Readers, here’s one of my own (fictional but still fun) ghost stories, from my published collection, Rest In Fleece: Ghosts, Tall Tales & Horror Stories! It’s a short story with an unusual twist and several articulate ghosts! Enjoy!
I moved to the Elysium Row house late that year. The leaves had turned orange and crimson, and lay strewn across the front steps. That time of year the evenings chilled: the sun sank into the dark horizon, and took the warmth with it.
I’d found the house by accident. Well, maybe not; at the time that’s what I thought. It had so much character. On this quiet street in the city, so elegant. When I’d seen the sign, I paused. Without hesitation I called the number and made an appointment to view it.
It was a beautiful, light, airy space inside. While true to its Victorian heritage, it had been updated tastefully and with quality appointments. There was a modern kitchen with antique, refinished cabinets and marble counters. Downstairs there was also a formal dining room, a butler’s pantry (equipped with a second small dishwasher and a wine fridge), a living room, a study which could double as a guest room, and one and a half baths. It was a great space, which as a food writer who entertained often, I’d put to good use.
The baths had been redone in Restoration Hardware reproductions, down to the heated towel bars. Upstairs were two more baths and three bedrooms. The master was partially housed in a turret and had a rounded window seat. All the floors were hardwood, with authentic, small hexagon tile in the baths and kitchen. There was a compact, walled back yard (any yard space in the city was something), which was attractively landscaped, with a seating area under a covered patio. What was not to like? I felt I could stay here forever. Which, as it turns out, was rather prescient.
The price was right (maybe too right?). I quickly sealed the deal and my lease began the following week. The house came furnished, so I and my few things were quickly transplanted.
I had a housewarming party planned for that Friday. In the rush of shoving boxes into closets, cooking and last-minute trips for forgotten groceries, I wouldn’t have noticed a ghost if it wore a name tag and said “Boo.”
My guests arrived and admired my new digs. “You scored, Mary” was the consensus. We were having drinks by the fireplace after supper when footsteps were heard in the dining room. No one was unaccounted for, so I peeked in. Whoever was there could not be seen; but his shoes made impressions on the rug. One after another. I beckoned the others and we watched the prints approach, then stop.
A hollow chime bounced off the high ceilings. We all heard it. After that there was a cold breeze, which ruffled the drapes, and some guests’ skirts.
We looked askance, eyes wide.
“You got yourself a tenant, Mary.” This from Quincy, my editor. He had a gift for stating the obvious.
“Did the realtor tell you the place was haunted?” asked Diane, a colleague. “They’re supposed to disclose this kind of thing. People have won lawsuits.”
“So weird,” said Sam, a restaurateur acquaintance. “I’ve seen it before. My last bistro (remember chez S?) was located in that historic building, you know, downtown? It was beautiful but haunted. Funny, when there was a flurry of news about it, it brought in lots of new clientele. But it didn’t scare off anyone: quite the contrary.”
“Fine,” I replied, “but this is my house. I don’t want customers, living or dead.” This may have come out a bit too emphatically: everyone laughed and the tension was broken.
The evening went on without incident. After seeing everyone out, I put things away and went up to bed. Make that, I meant to go to bed. But it was already occupied: I saw the indent of a body in the featherbed. It squirmed a bit, as one does trying to get comfortable. That was all: except a little later, the occasional soft snore.
I went to my guest room and, shutting the door, stretched out in the hope of sleep.
The following day, I called the realtor who’d shown me the house. When no one picked up his cell, I called the agency office.
“Hi, I’m trying to reach Seri Barras.”
“But she hasn’t worked here in years,” responded the secretary.
“She certainly has. She rented me this house and I have her card in my hand.”
“This is impossible. It can’t be. Would you hang on a moment, please?” I heard whispers in the background. “But no!” “What?!” “Shhh!”
“May I ask you if you’d be willing to come down to our office? It’s not far from the house. Or we can send someone over?” she offered.
“I’ll stop by. I’ll be bringing my paperwork with me,” I replied. I arranged to be there in an hour.
Rivers, Lethe & Mortson’s was an established real estate firm which had been around for as long as I could remember. There were no bad Better Business Bureau ratings, nor was any negative buzz whatsoever associated with them. I felt confident this was but a simple misunderstanding that would be cleared up in no time.
A dignified, white haired man in a gray suit came up to greet me.
“You must be Mary. I’m Char Rivers. Please, come in and sit down.”
“Thank you, Char. As you might imagine this is, to say the least, puzzling.”
“I’m sure we’ll make sense of it,” Char added, in what sounded at the time like a sincere tone. “May I?” He gestured towards the papers I’d brought with me. I nodded, handing them over. I added
“You know, I couldn’t sleep in my own bed last night! And the ghost stole the show at what was supposed to have been my housewarming party.”
Char frowned and skimmed the lease forms.
“These appear to be in very good order,” he remarked, his brow furrowed. But you must understand, Seri hasn’t been with us for years. She was a wonderful, highly competent and professional broker: she accomplished so much, you’d think she had three heads! But she died in a plane crash over four years ago. Yet, this does look like her handwriting. Can you describe her for me, please?”
“Sure. She was tall, with reddish hair, slender, attractive. Also, she had a (what do you call those) – it looked like a dueling scar on the left side of her face.” I thought possibly someone had posed as Seri. I was mistaken.
“But that’s her! Even the scar (she used to fence).”
“So, Char, you’re telling me I leased a haunted house from a dead real estate broker?” He looked unsure of himself for a nanosecond, and then replied
“Yes, it looks that way.”
“But what about my lease?” Ghosts notwithstanding, I was not eager to move so soon.
“Well, strangely enough, it’s fine. The owners are longstanding clients here and you’ll see here (he indicates a place on the lease) they’ve signed off. Legally, it’s yours.”
Sure enough, a spidery, old-fashioned calligraphic signature was splayed across the page, with an accompanying ink blot. How affected, I thought. We spoke some more, and Char’s courtliness, concern and courtesy, so rare today, won me over.
I came home to find my clothes shuttled to one end of my closet by invisible but palpable full-skirted gowns. In the kitchen, I saw no one, but heard hustle and the occasional bell. Someone brushed past me. It was as if I had tuned in to another place; but in audio, no video.
“Here, then!” shouted an officious voice. “Get to work!” I was unceremoniously handed a towel and pointed in the direction of the dish rack, where a large quantity of damp china stood at attention. “Henry, you just can’t get good help these days,” I overheard.
Far too intrigued to be afraid (part of me still thought this was a scam) I dried and stacked a large quantity of old Royal Doulton. The sounds faded then and I got some tea and went to the living room. There, I saw the andirons at work, poking at nonexistent logs in the fireplace. I ignored this and went to work on my next column: On Bread Alone: with Real Butter.
A few hours later, I overheard voices in the next room.
“Callie, the corset has to be tighter. Just pull. Get Jojo to help.” This was followed by some soft noises punctuated by a sharp intake of breath. In an almost falsetto tone was added “That’s more like it. Now go get my pink tea dress from the closet. Why is it so crowded in there? You’d think someone had moved in.”
I left for awhile to do errands, stop at the office (I worked for People Like Us, a snobbish but beautifully produced, glossy publication. It was ostensibly a spread covering all aspects of gracious living, but in actuality, was all about how to upstage others. Needless to say it was a highly popular read.
The publisher was the Conte di Calascibetta, Enrico Portobello. He was called the Mush behind his back for obvious reasons, but with great affection, for he was, for all his (purely professional) social elitism, a well-liked man. His was supposedly a long, distinguished noble line. This may well have been so, although Calascibetta’s largest export may have been mobsters, some of whom shared the Portobello name (but had changed it in order to sound more American. They went with Luciano, Vendetti, and Genovese).
Nonetheless, Enrico himself was of an old school continental genre: fifties movie star from Italy would best describe it. He was America’s idea of European aristocracy. He looked like one who knew the ropes. He had an accent of the right sort. What more did we need? His word was law in the social world of his wannabe readers.
“Enrico,” I called. He waved me into his office from across the busy room.
“Come’a in, Mary. What’s this I hear’a your house is haunted?” Enrico had an incredibly fine tuned ear for dish, so it was not surprising that he already had a line on this.
“It’s something, ‘Rico. My clothes are crowded in the closet by ghost outfits. I am helping wash dishes I don’t own. I overhear conversations. It’s not scary. It’s like having roommates. Except these people don’t help with the bills.”
“Cara, it’s for a reason. Don’t ‘a worry. Pay attention. Maybe they’ll give you recipes.” That’s Enrico, always work first. “You have’a the gift, the second sight. Use it.”
We discussed the upcoming issue and I left to cover the pretentious bistro on the Strand, Café de Mauvais Nourriture.
Arriving, I was looked down upon by the maitre d’ and then seated in the corner, in case the sight of me might class down the venue. Obviously they were clue free as to my identity, but that was good: I could do my job with no interference.
The menu was typical: lots of items in bad French or Italian, extortionate pricing, dripping with condescension. This kind of thing is done by those who wish to lure socially insecure clientele with money.
The real entree here was the putdown. The wait staff would be trained to cock the eyebrow if a customer asked a question like ‘What is this ?’ The ludicrous pricing implied that if you don’t know, you didn’t belong. I hated places like this. I decided to say so in my upcoming column.
As for the food: good thing I always carried snacks. The service was laggardly, the soup cold, the salad warm. The entree, which translated from wikipedia French meant ‘grilled salmon,’ was like a frozen dinner, but not so good, and less of it. The dessert (they plugged these heavily, as desserts and beverages are where profits lie), was disappointing, too. Cannolis, but more like cannons. Heavy, soggy and lethal.
The bill, well, they should be ashamed of themselves. The only exceptional element in this cuisine was the price tag. Here, they went where no local eatery had gone before : lunch specials like the above for $150. If that was special, I’d hate to know what was considered the norm.
Maybe I’d got a touch of food poisoning, because it’s hard to explain otherwise. I went home, and walking through the living room I heard
“Who does she think she is, strolling in here like she lives here?”
“And those clothes, God save them if that’s the way they dress in the future. That girl wouldn’t know a corset if it fell on her head.”
“The hair. Is it male? And those shoes. They look like boats with laces.”
“She helped with the dishes, though,” put in another voice.
For just a moment I saw a room full of people. It looked like a Victorian family and their servants, shaking their heads. They were reviewing what looked like the lease agreement.
“What kind of signature is this? Did she even use an ink pen?”
“I hear she writes a food column for PLU”
“How would you know, that’s a hundred fifty years after our time.”
“I keep up.”
Then they looked up, saw me, stared, and rippled, like water, before vanishing from sight. Not from sound though. I heard a door slam and what sounded like a loud fart, followed by “Freddie, really!”
A week or so later, I invited my new boyfriend, Jock, to come by for drinks before the benefit we were to attend. I hadn’t been seeing him all that long. He was handsome, if not brilliant or especially well-mannered. You can’t have everything. Enrico had taken an instant dislike to Jock for reasons which were as yet unclear to me. My friend Eve said “He’s good on the surface but something doesn’t ring true. Just my impression.” I wrote that off as envy. Then.
Jock sat in the wing chair by the fireplace as I mixed drinks. He was yapping about some athletic event in which I had zee-ro interest, but I put on my Look Pleasantly Interested face and pretended to care.
I almost didn’t notice when he stopped, mid-drone.
“Mary, wha’??” I looked over. One of my ghostly joint lessees, who could not be seen at this time, was smoking a highly visible cigar, and dropping the ashes on Jock’s head.
“I told you I had ghosts,” I replied, sounding perhaps a shade too smug.
“But I didn’t . . .” at that point, the fireplace was once again prodded by what looked like self-animated andirons. A drinks tray came floating in, and a glass of red was handed to me. I sniffed and swirled. “A nice claret, thank you.” Jock got some too. Dumped in his lap.
“Uh, I, ah,” he said. For once, he was speechless. This was new. I liked it.
“Nothing to be afraid of,” I said.
“Mary, I’m out of here. I’m done. This isn’t working for me. I don’t do the Unknown.”
“We don’t do assholes,” said a sonorous, deep voice, followed by “Bentley!”
With that, Jock, wet lap and all, dashed out the door. It was the last I ever saw of him, except when he got written up in the papers later as a con artist who ripped off women. Gotta hand it to the ghosts.
I came home from the benefit (dateless) and smelled something delicious, kitchenward. I looked in to see a bowl of bouillabaisse and fresh hot bread, with butter. I was starving. Breaking up saps one’s blood sugar. And benefit food: rubber chicken cordon bleu (more like cordon pee-yu. I abstained). No question, I was hungry. But even so, the bouillabaisse was the best I’d ever had and believe me, I’ve had lots foisted on me over the years. The bread was delectable, too. I said out loud:
“Thank you! This is to die for. Ah, let me rephrase that. Delicious!” I didn’t see, but heard the chef whose name I learned was Alice say
“I’m so glad you like it.”
“Like it? I love it! If you were only alive, I’d write it up in my column. But wait. How would you feel about that? I don’t have to say you’re, uh, deceased.”
“That would be nice, I love the magazine (Maggie gets it sent to the house, she adores it).”
“May I ask your name?”
“Alice Cleary. I work for the family here.”
“Still?” I had to ask.
“Surely. Things are not so different, at least for us. We found ourselves here and just went on as before.”
“What happened? Did you arrive one by one or all at once?”
“That is hard to say. We felt as if it was spontaneous. We still don’t know how we, ah, came to be like this.”
“Would you and your people mind if I do some research? Perhaps I can dig up something (oh, sorry, bad choice of words).”
“No. We’d like to know.” Then another voice could be heard.
“We would. I’m Azaelea, it’s my home. We Alexanders have been here in town since the 1700’s and we built this house after the War Between the States.”
“What is going on?” I asked. “How is it that we’re talking to and sometimes seeing or listening to each other (and I heard that about the hair and the corset, just saying).”
“From what we’ve observed, we are in our own time, as are you; but they somehow run together. It has happened a couple of times before. Who were those people, Alice, the loud ones?”
“Oh, I think you mean the Fitzgeralds. Zelda and whatshhisname. They drank a lot and their guests were a sight. And then that Windsor couple, the Duke and Duchess? They were always on the telephone to Mr. Hitler, and her pugs left spots on the Aubusson, Maggie worked on those for weeks. That Duchess: such a common woman.”
“Why me? Any theories?” I asked, as Alice cleared my plate and brought me dessert: plain cheesecake, like a bite of heaven. She’d star in my next column, no question.
A male voice joined us.
“Gerald, darling, said Azaelea.
“Hello,” he said. “I sense something brought us together for a purpose. I can’t discern what.”
“Alice, what a delicious cheesecake. I’ve eaten them all and this is the best. I am definitely featuring you in the magazine. We’ll just have to work around the dead part.”
“She’s blushing,” said Gerald.
The next day, true to my word, I spoke with Enrico about Alice. I’d brought some cheesecake in case he had questions.
“I’m going to tell the truth, that she’s a local chef with a history of fine cuisine.”
“I suppose’a we don’t have to reveal that she’s dead. It’s not’a like it’s an ethics issue. You have her consent. And she’s alive to you. What will you do when people want to interview her?”
“Tell them she’s shy.”
The new issue of PLU went out to a crowd hungry to out-build, out-decorate and out-cuisine their neighbors. One reason for our success was the enormous business generated bilaterally for the restaurant industry, the very high end grocers, the wine merchants, the florists, the clothiers.
The crowd read my review of Café de Mauvais Nourriture, although a few die-hards who were convinced that nouvelle cuisine was still nouvelle, and still put up with miniature servings at Brobdingnagian prices. The wise reader selected other eateries.
Meanwhile, the Cafe closed its doors. Partly because of the above, also due to the chef’s having been caught putting Purina Dog Chow into the soup. This was not made much of at the time, pet food being considered a step up from his usual fare. I heard later he had gone to prison for this. Cooking out his term in the big house upstate, when, after but one meal, the prisoners rioted. For once the warden was on their side. Nouvelle, schmouvelle.
Of course readers were agog to know more about Chef Alice.
“Where has she been all this time?” “In the kitchen,” I could reply truthfully.
“Where has she worked?” “She’s been with Alexander’s forever,” (also true). “What, you don’t know Alexander’s?” I’d ask in a surprised tone. (Not a one of our readers would admit to not knowing en nee thing, so nothing more needed to be said).
So you see, it wasn’t really a problem. Before long, Alice was the most famous invisible chef in town. Her recipes were requested and sometimes, graciously shared. It was odd, people thought, that she seemed to use no temperature settings for her baking, nor was there any mention of microwaves, mixer speeds, or food processors. But great chef that she was, no one questioned it.
I had promised the Alexanders I would see if I could learn anything about what might have befallen them. True to my word, I opened my laptop and looked up old news stories, social pages, obituaries. And sure enough, there it was.
“Disappearance: The Gerald Alexander household including all family and staff mysteriously vanished last week from their new residence at Elysium Row. None have been seen since, although the carriage and horses are home, as are their personal effects. If anyone has information, please contact the police commissioner’s office.”
I would share this. It seemed most peculiar.
One night I ran into Gerald. Literally. He was there, in front of me. He was a middle aged, tall man whose affect was both pleasant and in a nice way, genteel. Dressed in what was probably perfect taste in 1870, he looked impressive.
“Mary!” He looked surprised, but no more than I.
“What brings you here, Gerald?” I asked, understanding it was a relative question.
“The ladies are having a séance in the parlor,” he said. “The medium sensed a spirit’s presence, and here you are.”
“I’ve been here all along, as have you.” I said. But it seems odd that we’re intersecting.”
At that point I heard an odd moaning from the room I called a study; they, a parlor. I followed Gerald, and this time, not only heard but saw Azaelea, Mary, and some others sitting round the table, which was bouncing up and down. (I could see that the medium and a man with her were moving it with their hands). Azaelea looked quite amazed.
Also in the room was a “spirit” but it was obviously some kind of fake, set up by the medium. It emanated from her “spirit cabinet” a wardrobe full of what today we call special effects: items covered in luminous paint, sheets, etc. This was so patently false! I couldn’t resist elbowing Gerald and pointing quietly to what I’d observed. I could contain myself no longer. I walked up to the group at table and said
‘Madam, I don’t know who you think you’re fooling with all this equipment.”
The woman looked up, saw me, blanched and pointed, stammering: “A ggggghhhost!” She looked terrified, as well she might: I had had a bad hair day. Her confederates both inside and outside her cabinet screamed, dropped their masks and ran out the door. Their paraphernalia was left behind.
We sat taking each other in, putting voices with faces.
“Little did she know,” remarked Gerald. “I hope we didn’t pay them much.”
“They left it here on the table in their haste to leave,” replied Azaelea, with a smile. “It was old Confederate scrip from the war, anyway.”
“She does seem to have somehow altered our situation, though,” I put in. And speaking of that, I did look you up and you all seem to have mysteriously disappeared in October of 1870.”
“Mmm. We’d not lived here at the house all that long. Here are the papers from the sale of the land,” said Gerald, rummaging through his desk. He found the contract and held it out for me to see.
“Rivers, Lethe & Mortson’s!” I exclaimed. “I rented from them!”
“Yes, and Char Rivers sold us the property.”
We all silently digested that. As we could do nothing at the time, we each moved along to our usual day, except when I got back to the kitchen, my electrical appliances were gone. It was their kitchen now. My computer, my cel, all my things: gone. Like that movie about the Rapture: it was all left behind.
I was with them, if not one of them, now. Downstairs and into the room came another party I didn’t know. She stopped short.
“Why, you’re that girl with no hair and big shoes.”
“Barbara! Manners!” This from Azaelea.
“Well, they’re very nice shoes, I’m sure.”
There is the sound of a key in the front door of my house. Being back in 1870, I heard it, but saw nothing. A realtor is showing the place to a couple. It’s Char Rivers.
“Yes, I think you’ll find it meets your needs. As you can see, it’s in excellent condition. And we take care of all maintenance and landscaping at no additional cost.”
My jaw dropped a mile.
Char, it seemed, had made a boatload (literally! He owned a Blohm & Voss yacht that was the envy of the marina) by renting and re-renting the Elysium Row house, knowing that people could be sent backwards in time, on what was probably a permanent basis. (In the unlikely event anyone slipped back to the now, what would she do, sue? The real story would be too wild to credit). It was the perfect grift. No complaints from anyone: it would have been quite impossible to communicate them.
So, there I was, stuck in time. The Alexanders seemed pleasant enough, but wait: who was this unattractive woman in a Chanel suit and too much jewelry? She held one pug dog in her arms while another wet the rug. A man in a kilt stood beside her. There was also flapper couple with bottles of booze, and cigarette holders a mile long. His hair was parted down the center.
From the front porch: “We’ll take it!” said the young woman. “It’s perfect! Our forever home.”