Readers, the following short story is from my collection Rest In Fleece: Ghosts, Tall Tales and Horror Stories. It is drawn from some true events and while some was made up out of at least half cloth, several events really happened. I leave it to you to guess which. Read on, below:
My first impression was mixed. It was an undeniably lovely house. Not large but attractive: a midcentury modern with open beam ceilings, wood floors, clerestory windows, and privacy: no big windows facing the street. It had been restored, but not ruined. Surrounded by large camellias, azaleas, rose bushes, and shady trees, it was an established, well-kept domicile in a good part of town.
But there was something. I felt watched. One never felt quite alone there. Others who came mentioned it too; it wasn’t just my imagination. It wasn’t malevolent, not at this point. Just present.
After unpacking, I chose what I thought the nicest en suite for my own. It looked out onto the garden in back and was situated at the end of a long hallway, apart from the other rooms. I’d be able to write in peace there.
But I did sense that someone was eyeing me as I unpacked. Again, it felt neutral, but I found it somewhat annoying.
I decided perhaps it would be wise to bless the house. I’m clergy, you see. I’ve done that often when asked, and people often remarked that their homes felt lighter afterwards. So I found my holy water (I always keep some about) and my prayer book and went through each room myself, asperging with the holy water and asking God to bless each room, and then the yard. That should do it, I said to myself.
Back inside, everything felt fine. But I still felt observed. And, when I entered the living room, I saw the coffee table leaning on its side, with some books and a vase balanced on top. Strange? Sure. But not eerie. In the movies, these things scare the crap out of people. But at the time, it just looked stupid.
Time for the Sopranos; I was binging on Sunday reruns. I relaxed, put my feet up. Then there was a resounding crash. I got up to look and beheld my new bottle of pinot grigio, which lay shattered on the kitchen floor. I’d left it out to Breathe, but this was hyperventilation. I wondered if the ghost (for I had by now accepted that I had a housemate) was from the ‘twenties and had been a Dry, advocating for Prohibition. If so, he was a day late and a dollar short. Well, ten dollars, counting my pinot.
There were no further disturbances that night. Ghosts need sleep, too.
The following day, the lights blinked on and off. I shrugged it off. Like, big whoop. I still felt watched; but I just watched back.
I was gone that day: I had chaplaincy duty at St.Ga’ways Memorial. I spent the day working with patients and staff. It was interesting though. I stopped by to see Dr. Benedict, who is known to be psychic. He right away asked me if everything was okay. I said it was, but that I thought I had a spirit in my new place. He asked to look at my hand (he had a real gift for reading palms. The staff loved him). I held it out, and he peered at the lines.
“Chaplain,” the doctor said, “You should take this seriously. Something is going on with that place. I wonder, do you feel safe there?”
“Sure I do. I blessed it right after I moved in, and there have been shenanigans (I told him about these) but nothing scary. I mean, the coffee table, really?”
“Well. Don’t laugh. The next thing may not be so harmless,” he cautioned me.
“Thanks, Doc. I’ll let you know how it goes.” We parted, then. I went back to my office to chart my day’s visits, and then returned home. As I approached the door, I heard a buzz of voices, like a party. It sounded fun. (Except that I had not been invited).
When I opened the door, it was silent as the grave.
I decided the best offense was ‘don’t take the bait.’ I ignored the whole thing. Fixed dinner, did some laundry, ironed a clerical shirt and sat at the computer to check my email.
I’d received the usual commercial mailings: food ads from Safeway, clergy attire sales from Wippell’s (the Cadillac of vestment makers), and yet another email from the Bishop, hitting the clergy up for donations: this time it was his “mission to Bangladesh” (i.e. his cruise to the Bahamas).
But what was this? I’d almost stuck it in the spam file, unopened. But I bit. Naturally, it was from my house mate. It was not typed, however. It looked like an old-fashioned letter, the kind written with ink from a fountain pen, and on good paper.
“Dear Fr. Jane,” it said. You women have no business being clergy. Stick to cooking and sewing. Don’t even think about offering me communion. Yours, A High Church Ghost.”
I got this kind of thing from certain parties in the congregation from time to time; I’d always respect the viewpoint and never took it personally.
I typed back: “Dear Ghost. You owe me $9.95 for the pinot grigio. Sweet dreams, Fr. Jane.” Then I went back to my crossword from two days before. When I came to 7 down (“Pest”) I shot off a P.S.: “How many letters in your name?”
That night, there was noise coming from the kitchen. For God’s sake. What now? I rose, threw on a robe, and padded down the hall. A meal was being prepared. James Beard’s American Cookery was open to the ‘omelet’ section. There were broken eggshells on the counter and their former contents sizzled in a pan on the cook top. Cheese was being sprinkled on top, but from midair.
“Don’t tell me you’re hungry,” I say.
“I miss food.” I hear nothing, but the comment is scrawled in flour on my formerly clean counter top.
“Then go to Denny’s,” I say. “And clean up this mess!” I retire.
In the morning, there was nothing out of place, and all had been cleaned up. Except for one thing. There was a plate on the table with an omelet: half eaten.
At a clergy breakfast, I broached the subject of ghosts with some colleagues.
“No such thing,” said Bob (Presbyterian).
“Oh, there sure are,” injected Mary, but then she was from a spiritualist denomination.
“Tell me more about that.” This from Joe, who was, at times too obviously, a therapist.
“Why do you ask?” from Mark, the Catholic priest, clearly the only one who was actually listening.
“My house has one,” I replied. I shared the events of the past couple days, in a calm way. For actually, I wasn’t the least frightened: just inconvenienced. I hadn’t been attacked. My sleeve had been tugged by this entity for some reason. I began to wonder why.
First, I investigated the history of the house. It was old, but I could unearth no murders or other crimes to which it might have played host. I visited with some neighbors and no one hinted at anything amiss. I asked about who had lived there before, evidently it had been an air force couple who had recently been stationed someplace in the Pacific. Guam? Okinawa?
I thought about whether the ghost was attached to the house itself, or whether it had moved there as I had: the house had been vacant, perhaps the ghost had moved in first, expecting to have the place all to itself. There were no clear answers, but the latter made more sense.
Ba-rrinnggg. It was the phone. I picked up, and heard static and vague whispers. This was odd, but made more so by the fact that I’d just read When Your Phone Rings From Beyond. Its author postulated that ghosts can place calls from the other side. (No. I don’t know if they still use pay phones). After a few pointless “Hello’s,” I still heard nothing that could be categorized as a reply, so I ended the call. And decided I’d stick with reading history for now.
Returning to the study to work on a sermon, I couldn’t find the legal pad with my notes. I always placed it in my walnut inbox, on the desk. There was no sign of it anyplace. I had no time for this, so I sat at the computer and worked for an hour or so. When I went to get an iced tea, there was the legal pad: on top of the milk. (Yes, in the fridge. Don’t ask).
Things kept vanishing and reappearing in unlikely spots: the toilet brush greeted me from the front seat of my car. The newspaper (opened to the sports section) was under the china closet. A bag of kitty litter in the living room (I don’t have a cat).
I’d invited some friends to see my new place. We were sitting round the table when the sounds of footsteps and doors opening and snapping shut could be plainly heard. We all knew no one else was home. My guests were from the South, and very well-mannered: other than some raised eyebrows, they ignored it all. I followed suit. But it was reassuring that it was an observable, objective event and not my imagination.
One night, I awakened, must have been three a.m. I saw no one but was sure something was standing in the doorway, boring holes in me with laser eyes. Unnerved, I froze. After awhile the feeling passed. But in the nights that followed, I felt its presence. It had a different quality than my first ghost: this felt menacing and dark. For the first time, I felt fear. I blessed the room again, but that had no discernible effect. The presence remained.
Later, on a morning after another long, sleepless night, I went to the kitchen for coffee and toast. There on the counter was some spilled flour (did I mention I don’t bake?) with the finger-traced message: “She’s dangerous.” I smoothed out the flour and wrote “Can’t you take her out for a year or so?” In a few minutes my message was replaced with “Not funny.” I shook my head. What was I doing!
“Look,” I said. “I can’t move, my lease is signed. Work it out amongst yourselves.” With that I went back to St. Ga’ways for a staff meeting and some patient calls.
I ran into Dr. Benedict in the cafeteria. He asked me how things were. I said “Crowded,” and shared the latest developments. He shook his head and frowned.
“This is precisely what I warned you about,” he asserted with a frown. “Keep it up and you’ll have a vortex.”
“I already own a hairdryer,” I jested. He was having none of it.
“Listen, Rev. There must be, in that house, an open passageway for spirits. The problem: no one screens them at the door.” The doctor frowned and said he’d consult his spirit guide. (This doesn’t sound like any doctors you know, right? But Ransom Benedict was a highly psychic individual, and his scientific education had done nothing to change that. He observed things, he ruled out all possible explanations before going to the Other Side. But too much had happened, in his life and in the lives of his patients, for him to write off. So many strange stories had circulated around phenomena in the ICU, the near death experiences, the sense of a loved one’s presence before the patient expired. While he had seen mostly harmless manifestations, he thought back to one that wasn’t.
“Jane, do you recall that patient that came in on a legal hold, the one that you and Fr. Les visited?”
“As if I could forget!” Dr. Benedict referred to a patient who was brought in under what was called a “Legal 2000” which, decoded, meant he was deemed a danger to himself or others. In this case, I’d have put the “others” first. When Les and I entered the room, it was to the sight of three burly male nurses (one, a former defensive back for the Seattle Seahawks) struggling with a scrawny, unaccountably strong man in a hospital gown. The patient had somehow broken out of three point restraints. The nurses, who each outweighed and out muscled him, as a group had a very difficult time getting him into a strait jacket. He looked at Les and I and started to speak in a disjointed, eerie way. His words ran from Latin to Aramaic to Hebrew to Greek to Farsi to English. The air was cold in his room. He emitted powerfully negative waves of energy, and his eyes were the kind you might see in a nightmare.
I was quite unnerved at the time and felt sure this was a case that cried out for exorcism. Les agreed, but we knew how slowly that might evolve, how many barriers there were, and both concluded it would doubtless be a lost cause. After all, this was some nameless indigent patient, not the son of a rich church patron or power broker.
“You may, if you are not very careful, have something like that on your hands,” said Dr. Benedict. Please consider moving.”
“I can’t do that, Doc. I can’t afford to and if I could, I wouldn’t. I like the house. Why should I be the one to leave? Let them search the For Rent ads.” I said goodbye and left for my rounds.
Back at home, it was a fairly normal night (if you didn’t count dining room chairs standing in a pile). I spent my evening as I usually do: a phone call, some videos, some laundry. The night was uneventful. It was the morning that shook things up.
At again three a.m. I awakened to the feeling of being stared at in a powerfully hostile way. I looked at the doorway and as I did, small specks of bright light began to form. They circled about lazily and gradually melded together into what appeared to be a female form. She was dressed in an antique style of clothing that might have been colonial era. She had brilliant red slits for eyes and was pale as well as translucent: the hallway could be seen through her as well as behind her. She emanated waves of evil, dark energy. Now this, at last, was something truly frightening.
“Can I help you?” I managed, in my most reassuring chaplain voice.
She said nothing but raised a skeletal hand and pointed at me, frowning.
Then like Joe, I fell back on (really I did):
“Tell me more about that.”
She looked at that moment, ferocious. She started to glide towards me. I felt increasing and irrational terror. I grabbed some holy water I’d been keeping at bedside and sprinkled some at her, saying a fast prayer as I did so.
Pssssssssst. The water hissed as it passed through her and became steam. She said, not with her mouth, but in harsh, grating words I heard in my head:
“Get out. Now.” As she spoke, furniture began to levitate, pictures swung on the walls, and some awful rumbling noise thundered in the background. The room temperature had dropped: suddenly it was Saskatchewan in December. I can’t begin to express my awe, fear, and yet too, a sense of faith, knowing that I had been right that there was more out there than met the eye.
As the tumult increased, as it became unbearable: it quite suddenly stopped. All was quiet. The air cleared and for the first time since I’d moved in, I sensed I was truly alone in the house.
A glass of pinot noir was called for. I went to the kitchen to get one and there on the counter, scrawled in cornmeal, was the legend “You’re welcome.”
That being said, when an opening came up in another state, I jumped on it, and within two fortunately peaceful weeks, I was in California. I had had a very close call and only by chance had a disastrous episode been narrowly averted.
Had I deserved it? Was it karma? I don’t think so. Who was the evil spirit? I have no idea. In books, we can create photo finishes. Like so many supernatural events that occur in real life, there are loose ends, many questions, and few if any answers. I have written it off as inexplicable.
It did affect me. I suffer the odd panic attack these days. I look behind me. I have troubled dreams.
There is more than we know.