tonight I finally went over. The light flickered intensely as I arrived, then went quiet. So I sat on the front porch and said "all right, I'm here." The front door opened, so I walked inside. It was still furnished--or perhaps the furnishings had been provided by the property owners, to make this lifeless space appear lived in. There was about a week's worth of dust on everything, and all trace of the previous residents had been scrubbed clean. Not even a leftover box of crackers in the pantry.

I sat on the pristine couch for a while, not sure what to say. The light started flickering again so I started talking. Just telling stories, mostly. Things that had happened that day, the sort of stories that I would have forgotten by morning had I not told them. The light stayed calm as I talked, only flickering if I would pause or ask a question.

Eventually a silence fell and the flickering did not continue. I let myself out and returned home. It flickered once, as I left, in what I guess must be a gesture of farewell. I'm not sure what I'll do if the flickering comes back.


ghost stories for october, pt. 6

I grew up in a desert of rock and sage, with ghosts haunting the windswept canyons--the ghosts of everyone who died having ever called this place a home. When my lady died, I knew her ghost would find her way back there, and I knew that I'd have to walk through the desolate floodplains to find her. I fancied myself an Orpheus, wandering the desert with a song--her song, our song. I thought perhaps I could bring her back.

I walked the canyon and sang for her until I could sing no more, my throat parched from the unnatural dryness of the desert. I remembered reading long ago that it hadn't always been a desert here. Once it had been green and fertile, but the ghosts filled the wild, and even ghosts get thirsty. They drank until there was no more water to be found, until only the faintest echo of the memory of water remained. I remembered coming here with my lover and telling her that the spot where I now stood was once a grand waterfall. It seemed so implausible.

I found some shade and opened my bottle of water for the first time, and I drank. And that's when the ghosts came. They came at a distance and watched, as if expecting something. I took my time. I was determined not to let them frighten me. I had come here to win back my lover's lost soul. Then, when my throat seemed less parched, I began to sing again, except this time my voice refused to work. The words stuck in my throat. The tune cracked and faltered. And the ghosts, one by one, began to leave.

To this day I tell myself that the last one to leave was not my lady, that I was imagining it. But those eyes--I'd swear I would know those eyes anywhere. But leave she did, and I knew that my quest had failed. I returned from the desert with no water and no voice. And I smiled and told myself that Orpheus also returned home empty-handed.


ghost stories for october, pt. 5

He died in an elevator because he could never find the right floor. None of the buttons made any sense. It's like he entered an elevator that didn't really exist, and couldn't find the way back to the real world. People would come on and off, but they all seemed like ghosts, all weird and insubstantial and kind of fuzzy around the edges. The elevator never reached the ground floor.

He tried leaving once, actually, but he descended several hundred flights of stairs before giving up and trying to take the elevator. He ended up on the same one. From there he just kept trying different buttons, sure that one of them would take him to the exit. Within the confines of the elevator he lost all track of time, if time even still existed. It must have been several days, but eventually he died of thirst.

He doesn't know what happened to his body, but once he died he found his way back to the real elevators and found that even in death he couldn't get beyond them. The people seemed real now, but they didn't notice him. Sometimes they might get a strange chill or notice him reflected in the metal, or hear a strange noise or feel an ominous shudder. One day he expects to find the floor he was looking for. He just won't tell me what it is.


ghost stories for october, pt. 4

The problem with other ghosts, she told me, is they're all terribly provincial. There is no reason, apparently, for a ghost to limit their hauntings to the place where they died, or even a place that has some emotional resonance for them. "Mostly they just do that because they like to, I think." She has been a ghost for five years and she says she is not done seeing the world.

I met her in Brooklyn, a few years ago, at a pizza place that I liked mostly because it seemed so very Brooklyn. She caught me staring and we got to talking. This was her first time in New York, and she wanted to see all of the boroughs before she went on somewhere else. She seemed in a hurry to move on, like she just had this travel checklist she was working her way through.

I convinced her to hang out with me for a while, mostly because her only company for the past five years have been other ghosts. I'd been to New York before so I took her to the places I remembered--all the places a good friend had shown me before he became a ghost as well. Little dive bars and hot dog stands and abandoned subway tunnels.

And all the while she told me about the trips she had planned. Her next stop was Paris, apparently. She was going to haunt a plane out of JFK and see the Eiffel tower, the Champs Elysees, then move on to some vinyards in France. There was so much out there to see, she said. She didn't want to be one of those ghosts who got hung up on a place, who never left it. I asked her if she didn't like exploring every secret a place has to offer, and she didn't seem to understand.

She offered to try to send me a postcard, but coming from a ghost, that's kind of an empty promise. I wished her well and let her haunt some tourists who were heading to the airport.


ghost stories for october, pt. 3

As for myself, I don't think I've ever written about my affinity with ghosts, not really. I've written about ghosts, of course, and probably even about the ones I've seen, but there's always a piece missing. I see ghosts all the time. It's not an occasional thing. I can't turn it off.

It's not as bad as it sounds, but I know I can't talk about it without sounding weird. People think I'm staring into the middle distance or laughing or smiling for no reason. They always ask what's going on in my head, because my thoughts are clearly elsewhere, and I don't know what to tell them. There's just these ghosts here, and sometimes they're fascinating or hilarious or sad. Mostly they're happy to know that someone can see them. I've never been a ghost but it seems like a lonely existence. So when they can really see someone, they like to share their stories. That's what this is all about, right?

That's what this is all about, then. Telling the ghosts' stories. I don't know if they can tell when their story is being told but it feels right. I think they'd appreciate it. I tried asking them, but they never seem to answer. I'm not sure if they're even able to. There's a lot of things I don't think they can say or do. It's like dreaming, I think. Sometimes in dreams there's just something you can't even think, because if you did you'd stop dreaming. I don't know what happens when a ghost wakes up from his dream--maybe that's how you stop haunting, how you finally move on. I don't know.

I don't know why I can see them. I've always been able to and I've only recently come to terms with it. I guess I try to help where I can, but sometimes I wonder if there isn't something more to it, if I'm getting the whole picture, if I'm part of something bigger. But even if they could answer that, I don't think they would, so in the meanwhile I'll be here, telling stories, giving the ghosts a place to really live, at least for a little while.


ghost stories for october, pt. 2

When he died, he received a list of every person he had ever wronged, and he was left to assume that in order to continue to the afterlife, he would have to visit each of them and atone. The problem was this: he did not know what he had done to most of them. It was just a list of people. Some of them he didn't even know.

He started with the easy ones, the ones he knew. Most of them could not see him, but there was an emotional connection there. They could all sense a presence. Some of them called on paranormal experts to try to communicate, to understand what this spirit--his spirit--was doing here. Some of them seemed to feel comforted by his presence, as if they understood what it represented even if they didn't really know or couldn't articulate it. Others were frightened, moved out, avoided the rooms he liked to haunt. That hurt. Only one could actually see and really interact with him, but that story is personal. He made things right, and for that, he decided, an eternity of haunting this mortal coil was worth it.

From there he moved on to the ones he knew but didn't remember what he had done. Only a rare few even suspected the presence of a ghost, and they were the ones who found that sort of thing exciting. The rest had no idea, so he focused on the ones who cared. He gave them little hints and left them with ghost stories to tell their friends, and he felt like he had accomplished something even if no actual atonement happened.

Then he found himself drawn to the names that he did not recognize. Sometimes when he visited them he would recognize their faces, in a distant sort of way: didn't I once see you at a concert? Weren't you standing and smoking at a bus stop forever ago, looking ? But he knew nothing about them, and none of them seemed to notice his presence at all. He learned about each of them as much as he could. Their hopes and dreams and darkest secrets, all the little things they'd do in the confidence that nobody would notice. He watched each time they accumulated another name they'd have to visit when they died, and smiled to himself (because there was no one he could smile to) as they continued on unaware.

The last name on the list was his own. He was no longer frightened to face himself, for he had learned many stories and many secrets since he had died. He knew the truth behind the stories, the stories we don't tell, which are in some ways the most important stories there are. And at last he knew that he could face himself as judge and not be found wanting.

ghost stories for october, pt. 1

She is haunted by the ghosts of her old friends and lovers--all the ones she didn't really like very much, but put up with because she didn't know better. They come every night at midnight, and they sit down in her living room, or around her dining room table, and they drink ghostly red wine and they talk about art and literature, with a capital A and a capital L.

They follow her to bed--one of the old lovers, usually, who has had too much ghost wine. He talks about his disdain for popular literature while she undresses, reads passages disdainfully from the latest Twilight novel while she brushes her teeth, crawls into bed with her and whispers in her ear about things he doesn't feel qualify as art. And the party downstairs continues, so loud that she can't sleep.

They don't listen when she talks back. Sometimes the ghosts will listen politely and then respond as if she has said something entirely different. Other times they will interrupt her and talk over her. On the rare occasion they do actually respond to something she says, it is never in the spirit she intended it: she is singularly incapable of convincing them that she finds all of this insufferable, tedious, pretentious, or repulsive.

She finds it slightly easier to ignore the ghost of her old lover joining her in bed, but even then the whispering, the ghostly presence, makes her uneasy. So one night she tries to tell him a story, and to her surprise she finds that he listens. It's a story about catching the train, about little coincidences, about nothing at all--certainly not the high art he is telling her about as he joins her in the shower. Then, as she finishes the story, he offers a contented sigh and disappears.

The following night he is not present, so she joins the ghostly literature club in the living room and drinks real red wine and begins telling stories. At first she tries the stories that are the closest to their vaunted literature, but these don't seem to work. So she tells stories about the trivial and the inconsequential, about stupid conversations and awkward dinner-dates, stories about the shirt she's wearing and about the first time she tried this bottle of red wine, how she'd gotten so drunk she forgot what it was called and spent the next week trying to ask fellow party guests what wine that was, and how she was never, ever sure if she actually got the right one but the label looked right so she decided it was good enough.

And each time she tells these pointless, inconsequential stories another ghost heaves relief and fades into the ether, until at last all the merrymakers are gone and she is a little drunk and in good spirits (if you'll pardon the pun). She decides to write a story that is stupid and inconsequential and dedicates it to her ghosts. And for the moment, this feels like the most important thing she has done in years.