Tag Archives: ghost stories

That Intolerable Noise

Troy was doodling with his headphones on when his roommate stomped into the living room and shouted: “WILL YOU PLEASE. STOP. MAKING. THAT. NOISE?”

Stephen had been a craigslist find, but for all that he wasn’t bad. First impression had read kinda fussy, but he was the first non-methhead of the day, so Troy had no trouble saying yes to him. Three months of quiet passing conversation, no passive-aggressive arguments about when the rent was due. And suddenly, this.

Troy swept the headphones from his ears. “I have it turned down, dude.”

“Not that,” Stephen said, exasperated. “That stupid…there! That!” he pointed, as if the sound had a physical body.

Troy looked around. It was a saturday morning calm. The Bellinis next door were out for the day, so no loud television. The Kellers across the courtyard had their pitbull trussed up, so it wasn’t that.

The refrigerator kicked on. Troy pointed. “That?”

Stephen ground his teeth. His eyes were mad little flames. “You know what it is. It’s coming from you. I’m not playing this game.”

Troy sat up, notebook sliding off his lap. “What games, what…I really don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Stephen was nodding, though, not agreeably but a reflexive jerk of the head. “I see how it is. You know, I pay my rent on time. I don’t deserve this.”

“Dude, you’re being weird.” Troy went to replace the headphones. Stephen knocked them away.

Troy leapt to his feet. “What the fuck?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, did I disrupt you?” Stephen asked acidly. “That’s what you’re doing to me right now. The fact that you can’t even own up to it—”

“I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about,” Troy shouted, getting right in his face. He was a head taller and twenty pounds heavier than Stephen, who finally shrank back.

“Fine,” he muttered after a time. “I’ve said my piece. It’s on you now.”

He stalked back to his room.

Troy capped the pen, shaking his head. The skull lay half-finished on the paper. He threw the notebook and a few supplies in his satchel and sat at a coffee house for a few hours as a peace offering. When he got back, Stephen was out like a light  on the couch, drooling excessively. Troy shook his head and called it a night.

 

Stephen was already up at the table when Troy stumbled out of bed. He had his robe on over his pajamas, the french press sat half-full of coffee next to marmalade toast. It looked and smelled like a trap. Troy groaned.

“When I signed on to live here,” Stephen said without so much as a ‘good morning,’ “I entered into a verbal contract. And though it may not be as binding as a written contract, I expect certain rights—”

“Jesus Christ, it’s too early for this.”

“—let me finish—rights that should be basic. I feel like my money not only buys me a space in this apartment, it buys me a certain amount of consideration. Would you agree?”

“Dude, I’m not making the noise, I don’t know what to tell you.”

“Would you agree?” Stephen repeated.

Troy wiped a hand down his face. “Sure, pal.”

“Good.” Stephen’s face was rigid. “I should think a right not to be harassed would be basic—”

“I’m not harassing you!”

“—let me finish—I would think the right not to be harassed would be basic stuff, but let’s just clarify it now, shall we? Harassment, as I define it, would be repeated and excessive actions designed to get a rise out of me. Would you agree?”

Troy stood and stared at his roommate for a bit.

“Fuck it,” he said, “I’m going for a bike ride.”

“Don’t you walk away from me!” Stephen rose from the table as Troy went to the front hall and donned his sneakers.

“We’re done here,” Troy said.

“We’re not done—”

“I’m not arguing with you anymore. I’m not making any noise, and if you can’t believe me when I say that then maybe you shouldn’t be living here.”

The last thing he saw before the door shut was Stephen’s face, drawn and white. It set off alarms in his head, but he couldn’t go back. Not just then. He saddled up the Raleigh and just pedaled aimlessly for awhile. Families  were out walking their dogs, flying kites and generally being pleasant.

Troy wondered if he really was making a noise he was unaware of. That would make him an asshole, if he never even considered the possibility.

He braked for a jogger cutting across the bike path.

Of course, if he was unaware of it, that didn’t automatically make him an asshole, didn’t it? And Stephen was awfully quick to jump to the conclusion that he was doing it on purpose.

Troy wondered about him. He’d never mentioned family, he’d never brought a girl (or guy) back to the apartment. He was generally neat and self-contained.

Troy freewheeled past a pond as he tried to think back over the three months of his tenancy. Had Stephen given any clues, any motion that seemed innocuous at the time but was suddenly significant?

He drew blank after blank.

Returning to the building with a bagful of chocolate croissants as a peace offering, Troy found the front door on a chain.

He sighed, set down the bag, and knocked.

Stephen appeared at the sliver of open door. “You’ll be happy to know I’ve called the landlord.”

“Dude. Seriously. What?” Troy put his face in his hands.

“If you hadn’t been so unreasonable, we might have settled this amicably.”

“Okay, look.” Troy held out open hands. “Are you going through something personal right now? Is it something at work? You can talk to me.”

“I tried, remember?”

Mr. Dimitriou came shuffling up the stairs. Stephen pressed himself to the gap in the door and yelled, “Sir? I’m the one who called you, right here!”

“Hello, Mr. Dimitriou,” Troy said.

“Don’t you dare try to preempt me, you bastard,” Stephen snapped. “Sir, it’s very urgent. I have to speak with you.

Dimitriou’s tired eyes looked from one man to the other. “Hello, Troy. It’s not the heater?”

“No, Mr. Dimitriou, it’s working fine.”

“Why are you talking to him? I’m the one who called you.” Stephen’s eyes were alight with unhealthy fire. “I would like to report an unlawful harassment. The man who rents this apartment from you has been repeatedly and insistently harassing—”

“It’s been a day, how are you even—”

“—harassing me. I would hate to bring litigation into it,” Stephen’s tone implied that he very much would like to, actually, “but I have shopped around and have several promising lawyers who might take my case.”

Dimitriou took a long, solemn moment to absorb facts. Then he turned to Troy.

“You sublet?”

“Yes, Mr. Dimitriou.”

“You charge him rent?”

“Yes, Mr. Dimitriou, we split the rent right down the middle. I show him the statement.”

“Your problem, then.” Dimitriou gave a shrug of his heavy shoulders and turned to go.

“Wait! He’s making the noise right now, listen! He hasn’t even stopped in your presence, that’s how blatant he’s being. Listen!”

Dimitriou looked at Troy, his grey eyes emotionless. Understanding fluttered between them.

“I hear nothing,” the old man said, and continued shuffling down the hall.

Stephen’s face was bloodless as he unhitched the chain. Troy tried to hand him the bag of croissants, but Stephen’s hands were limp.

“Look, I do believe you’re hearing something,” Troy said, “but I honestly don’t hear it. I’m sorry, have you considered seeing a doctor?”

“Don’t patronize me,” Stephen said. He went to his room and wedged towels beneath the door.

 

Troy heard little from him all week. It was the next weekend when he came into the kitchen, setting down a prescription page.

“There you go,” Stephen said icily, “a headache medication. Probably wanted to draw a middle finger, too.”

“So he couldn’t find anything physically wrong with you?”

Stephen nodded, smug.

“Did he recommend a mental health specialist?”

“I’m not going to—”

Did he recommend a mental health specialist?” Troy asked more forcefully.

Stephen wilted a little. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

Which meant, to Troy, that the doctor probably had recommended one.

“Look,” he said as gently as he could, “I feel for you. I really do. But, if this is a mental health problem, you need to deal with it the same way you would an illness.”

Stephen folded his arms. “I know it’s not me.”

Troy said, “well it sure as shit ain’t me.” And left.

 

Sympathy lingered for about a week. Then it became annoyance. Whenever Troy would invite friends over, Stephen would make a point to make himself known. He would rush out of his room and do the most pointless, bizarre things he could. Trying to make as much noise as possible, Troy knew this. But it wasn’t until the mousetrap in the cupboard that Troy decided he’d had enough.

Troy had opened the cupboard above the sink looking for his box of granola bars. He pushed aside Stephen’s little baggies of quinoa and flaxseed jar and as he was feeling along the cupboard paper he heard something snap before he felt white-hot agony rush to his fingers. He could only grunt in surprise pain as he lifted the spring from his hand. There was a throbbing bar across his fingers from where the trap had hit. He sank them knuckle deep into a bowl of hastily crushed ice.

Stephen didn’t even bother looking innocent. He sat sprawled on his futon, watching a house flipping reality show. Troy stood in front of the TV set and turned it off.

“You need to leave,” he said, “I want you out now.”

Stephen looked shocked. As if he hadn’t considered this was a possible outcome of his actions. “You can’t throw me out for a mistake,” he said, standing.

Troy said gently, “look, this is getting ridiculous. You can’t talk to me, you won’t go to a doctor, and you can’t deal.”

Stephen said, “this is ridiculous. I have my rights.”

Troy said, “my rights include not being attacked in my own apartment. The subletting laws—”

“The subletting laws say you can’t kick me out for prejudice against my mental state,” Stephen said excitedly.

“Well, then, you would have to have an official diagnosis, wouldn’t you?” Troy asked.

Stephen shut his mouth. He really did look desperate. Troy almost felt sorry for him and then he moved his fingers. The twinge brought him back to reality.

“I’ll give you a week,” he said, “and then I want you out. I don’t care where you go, I don’t care who you hook up with, I don’t care what you take, I want you to leave because this is just unbearable.”

“ … If you’d only just stop,” Stephen whispered.

Troy slammed his good hand down on the television set. “I’m. Not. Doing. Anything!”

Stephen looked at the ground and said nothing.

 

If Stephen was looking for a new apartment, Troy could not see it. Stephen spent the time he was visible to Troy scribbling furiously in a series of notebooks. Troy called the landlord and the building owner just to make sure his corners were all squared. He learned he wasn’t really supposed to be subletting this apartment, but he could be grandfathered in due to an earlier lease. He also learned he could not use excessive force to take Stephen out, but the rules were vague on what that constituted. Just great. All he needed. More vaguery.

 

The day Stephen killed himself, Troy was at work. He’d given Julie his keys because she needed to pick something up from the apartment, so rather than leave work he simply handed her the ring. Stephen must have been waiting in his room, the ET said. He heard the jingle of keys in the door. He must have been waiting for Troy to come home.

Julie heard someone say, “no Troy, no!” And then a second later she heard a sickening crash as something hit the pavement. Stephen’s door swung open at a touch, and inside was a hurricane of disorder. When Troy arrived home later that day to take stock of the situation, he noticed he was missing a few things. Some furniture, some keepsakes, and an old vase his grandmother had given him. Stephen’s idea was probably to lure Troy into a conflict, they told him. There were signs of upturned furniture in the room, holes punched in the wall, and the window screen had been bent violently outward. He had apparently intended to frame Troy. There were no sign of the missing items in his room, and no sign of abuse on Stephen’s body.

Troy sat water-kneed on the couch with a cold beer as they broke this all to him gently as they could. Yes, he replied,  Stephen was not in a right mental state. Yes, they had quarreled. No, he had no idea any of this was going on.

They cleaned up the scene as best they could, and gave him the number of a crisis helpline. Julie went home to cry on her boyfriend. Troy sat with his arms encircling his knees.

He did not have contact information for anyone close to Stephen. His roommate remained just as enigmatic in death as he had been in life. That left Stephen’s few worldly possessions, still in his room because Troy could not bring himself to open the door again, in flux. It also meant that Troy would probably never see his things again.

Since he could not get up the energy to go to his room, Troy passed out on the couch after a few beers. As he slept he dreamed, and as he dreamed he came back to the apartment.

In the dream, he woke on his bed. It was night outside. The moon made unusually crisp shadows with the things on his nightstand. Stephen was calling him softly from the next room. In typical dream logic, Troy knew that Stephen only wanted to bother him about the noise. He kept silent and still on his bed. He was sleeping fully clothed above the covers, not even his shoes were off.

Stephen’s calling became more insistent. He had to talk to Troy. If he wanted his stuff back, he would have to come and talk like a human being.

Troy sat up. It did not seem at all unusual to him that his things were missing and yet Stephen was still alive. He walked slowly, oh so slowly, to the next room. Stephen was not in his room.

Stephen’s room was different in the dream. Where the window had been now there was an alcove that opened up into a greater hall. Stephens voice called from the end of the hall. Now it was gentler, insisting that Troy come and get his things, and Stephen would never bother him again. Stephen’s voice had an odd buzz to it, one that lingered like a tongue on a battery. It was irritating, yet oddly compelling. Troy had his foot on the first step when the honking of a car alarm started him awake.

He stood with his foot on the windowsill. He really was in Stephen’s room.

Troy step down from the sill, shaken. The wind blew through the open window. It had been closed when the EMTs left. He could see below, in the street where the car alarm was going off. A vase, Troy’s vase that had wilted daylilies in it, was shattered on the hood of the car.

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Phone People

There was an old, white, square office phone at her uncle’s supply depot. It sat on a small table apart from everything else. The plastic was scuffed and grey from age. It didn’t plug into anything. There was nothing to plug into.

Luka noticed it her first day in the depot, but waited to ask after it. There were new rules to follow, more stringent than the ones at home. There was her cleansuit to get used to. There were engines to keep running. Even when she finally did, the question was not posed to uncle Jesse, but the men on the crew.

“I mean, does he keep it as a souvenir, or something?” she asked.

The men looked discomfited. One-ear Pete twirled a screwdriver around his bent middle finger.

“Somethin’ like that, yeah.” He harrumphed a measure of phlegm into a nearby plastic bottle.

“Stick around long enough, you’ll see.”

‘Long enough’ turned out to be three hours later. The phone rang.

Luka started, dropping the filters she’d been rinsing.

“Unca’ Jesse?” she called, “Deej? Phone’s ringing.”

Jesse came waddling through the depot door, shrugging on the loose shoulder of his coverall. He was the only chubby person Luka knew, which meant he had a lot more to offer than her family back home.

“I got it, I got it,” he said hastily. He took a quick breath before picking up the receiver. “Hello, McCalister’s department store,” he said in a polished tone she’d never heard before.

Luka clapped a hand in front of her giggle. Jesse shot her a glare.

“Oh hello, Mrs. Scheuble-Wilkes! What can I do for you today?” Luka’s uncle flicked his pointer finger to the doorway. Out, out.

Luka sought refuge outside.

The crew worked in shifts. Half the men were in heavy coveralls, unloading crates, soaping and rinsing down equipment. The other half were leaning against the wall, chewing tobacco and drinking bottled water.

Luka put her back to the wall and slid down to a sit, walking her legs out in front of her. Deej, the youngest member of the crew, handed her a bottle. She nodded thanks.

“He’s going off in there.” She motioned with the bottle.

“The phone? Oh yeah. He’s gotta answer it.” Deej smiled. He was missing his right top canine. “Cal tried answering it one day. That was nearly a disaster.”

Luka sipped her water, tonging the iron taste, trying to put her next statement together carefully.

“So is it—ghosts? Or some kind of weird radio?” She tried to back away from the first statement.

No need. “Right on the first.” Deej ate a handful of sunflower seeds. “It’s from the people who used to live over that way—” he waved off through the gray lead-cored wall, “—in some place used to be called Avalon Heights. Rich folks, lived in big houses.”

Luka looked at the wall. There were no windows in the depot. “Why do you think they call? How?”

Deej gave a shrug, finding something else to look at. They didn’t like questions here, none of them.

The afternoon was free, so she donned her cleansuit and walked a ways down the direction Deej had indicated.

Avalon Heights. She’d never met a rich person. The word ‘rich’ held no meaning for her. Jesse was rich, he had all the food he could want and power over other people. That was just about all you could ask for.

She took her binoculars and squinted down the tundra created by the blast. However big those houses may have been, there was nothing but wreck now. The few standing walls were pockmarked by shrapnel. Here and there, they were the blurry half outlines of shadows permanently fused to the wall.

Her filter indicator was orange. She treked back to the depot.

It was an insult, considering how carefully she carried herself out in the wastes, that the airlock door closed on her suit and ripped it. That earned her a chewing out from her uncle.

“Fool girl goes outside without a partner, for no good goddamn reason.” Jesse took a piece of precious electric tape from the roll and sealed the suit again. “I will ship you back to your folks, don’t think I won’t.”

“Unca’ Jesse,” Luka said, “why do you keep the phone? Those folk are gone, why not get rid of it?”

Jesse’s face was hard as he answered: “simple girl thinks everything’s goddamn simple. No, we can’t just chuck it. The phone stays there, and we take the calls. It’s part of the package, girl. Came with the building.”

Luka watched him store the tape in his drawer and lock it up. “What’s a department store?”

Jesse’s face was softer. “Another way of saying depot, child. Used to be you could find anything there, not just what you needed. All the time. Didn’t depend on the season or the roads, they always had it in. When your dad and me were young—” he broke off and rearranged some wrenches sitting on his tool bench.

Luka tried to imagine such plenty. “Y’ever been in one?”

“Yes, but it wasn’t like that anymore. That was the start of lean times, child. It was more like this depot, only most of the stuff it had, nobody needed anymore.” He turned. “Now I’ve got nine head of iodine tablets sitting on the floor out there, and no hand laid on them.” He gave her a pointed look.

As Luka sorted goods, she thought about the phone. What it was like to talk to a ghost.

She made it so the next time the phone rang, she was handy.

Luka picked it up and waited.

“Hello?” the voice was a woman’s, irked and sharp. There was an odd heaviness on the line, something that distorted her words like a rock on a plastic sheet.

“Hello?” Luka said right back.

“Is this McCalister’s?” There was a fuzzy background static to the line. Luka tried to imagine the signal struggling in from some grey land.

“Sure,” she said.

The woman’s voice grew angrier. “Sure? Sure? It’s good to know your store’s so casual about customer service, missy, I’ll be sure to pass the knowledge on to my friends. Now are you going to help me or not?”

“I’ll try,” Luka said, which seemed like a safe answer. No one had ever been this angry with her. It was puzzling.

The woman gave a sigh which made the line crackle. “Well, I bought a 24-piece crystal set from your store not three months ago. When I went to use the punch bowl for our Memorial Day gathering, it was chipped.” The woman’s voice made it clear that this was quite possibly the worst thing in the world. “Now, the only time it had been out of my hands is at the register and when it was delivered to my house. What do you think that says about your service?”

Luka squinted. She had never before encountered someone speaking the same language but misapplying so many words.

“Back up,” she said, “you use a bowl to punch somebody?”

The woman’s voice was flat when she said, “let me speak to your supervisor.”

Uncle Jesse pushed open the door and bustled in, furiously beckoning to her. Luka surrendered the phone, still puzzled as her uncle tried to appease the unbelievable voice. A full refund didn’t do it, nor did an apology. A voucher for a free spiral cut ham and 50% off her next purchase did.

“I don’t get it,” she said as he hung up, “you don’t let anyone else talk to you like that. Why you let dead people push you around?”

Jesse put his hand on her scruff and pushed her out of the room. “You gotta make nice with them, girl. Make them think they got you by the scrote so they might consider letting it go.”

“Yeah, but you cut Joe off last week just ‘cause he looked at you funny.”

“That’s different. You have to make nice with the phone people or bad things happen.” He gave her a final shove. “Don’t you worry about the phone no more. I don’t want to see you near it.”

Deej gave her a sympathetic look as she took up a sponge and worked on the engine next to him.

“He talks a hard line, but he’s fair man, Luke.”

“He talks a fool line. Probably just likes to feel important.” Luka worked her aggression into suds. “You really respect him and all that?”

Deej shrugged, which earned him a few points in her eyes. “My dad got lymph sickness when I was young. I got nothing to go back to, so I got no reason not to.”

Luka watched the suds creep down the side of the engine part. “I guess respecting him I could see. Why the hell I should give bossy dead folks respect is beyond me.”

Deej grinned. “Maybe they just want to feel important after all.”

“If they wanted to be important, they should’ve left the big houses and gone underground,” she argued, “like sensible people. ‘Stead of worrying about crystals and punch and what else.”

“Ohhh, you got the crystal set lady?” Deej guffawed. “She’s one of the worst. You can’t just give her what she wants, she has to cut you down some beforehand.”

Luka wasn’t scrubbing anymore. She was looking at her hands, grime clinging to the cracks in the skin.

“Shouldn’t be right,” she said, “such disrespect. Who the hell do they think they are?”

Deej’s grin disappeared and he looked away. “Nothing we can do. Way of the world.”

Luka begged to differ, but she knew to do it silently. She did nothing by pretending to do something all the time, so whenever her uncle spotted her she was carrying something or looked like she was  in a hurry to the next place. One day this turned out to be true: she was hurrying to the room with the phone.

Luka made sure to position herself behind the door, just in case Jesse walked in.

The phone sat in the middle of everything, an island of anachronism.

When it rang, Luka picked it up before it could even finish.

“What?” she said dully.

“Who is this?” It was a man’s voice this time. She tried to imagine the body that had supplied it a long time ago. Tall, broad-shouldered. Probably thinning hair.

“Who is this?” she repeated back.

“This is Preston William Weber jr. Who is this?” The man’s voice was brassier than the last caller, like he was speaking way too close to the receiver. “Nevermind, I’ll tell you who this is: this is the person making less in ten years than I earn in a month and yet decided to throw their weight around. Don’t even try me, you drop-out, I will have your parents evicted.”

Luka smiled. “Alright.”

“I bought an argyle tie from your men’s wear counter. I have bought every single tie I’ve ever owned from your counter. And they have all been of a quality. But this tie,” and he really wound up to a yell, “this tie fell apart in the wash. Do you hear me? I spent sixty dollars on this item and it falls apart when water hits it. Now, do you see that I’m upset?”

“Uh-huh.” Luka wondered what the hell an argyle was.

“Well, what are you going to do to make it up to me?”

Luka took a deep breath.

“What are you going to do to make it up to me?” the voice prompted.

“You’re dead,” Luka said. “You hear me?”

“What?”

“You’re dead. You were probably sitting in your big house when the flash happened and got burnt to ash. You’re dead, and so’s anyone who cared.”

“This isn’t funny, young lady.” The line was distorting even more heavily. “I may have to teach you a lesson if you don’t smarten up.”

“Fuck you,” Luka said, “what the hell makes you think you can bug people like this? You’re not important. You didn’t do anything for anyone. Just sit in your ash house and leave the rest of us alone.”

There was a commotion down the hall.

Do you want me to come down there?” He was yelling now, the feedback hurt her ear. “I will come down there and make you sorry.

“Go right ahead, fatty,” Luka said as Jesse elbowed open the door, “just get up and walk on your legs that aren’t there anymore. I hope you—”

Jesse ripped the phone from her hands and threw it onto the cradle. “Girl—dammit!!”

“There,” Luka said coolly, “I fixed it. I told him off.”

Jesse’s face was red. He dug the stubby nail-ends of his fingers into the flesh of his forehead. “Fucksakes, what am I going to tell your folks? Why can’t you have half the sense of a dog?”

“He can’t do nothing, he’s dead.”

“No, he’s coming down here now!” Jesse shouted in her face, “that’s what he’s doing! You think this never happened before? What do you think happened to your cousin Emmett?”

Luka said “oh” in a small voice.

Jesse wasn’t angry now. He was looking at her and shaking his head. He was afraid.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “you got to go out there, now. Meet him. I can’t have it happen in here. You understand.”

The weight of what she’d done was slowly coagulating in her stomach. She donned her cleansuit with numb fingers. The crew all looked away from her as she settled the mask on her face.

Deej and Cal met her coming into the airlock. “Luke? You going out solo? I’ll go with ye.”

“You just got back.” Luka tried to talk calmly. “I got to go alone anyhow. I’m waitin’ on a telephone man.”

Cal hustled past her, stripping off his gear. Deej stood his place.

“I’ll go with ye,” he repeated.

She was too frightened to say no.

They sat in the lee of the building. Deej tried to lighten the mood.

“What d’you think he’ll look like?”

Luka stared out into the white tundra. Whatever had made it had bleached all the color, all the life out of everything.

“He sounded like a thick bully,” she said, “the kinda man who leaves an angry ghost. I’m sorry.”

This last sentence she directed at Deej. He blushed through his suit’s faceplate.

“Nothin’ to sorry at me for.” He dug his heel into the scrub at their feet. I hate those phone people too. Wish I had your guts.”

“Wish I had your sense,” Luka said softly. She watched the horizon, watched Avalon Tundra for any signs. She’d never seen a ghost before. Would it be like the pictures her momma had shown her once, oozing sores and burnt flesh? Or would it be a rich person, all punch bowls and argyle?

“S’not fair. I don’t think there really is a ghost. I think—”

As they watched, one of the shadows slowly peeled away from the wall and started walking towards them.

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The Skytown Mining Disaster

Skytown, Pennsylvania was founded entirely on the principle of harvesting minerals. Like any other coalburg in the state, it made its fortune on the backs of immigrant laborers. The name Skytown referred to the fact that the settlement was so dwarfed by the surrounding mountains, the townsfolk felt as if there was nothing but them and the sky. The town’s founder was Ulysses Byrne, a third generation Scotch-Irish immigrant who began as a journeyman in John C. Osgood’s firm and worked his way up. The mine was originally called “Byrne’s folly,” both for its remote location and for its predicted low yield. The coal seam began as a narrow ridge which broadened unexpectedly after sixty meters. The shanty-town swelled as the seam bore richer and richer yields, feeding into what became a vicious cycle. More miners would be needed to mine the coal, the more coal was mined, the more miners they needed. Byrne was typical of the robber barons of the day, using violent tactics to bust unions and refusing to equip his miners with any kind of safety gear.

The term “Byrne’s folly” took on a new meaning when the baron got wind of the Owl’s Keep tunnel in West Virginia. Boasting a rumored length of 2 miles and a yield of 470,000 short tons of coal per annum, the rumor threw Byrne into a frothing envy. He ordered the sudden expansion of the tunnels, slashing the already lax safety rules to suicidal levels. Workers were expected to haul coal even when in the throes of of late-stage silicosis. Skytown became known as the valley of “little blue men” because of the heavy presence of cyanosis in the miners. Rumors abounded that Byrne would take workers too sick to even stand and bury them in the slag heaps so as to make room for the ever-incoming new miners. Despite Byrne’s tyrannical reputation, news of the expanding mine kept a steady income of fresh blood.

The tunnel ceased expansion after ten years, stabbing nearly three miles into the earth’s surface. The mine produced an estimated 800,000 short tons of coal per annum, but this was second only to the bragging rights Byrne enjoyed. He mocked up a parade in the town’s one and only road, driving the only automobile in town: a Winton that had to be hauled piecemeal up the mountain trail and then assembled in town.

Because expansion of the tunnel gave so little credence to safety, an incident was all but inevitable. One an April morning, three months after the parade, the middle section of the tunnel collapsed. Because the workers were largely undocumented, the final death toll is impossible to gauge properly. Byrne undertook no recovery efforts. For weeks the townspeople complained about hearing the voices of trapped workers, hoping the heavy spring rains would fill the tunnel and silence their ghostly cries. Sinkholes began appearing in the town’s soil, which they attributed to the ghost’s desperate escape attempts. To this day, there is a county-wide folk belief in “little blue men” that collapse tunnels out of spite. 

Be it ghost or engineering oversight, after weeks of deluge the pockmarked soil beneath Skytown liquefied and sucked the settlement and all its people into the earth. All that remains to mark the spot today is the former mine entrance, which now extends only a few meters into the earth, and a plaque dedicated to the fallen miners. 

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The Beamis Clock

The Beamis clock has been missing now for many years. Teddy, the family scion, ran into a bit of bad stock in the 20’s and had to sell off a few heirlooms. The New Hampshire house quartered the staff and Teddy himself sold off all but one of his automobiles. Ah, but it was the clock that stuck in his craw.

The clock had stood at the head of the upper hall for as long as I had been executor of the Beamis estate. I never thought to ask after its make and model, just as I had never inquired after the ostrich-plume fan in the sitting room or that hideous upright piano in the parlor. It did not strike me as especially rare or valuable, but Teddy reacted to its absence as if the reds had stormed Wall Street and strung up Charles Mitchell himself.

Teddy’s great-great had fancied himself a big game hunter. He was the one responsible for that garish tiger-throw in the parlor and, apparently, the clock as well. To hear Teddy tell it, Samuel Beamis had cut a respectable swath throughout the wilder parts of the world and retired with not a few enemies. The clock had come from parts unknown. The brass maker’s plate had been scratched out and a fourth hand added to the clock face for some esoteric form of timekeeping. Besides these features, the clock was supposed to resemble a run-of-the-mill bracket clock like you might have on your own mantelpiece. I suggested that, owing to its common appearance, the clock might have been unwittingly sold or given as a gift by an elder Beamis. Teddy suggested I was an imbecile fathered by the milkman, and there split our working relationship until Teddy’s end, leaving the rest of my account to pure hearsay and speculation.

Teddy began a turnover of staff after I left. Soon he was even unable to find servants outside of town because of the reputation the house had gained. The mahogany end table where the clock had sat was said to be perpetually free of dust, a nightmare for any maid, I suppose. Teddy himself was insufferable, prone to buggy-whipping house boys he deemed slow. If Teddy had died at this point, I would not have been surprised. Instead, Teddy disappeared, which was nearly as fitting.

They emptied the house of its three remaining servants and there was quite a spectacle of a trial. The maid wept on the stand of all the misdeeds Teddy would make her perform. I testified on another day and missed it, sadly. I simply distilled my employment by the Beamis family into a few sentences and left the stand unmarked. Quite unexciting, I know. The senior partner in my firm, Claude Stanley, had been the one to broker the Beamis family’s affairs before me. I can only speculate that he’d have much more exciting tales than myself.

As it happens, time passed. I made and lost several fortunes, fathered a family, and they promptly dropped me into a facility for the doddering and decrepit when it was my time. Of the Beamis family, I thought very little, though my mind was much sharper than my descendants would give credit for. The Beamis family manse had stood empty for lo these many years. Then, not too long ago, on a grainy television in the day room, I watched them take a wrecking ball to it.

There were protesters, of course. Nothing so old could go without gaining a few fans, even a rococo nightmare like the Beamis house. I watched them form a human chain as the great iron ball swung and knocked down the widow’s walk Elmyra Beamis had constructed, the grey slate roof, the white walls and decades of history. I imagined Teddy’s chubby face red with apoplexy and wondered if they would find his bones.

The house fell. But then, on the television, there was a speck caught in mid-air. Knowing my fellow inhabitants, it could have been anything spattered on the screen. But the speck persisted as the camera pulled away and showed the crowds gaping at the miracle. I could discern what it was well before the anchor with unfortunate hair identified the floating shape as that of a mahogany end table. He spoke of Samuel Beamis, Teddy’s forebear and the discoverer of the clock.

Yes, discoverer. Samuel had found the piece when breaking new ground on an extension of the house, next to three finger-bones and a gold ring bearing the initials TB. Teddy himself grew to inherit that ring, I had seen it on his finger the entirety of our acquaintance. I wheeled my chair closer as the newsman blathered about ghosts and the madness hung mid-air behind him. He tossed out rumors, a few I’d heard, a few I hadn’t. The tale of Teddy Beamis’s screams coming from an increasing distance seems pilfered from an Ambrose Bierce story. Likewise, the specter of a cheated maid pointing out the site of her remains is straight from M.R. James. Teddy’s disappearance became the tragic attempt of a scion to understand his family’s misfortune, though I doubt the real Teddy’s intentions were ever so altruistic.

In-between the time it took for the news crew to switch cameras, the table disappeared, leaving an entire crowd of people scratching their heads. The phenomena was put down to flying saucers, which were in vogue at the time, and I resumed my nap.

When my granddaughter Amelia arrived for her mandatory visit, I entreated her to take me out to the house. Somehow she bundled me and my chair into a taxi and took me to the site.

A chain fence separated our prying eyes from the ruins. A sign proclaimed it the future nest of a series of expensive condominiums. The carriage house still stood, and the cobblestone driveway was halfway ripped up. I could smell the history blowing over the wreckage. There I had taken toddy with Teddy. There I had been dismissed and had a few clods of dirt thrown after me.

I wondered after Teddy. If he had ever truly understood his need for the clock, or if he had only held a few threads of the tapestry as I have. Amelia draped a granny square knit from odds and ends about my shoulders, a gesture that made me feel older than anything ever had. If the air that had held the table had any leftover mystic qualities, I did not see them.

The evening wind rose up and amelia dutifully packed me away into the taxi. She told me she knew I was pining for my younger days (how she had extracted that from my ramblings, I’ll never know) and had a surprise for me. The face was scuffed and it failed to tick anymore, but she had found a lovely clock for my nightstand sitting just outside the fence of the construction site. As my lovingly larcenous grandchild put Samuel Beamis’s clock in my withered hands, I shook from what she deemed to be cold and exertion and bundled me into the taxi. I half-expected it to disappear in the night, but it still sits on the table where I set my false teeth, very real, very broken. The Beamis clock has come to roost with me, and though I had been there from beginning to end, I could not tell you how.

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Ghost Stop

So, there’s this corner right by my house. It’s all overgrown with pecan trees and pokeberries, and it has a bus stop. Had a bus stop. The sign fell down, but it’s still a designated stop.

I kinda liked that about it. Like it’s a secret only a few people know about. A ghost stop.

Frank, the guy who drives the 92, always swings by to pick me up. I can bike to just about anywhere but the specialty store where I get my gear. So I go out there at promptly 9:25. Frank stops and lets me on. I get whatever I need done and I wait at the city stop by 11:45. Frank drives that time, too, so he brings me home again. Kinda like my own bus service.

Frank and me got on really well. I liked to joke, and he liked me better than the riffraff that he normally toted from the train station to downtown. I liked to think we had a pretty good thing going. So I never really tried to get on the bus when other drivers were operating.

Flash to two months ago.

I have this special thing on my right pedal because my foot’s all messed up. Childhood accident. Well it went out right as I got home from work. This was the middle of the week, so I had work the next morning and couldn’t go on the 9:25 bus with my buddy.

It was five in the evening. The store closed at six. I had a decision to make and I made it.

I was already rehearsing what I would say to the driver as the silver bus careened around the corner. I don’t remember what it was. Maybe it was a joke to test the waters. Maybe it was an apology. All I could think of as that bus turned and didn’t correct itself in time was that I had work in the morning, and they wouldn’t have time to find a replacement.

I woke up in the hospital.

That’s not entirely true. I woke up in the ditch first. Everything was black, so I thought I was dead. I passed out again.

I had fallen in a weedy area, so no one saw my body for a few hours. It turned out to be the old German guy who always walks his dog past my place n the evening. He called the ambulance while his excited papillon nibbled my fingers.

When I woke up, they explained to me that I’d had a bad accident. I said I knew. A bus hit me.

The two guys who broke the news(I think one was an insurance rep) looked at each other.

They said I had bruises from the impact. Where I had hit the bricks and bounced. Where I had landed. But the wounds I had were inconsistent with a car grille impact.

I said I didn’t want to sue anyone. A bus had hit me. I was waiting at the stop and the stupid thing turned to wide and went too fast.

The guy I thought might be the rep cleared his throat. There was no stop on that corner.

No pole, I said, but there was still a stop.

More exchanged looks. The rep rose first, tucked a card in my pocket.

We’ll talk when you’re feeling better, he said.

Later, a nurse popped her head in and asked if I felt well enough to take a call. Well, at least one of my hands was okay, so I agreed and she wheeled in this old cord-phone.

Man oh man, I am so sorry were the first words on the line. It was Frank.

He said I should have told him I was going out. He would have driven in his old truck to pick me up.

You are the high point of my day, he told me, if it wasn’t for you, I’d probably go nuts on the job.

He begged me not to say anything about the stop.

I asked why.

The line crackled. It was probably just the old cord, but it made me feel like someone was listening in.

He said that nobody was supposed to know about the stop. Yes, legally, there had to be a stop every X-amount of feet in the city, but the bus line told drivers never to stop at that corner. He had taken a huge risk even picking me up, but he liked me and didn’t care.

I asked him why all the secrecy.

He paused again. I could hear TV on his end, some king of boxing match.

He said that the stop had been taken out the same way I had. He sounded apologetic. But the same thing had happened. A driver, too much of a hurry, a turn not corrected, and the pole was bye-bye.

Why didn’t they just build another one?

He paused again. It was getting annoying, like he was teasing me, but the poor guy probably didn’t even realize he was doing it.

They did, he said.

And again, after that one got knocked down.

And another one after that.

And another one after that.

Did I get it?

So it’s a bad traffic spot, I said, so what? Why not just put it further back from the road or something?

Because that wouldn’t have stopped the driver, he said.

The same driver, every time? Why didn’t they just fire him?

Frank was quiet again. I’d have thought he hung up, but I could still hear the match in the background.

He died, Frank said. He died in that first crash. He took all the passengers with him.

But even after he died, the sign would get knocked down. The same time, every day, by a bus that no one could find afterwards. That was why they called it the ghost stop.

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Precautions

Hughes was shown to Leonard-ffolks’ drawing room to wait. Even here, the ever-present cacophony of sawing and hammering bled through the walls. A maid in mob cap brought the tray of drinks, flanked by the man himself.

“Richard.” Hughes rose.

“Hughes, there’s a stout chap.” The two men embraced. “How like you the wainscoting?”

“Lovely. Forgive a layman’s ignorance: walnut?”

“Poplar.” ffolks’ expression was glum.

“Good heavens. Well, it stains up nicely.”

The other man appeared only half in attendance. He had the air of a man tensed for a catastrophe.

“It was walnut. Had them rip it all out.”

“Oh…” Hughes cleared his throat.

“Bad wood you see. The whorls are too inviting.”

“Inviting to what?”

Instead of answering, ffolks picked up a glass and sipped.

“James,” ffolks said, “what do you know of Hindustan?”

“The colonies? Thuggees, fakirs, that sort of thing?”

“Exactly. Savages to the man.” The hammering ceased for a moment. ffolks half-rose, and the noise resumed. He sank with relief back into the settee.

Hughes sipped at his whiskey. “Does this have something to do with the incident in Khunipoor?”

ffolks tensed again.

“Damn it, man. You can’t just dance around the subject forever. What was it that finally brought you back from the colonies?”

ffolks got up and strode around the room, picking up and making a cursory examination of the various curios that littered the room.

“Have you ever been inside a Buddhist temple?”

Hughes thought before replying. “No, but there was that Japanese gent that held a service for us at the gardens—”

“Pah,” ffolks spat. “a frilly little dress party. True Buddhism is heathen and cruel, unnatural.”

This startled a laugh out of Hughes. “Buddhists? Surely not. They’re funny fellows, go around in yellow pajamas.”

ffolks spoke as if he had never been interrupted. “Suggesting that the immortal soul is tethered to this plain, forever laboring for its misdeeds.”

“Not a spiritualist, then?”

“That parlor game? Mere rookery. I’m speaking of a religion based not eternal reward in the afterlife, but of grinding poverty. Almost as bad as the hindoos.”

“It is true then, about the presence of a thuggee cult in Khunipoor?”

“What?” ffolks shook himself. “tosh. The common worshippers themselves are bad enough. Gods with many limbs and heads.”

“But the dragon in revelations—”

“Is Lucifer himself, man. Don’t split hairs with me in this matter, I’ve studied catechism since before you were out of short pants.” ffolks stopped his pacing. “Not that it helped. You can’t press civilization into them with a trowel, much less a bible.”

“So the uprising had something to do with conversion,” Hughes said, too eagerly. ffolks withdrew into himself.

“All you need know is that Hinnom is on earth, and on the subcontinent.” ffolks stopped to run a covetous hand over a cherry-wood shelf. “I’ve done my time. Paid my dues. And yet this would not be enough by their reckoning.”

ffolks seemed to be taking measure of the room. He spoke his next words with caution.

“Hughes…are you at all familiar with the architecture of the east?”

“Done with Georgian taff, are you?” Hughes needled. ffolkes ignored it.

“Their buildings are as irrational as the people themselves. All manner of useless bends and twists, false doors and functionless hallways.”

Hughes did not jest again. ffolkes’ demeanor disturbed him.

“Can you tell me why, Hughes?”

Hughes slowly shook his head.

ffolkes pointed a finger. “To confuse evil spirits. God! The air must be swimming with them if half the precautions I’d seen were necessary.”

Hughes had a slow, descending epiphany. “Your recent renovations…”

ffolkes pointed. “First boy gets it.” He was nearly excited as he huddled before Hughes. “I’ve researched into this. Dug up all the proper books, even talked to that dull fellow who insists he’s a lobsang rama or somesuch drivel.”

“But for heavens sake—why, man?”

“I don’t need to tell you I left the colonies under a cloud. Who knows what shriveled little fakir is hurtling curses at my back?”

Hughes leaned forward in his seat. “As your dearest and oldest friend, I must ask you: are you out of your mind?”

ffolkes drew back primly. “Just precautious, old man. Here. I must give you a short tour.”

ffolkes led him along corridors painted with trick doors, stairs with odd-numbered steps, windows that opened on a wall. Hughes bit his tongue and stepped over contractors who looked at him with dull curiosity.

The tour ended where it began: in the drawing room. ffolks seemed a little desperate as Hughes cited a long journey back and gathered his coat, but did not entreat him to stay. Hughes noticed an evil eye painted above the lintel as ffolkes showed him out.

“…and for god’s sake, don’t be a stranger,” ffolkes said with forced cheer.

Hughes stopped on the threshold. “Forgive me, I must ask. What happened in khunipoor?”

ffolkes’ eyes were shuttered. “Nothing for civilized men to lose sleep over.”

The door shut with a solid thud.

 

Hughes, through no fault of his own, went some time without thinking of his friend. Business and pleasure kept him away. But, as so often happens, coincidence led him back to it.

The subject was conjured up when he ran into Billings, a fellow school chum. He had to ask whether the other man had heard of Leonard-ffolks and his renovations.

Billings’ face fell. “God, don’t remind me. That poor man…”

“What?”

“You haven’t heard? You, of all…” Billings shook his head. “it was the bloody renovations, I told him to move out while they worked. They say it was probably some spilled tung oil, went up like a flash.”

Hughes set down his fork. “So he…”

“Burned.” Billings nodded grimly. “Terrible way to go.”

“Can’t imagine.” Hughes stared at his plate, no longer hungry.

 

The estate was still well-kept, though its benefactor was gone. Hughes kept an eye out for any wayward gamekeeper that might mistake him for a poacher.

Hughs crested the hill that hid the house from view. He sucked in a breath.

A few support beams stuck up like black teeth. Those were the only part of the structure still standing.

Hughes paced the length of the wreckage, sifting through the ash with his eyes. Nothing recognizable.

The newspapers had said there wasn’t even enough of a trace left for burial. Hughes squeezed his eyes shut.

Hiking back over the greens, he encountered an old woman with a bundle of washing.

“Good heavens! You weren’t up at the estate?”

Hughes confirmed that yes, he was.

The old woman blanched. “Terrible, it is.”

“I agree wholeheartedly, madam.”

“Night after night.”

Hughes paused. “Excuse me?”

“The light. The screaming. The terrible sound of fire crackling.” the old woman actually crossed herself. “Poor man. I don’t care what they say he did, no man deserves that.”

Hughes grew cold again. “Are you saying there are…spiritual visitations where the house stood?”

“That’s putting it lightly. Oh, god! If only he’d stop screaming!”

 

There was room at the inn, even in the middle of the season. Hughes suspected this was the norm rather than the exception. He passed some time in his room glancing unseeingly over his books and, after the sun had gone down, hiked back to the site.

The charred ruins were even blacker in the night. Hughes stood in the yard, stamping his feet for warmth, feeling a fool.

A flash lit his face.

Hughes’s mouth dropped open.

As if viewed through a dirty glass, the house was whole again and being eaten by fire right before his eyes.

Hughes stood rooted to the spot.

Someone screamed.

Hughes jolted into motion, running toward the house. The cries certainly sounded like ffolkes. Hughes ran around the perimeter, afraid to get too close to the apparition.

“Richard!”

Hughes followed the sound.

ffolks was in the second-story study. He did not look out at Hughes,he was merely screaming blindly for help.

“I’m here,” Hughes said. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “I’m here, man!”

“Richard! For God sakes, anyone!”

Hughes’s hands fell away from his mouth. He watched ffolkes scrabble fruitlessly at the wall, grabbing continuously at a doorknob that was painted onto the paper.

“Help!” ffolkes cried, snatching at the flat form, “help!”

Hughes watched until the fire faded, and the lot was empty and dark once more.

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Passing Ships

The pool was closed. Drained empty and dry.

Jeremy knew this because every time he walked past, he checked. He undid the deadbolt and knob with the ring of keys that jangled from his waist and surveyed the empty room. The floaters were stacked against the far wall, the diving board removed, and nothing remained in the basin but moisture stains.

None of this explained how he could hear the sounds of people playing in the water from time to time.

Jeremy was never sure if it was only him. Thu, the laundry girl, refused to go down that hall, though this might have less to do with the pool than the deep pile of the carpet snagging her cart wheels.

The Virago had not been a bustling draw, even in her heyday before the stock market crash. No Virginia Rappe-like scandal within its Victorian doors, only a tradition of stockbroker’s children and minor socialites dropping by to view the ever-thinning herd of seasonal delights. Now self-help seminars rented out the ballroom and the cuspidor stood on its own little pedestal, placarded as any artifact should be.

Jeremy worked on his thesis at night and gave thanks daily that he wasn’t flipping burgers. The job was a job was a job. He couldn’t complain, hell, what was there to complain about?

He took a toolbox up to the fourth via the hallway.

Shouts. Squeals. A child begging wordlessly. A man’s voice: “up! Up! Up we go!”

The rattle of the keys. Jeremy popped his head in. Silence.

“Took you long enough,” Banks grumbled. Jeremy had to stand there while he finished the exact right crescent wrench from the box and closed the valve on the pipe shattered by a cover band’s third-rate antics. The pool room was quiet on the return journey.

Sometimes he felt like going into the pool. Just skimming off his clothes, laying in the empty basin and holding his breath. A wild fancy that never grew anything more substantial.

Jeremy wasn’t curious.

No, he was. A bit. It was hard not to be when the haunting was so insistent. He wouldn’t have to continue with his compulsive rituals if the room would just be quiet.

Jeremy bought a baby monitor and placed in the empty room. Forgotten, until weeks later Carthage brought it to the desk.

“Someone screwing around in there?”

The one in Jeremy’s bag hadn’t gone off once.

Working at a hotel carried its own brand of discretion. People wanted things when they wanted them, and it was up to you to provide them, short of a few measures. Discretion was less of a skill than it was a survival tool. Jeremy had to put out a few conversational feelers before he was satisfied he wouldn’t be sacked instantly for prying.

“So like…was someone murdered here?”

Carthage stopped wrenching at the pipe wheel. “Jeremy, I’m surprised at you! This is a four-star establishment. Of course someone’s died here. We might as well name the honeymoon suite heartattack hotel! But no, never in the pool. Apparently it was drained for maintenance and never reopened.”

“Why?”

“Well, a couple of reasons. I guess the biggest one was just that pools stopped being the in thing. Also, regrouting all that tile would be a bitch and a half. No, nothing sinister. Just inconvenient.”

Nothing sinister. That part made sense. It was never someone screaming or the eerie moaning of hell. It was laughing, shouting, the sounds of recreation. The sounds of leisure.

So what made it that way?

Banks caught him with his head against the door. “You feelin’ okay?”

Jeremy straightened up. “Fine, sir. Just thought I heard something.”

Banks snorted. “Great. Rats or ghosts? Neither we could use more of.” he thumbed the hall behind him. “The runner on three left a BM behind the TV, Rosa could use a hand.”

All rooms in the hotel had the same pageant of smells: bare feet, potpourri, bleach, and just a soupçon of shit.

Except the pool. The pool smelled damp. Though Jeremy put his hand to the cement, the tile, even the dry floaters, he never found any moisture.

“Nothing lasts forever,” Thu said, resting the neck of her beer on her lower lip, “everything is transient. This place used to be somewhere.”

“Now it’s nowhere?”

Thu ignored his smartass comment. “There used to be big parties here. High-rollers. Now we’re lucky if we get a few business men and some vacationing families. And in the future, who knows? It might become a palace again.”

Jeremy spun his bottle cap on the pavement. He sat on the box he was supposed to be breaking down. Thu stood, arms folded into herself, leaning against the building.

“Is that what you think is haunting us?” he heard himself asking, “the future? Or the past?”

Thu looked at him, smiling slightly. “Isn’t haunted a strong word?”

“What else would you call it?”

“You feel any cold spots? Doors slam shut on you?” Thu took a swig. “The only thing you’ve told me is you hear things sometimes.”

“That is the only thing,” Jeremy admitted.

“Well, have you ever considered the possibility that you’re completely bonkers?” she said jokingly. Thu lifted her body from the side of the building, rolling away from her hips upward. “If it gets one of those paranormal investigation shows here, have at it. Otherwise, why bother?”

Why bother. The phrase stuck with Jeremy the rest of the week. That was what this place felt like. Like it was between things and couldn’t be bothered to extract itself.

Sometimes he’d look down and find he’d written the exact sentence over and over.

Banks found him in the hall. “Slow this week, Jeremy.”

Jeremy couldn’t formulate a response, and so remained silent.

“Slow last week. Slow the whole month.” He sighed. “Might be cutting back staff soon.”

Jeremy nodded. Banks was gone before he could fully decide whether that upset him or not.

He entered the west hall. Laughing and splashing reverberated in a large, cement chamber. Jeremy removed his shoes and crept in his socks across the fleur-de-lis patterned rug. He dared to place his head to the wood of the door. The sound hushed, but did not stop.

A woman’s voice echoed through the door.

“What’s that, Violet? You seem to have come over a little queer all the sudden.”

“Oh, nothing. Only…I thought I heard something.”

“Really?” Laughter. “Oh, this old place is haunted to the core! One day they’ll have to close it on account of spooks.”

“Seems a shame. Such a lovely old place…”

“Are you coming back to the water?” splashes.

“In a moment.”

And the soft, almost imperceptible sound of someone, perhaps a woman, perhaps laying their head against the door from the other side. Listening.

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The Last Empress

Remick dropped his “surprise” on the table. It was a dead bird, wrapped in cloth.

Curtis did not give him the satisfaction of retching or pulling away,  two months spent as the youngest member of this expedition had hardened him to the archeologists’ unique sense of humor. Even now, Remick chuckled as if he’d jumped on a chair like a cartoon housewife, stroking his forelock out of place.

The bird was so stiff it rocked with the slam of the yurt door.

Around noon, the call came.  Weeks waiting under the blank sun, constant uphill work. Twelve solid feet of frozen dirt. Water that refroze as soon as you turned the torch off. They’d exhausted their butane four feet in and had to make do with the old pile-of-embers method like they were making a dugout canoe. All for one grave.

True to their steppe surroundings, the Qtak empire had been nomads. Well, perhaps empire was a strong word for a people who had never numbered in the thousands. They had been around though. Tussled with the Tatars, scrapped with with the Scythians, hunted a Hun or two. If half the things said by their enemies were correct(and they probably weren’t) the Qtaki had eaten their common dead, meaning a tomb was a very special find indeed.

Curtis rocked back and forth in his Keds as team members were outfitted with what little gear they needed. The stone cairn, a circular well-cap about twelve feet in diameter, didn’t go down very far. But it was cold. And treacherous. Ramirez now limped, still radiating enthusiasm after a near-miss with a real Indiana Jones-style deathtrap. The mood had sobered up considerably when Brecht informed them that the Qtak favored poison on their flint knife-edges, a nasty concoction that involved rotting several species of venomous fish.

The Qtak had a peculiar attitude towards death. The birds Curtis had been finding for days were a good luck charm, killed with a sling and buried in red cloth. Construction of the outhouse had turned up enough to bless an army. Whoever was buried here was a person of interest indeed. And yet Curtis felt no excitement as he was ushered in to the main burial chamber. The dig had been even more unglamorous than advertised, and he suspected that at least part of this was intentional. He had not taken part in the joy of discovery, or even the excavation of all the finery that nomads could offer. He was, instead, tasked with what fragments they could trust him not to drop with mittened hands. Brecht and Goldman petted the opening with bluing fingers. Ramirez nudged him.

“You first, Lord Carnarvon.”

The Qtak, Curtis found, had been big on horses. Or hated them. He had yet to decide as he bagged the umpteenth hoof-ornament. Before him, Goldman elucidated the smeary scrawl that covered the hide scrolls in the burial chamber. It promised the contractual swift and sudden death to all who broke the grave’s peace, urging the canny tomb raider to seek out somewhere less protected.

“–and you can see by the livering of the hide, the chief pigment was probably a manganese derivative,” Goldman explicated, “as seen on the storage jars of the Erener-Seers expedition of 1812…”

Goldman had nice, crisp diction and an infectious Birmingham drawl, which was probably why Brecht left the speeches to him. The shorter man braced his forearms over his chest, legs apart, scowling with authority.

The nomads had left horn drinking cups and hide utensils. The nomads had eaten with a crude spoon/knife hybrid and their chief diet had been meat and a kind of millet. There was no metal, not even ornaments.

Curtis tagged the tableware and tried not to look at the dais.

Ice had kept time from touching everything, even the bacteria that would rot a body found no footholds in here. A slender wrist, white and smooth as bone, protruded between robe and silk warming pouch. It was swirled with blue spirals that suggested labyrinths. Curtis caught Brecht’s scowl and lowered his head. The tomb had many treasures, the most mundane packed loosely to bribe customs officials, the most precious secreted in equipment boxes. Only when this was done would they consider the body.

That night Curtis had a primitive stew made with caribou fat and blood and vinegar to keep it from congealing. In their tent, Brecht and Goldman and six senior members had Kraft mac ‘n cheese with Miller Lite. After he feigned fullness to leave the table, Curtis shrugged on his gloves and went for a walk.

There was a special kind of emptiness to the plains. It was something they didn’t tell you about, and he didn’t think anyone could put it into words. He wondered what could possibly frighten a people after living in such a place.

His wandering carried him past the tomb. Hermann was watching the entrance with one of their precious beers. He had been least antagonistic towards Curtis, probably out of regret for the snake-in-the-boot incident early on in the expedition that had nearly killed him. Oh well, Curtis would take goodwill where he could.

The pudgy Viennese smiled as he approached and waved him closer.

“Here,” he called, “something to show you.”

The possibility that Hermann’s contrition had run out did grace Curtis’s thoughts, but he scrambled through the low stone arch anyway.

Curtis clenched to himself. It was against all physical logic that a place sheltered from the incessant windchill would be colder. Hermann, made merry against the cold by alcohol, beckoned him further.

“Look surprised when they reveal this tomorrow,” he rasped in Curtis’s ear, “otherwise we’ll both be in deep shit.”

He lit the dais with a small camping lantern, throwing the diaphanous veil into mist. Curtis wondered how a people who lived by blood and dirt could make anything so fine and–

“It’s a girl,” he breathed. Hermann gave him an odd look.

“How’d you guess?” he said, “never mind. This is queen Rangana XXXVIII, last and most horrible ruler of the Qtak people. Even to a bunch of murdering bastards, she was a little too much. All this writing? They wanted to make sure she stayed put. Nasty little bitch she must’ve been.” He pointed with his chin. “See her gown? Bridal garb. They dressed her this way because she was marrying god.” He caught Curtis’s puzzled stare. “They walled her in here.”

Curtis stared at that fine little wrist, which had been jarred or moved intentionally to display more of the tattoo that wound like a stylistic bruise up her arm. Hermann snorted like a water buffalo and scratched his ass.

“They buried beer with her, too,” he said, grinning crookedly, “I’d invite you to partake, but who knows what they put in it?”

Curtis didn’t want anything to drink, even when a remorseful Hermann offered a sip of his longneck. He wasn’t sure he could keep the stew down anyway.

Through the soothing buzz of his yurtmate’s snoring, even with the reassuring rasp of Remick’s foot against his left calf, Curtis dreamed he was alone on the plain. Stranded from all directions, he had no cover against the endless procession of day and night. There was a stone on his chest, and when he tried to move he found his body brittle.

Ramirez slapped him none-too-gently awake for briefing. He was still ten minutes late and arrived tucking his pullover into the waist of his pants. Brecht stared a silent reprove. Goldman took point, speaking with sonorous goodwill.

“My and my colleague’s suspicions have proved to be correct, this is indeed the tomb of Rangana XXXVIII.” He paused for polite oohs and ahhs and a few good-natured fucks. Brecht dissected Curtis with his gaze, so he pantomimed exaggerated shock.

“The last, and most despised, ruler of the Qtak,” Goldman continued, warming to his subject, “when she died, they scratched her name from every official record… those that were left, anyway. The product of a Dynasty’s treachery and inbreeding, the lady was called a sorceress and a demon and a few other terms that don’t translate. Her chief surviving title is “woe to the people.’”

Curtis gazed over her majesty. She had been buried with all finery, a dainty set of horsehide slippers and an antler comb for the hair that still shone lustrous and deep red beneath her veil. She was small. So small.

“When her reign ended prematurely, it was thought that one of her male relatives would ascend to the throne, but the people could no longer take a chance of another tyrant of her stature—”

Curtis’s hand cut through the air. Goldman, piqued at the interruption, nodded his head.

“Mister Fullman seems to be under the impression we are in class. Yes?”

“Fullham,” he corrected automatically, “and how can that possible, sir? She’s just a girl.”

The silence cracked like glacial ice between the party. Curtis knew he had just trashed his chances at ever recovering popularity, but it was important.

It was Brecht who answered him, though. “And I suppose you doubt all the empirical evidence we’ve amassed since the beginning of the dig?” he inquired in clipped Braunschweig tones.

“Couldn’t they have switched her out for a nobody? Surely anyone could see that this is the body of someone who has yet to hit puberty—”

But Goldman was already clucking, Brecht shaking his head slowly with a condescending smile on his face.

“I would like,” he said, “to get the corpse appraised by a proper scientist before we take the word of a grad student.” Low chuckles.

Curtis knew he should stop, here and now, but the tiny form squeezed into his chest like a fist.

“With all due respect, sir,” he said, giving each word a knife-edge, “this has all the hallmarks of a sacrifice, perpetuated by the same small minds who would condemn someone incapable of defending themselves.”

Crimson bloomed across Brecht’s cheeks.

“Fullham, you’re suspended until further notice,” Goldman said softly.

Curtis rested his head against the yurt wall and listened to Hermann listen to a Turkish game show. The others were busy packing and labeling the empress’ last effects, then they would return with their scalpels and—

Curtis squeezed his eyes shut. no.

He wondered what it was like, being betrayed by your own people, used as an expendable asset. Had she been lonely? It was lonely out here.

Curtis tugged on his gloves. He only had so long. So long, so long she’d been out here. Betrayed.

Herman’s skull gave neatly to his flashlight.

The tomb was cold as he wriggled his way through the small(child)-sized door.

Whoever had put her on her dais had arranged her with decorum in a sitting position. She had one hand out as if offering(beckoning) and one hand to her stomach(clutching a wound?) inviting. Her shawl was the deep red of celebrations, of joy, of blood.

The body he carried was as light as death.

He couldn’t imagine the kind of people who would bury a small girl like this, who would take advantage of someone so much weaker and smaller than they were. To shut them up in the dark, declaring that they would never rise. It was all slander, like Tacitus against Messalina, like Daniel against Nebuchadnezzar II. She must have been a convenient scapegoat, a girl of royal blood, or just a girl at the wrong place at the wrong time. No one so young was capable of anything of such a massive and evil scope. Beneath his hand, her illia had not even flared. And this was a despot?

Goldman met him coming back from the outhouse, smile dying on his lips. Curtis hit him twice to make sure he stayed down. So small, so light in his arms. Had she caught the eye of some fat warlord and paid the price for it? Had she no one in the world to speak up for her, defend her against sacrifice? Or(he feared this was the case) had they held the priest’s sleeves as they ritualistically bound her ankles together?

The first of the jeeps caught aflame easily. Ramirez went after him with the jerrycan, so he had to put her down somewhere safe before he could grapple. Ramirez had eighty pounds on him, but made the mistake of showing him an old football injury on the trip up. He fell, hand clapped to his spurting ear. Curtis spit out cartilage and blood and felt warm for the first time since arriving here.

Brecht fell quickly, ice blue eyes widening at the tent stake. Some joker had smuggled a gun in his sock, but Curtis divested him of that smart quick. The yurts burned like torches as he hunted down the survivors.

He found her still curled up in the knoll he’d left her in.  Gathering her tenderly to himself, he murmured reassurances he knew were ineffective. They’d called her a sorrow, a plague, a woe on the people. They had called a child a tyrant. Let them see what true tyranny was.

Beneath empty skies, he rocked the bride of god.

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Kasprak’s Spirit Camera

The practice of spirit photography originated in the spiritualist boom of the early 1900’s and continued on well into the 20th century. The belief that the camera was “better” than the human eye, that it could pick up details not detected by the photographer was first alleged by William H. Mumler. Even his exposure as a fraud did nothing to stem the tide of demand for spirit photography.  While most “ghost photos” were produced from the development of everyday film, one company set out to change all that by patenting the first spirit camera.

Kasprak Kamera(est. 1922) consisted of only 19 members, of which founder Elia Kasprak was one. Their first and only mission statement was to manufacture a marketable spirit camera. The prototype K-100 series, however, failed to perform even the duties of a normal camera. Productions was forced to halt at the onset of World War II, but resumed quickly afterwards with the addition of a new employee.

Lazlo Eberstein presented himself as a mechanical engineer and concentration camp survivor. He approached Kasprak with a patent for a “para-mechanical” process to trap spiritual manifest on common panchromatic film stock. His patent, currently on display at Chicago’s Odditorium, , calls for a 3-filter process to laminate the “apparition” to plain cardstock. Sort of a proto-polaroid, the K-400 produced its own prints, no darkroom required. Each photo was a one-of-a-kind. The very first photo from the completed model depicted Kasprak’s secretary/fiancée suppressing a smile while an aura of undetermined origin radiates about her.

The photos became known as “the Kasprak Dozen” and are the only photographs of their kind known to exist. The first five all feature members of Kasprak Kamera(now anglicized to Kas’s Kamera) in some fashion. The timeline is as follows:

KD-1(02/17/48): Kasprak’s secretary, smiling. Slight aura
KD-2(02/18/48): Kasprak’s senior assistant, Lars, standing with arms crossed, unsmiling. Slightly larger aura.
KD-3(02/21/48): [personal info redacted] having a cigarette. The smoke appears to have twisted into a large, complex shape.
KD-4(02/25/48): Kasprak in mid-sentence, apparently addressing someone above his immediate range of sight (Kasprak writes that this photo was taken by his secretary in the middle of dictating a letter.) Small apparition slightly out of focus, leaning its head into the wall. Slight motion blur.
KD-5(02/29/48):  Taken by assistant [personal info redacted] of a mirror. The mirror reflects a “picture in picture” effect. The photographer’s skeleton is partially evident as in an x-ray. The photographer’s features do not match the assistant’s at all.

The phenomena recorded in those first five photographs are relatively benign, but the events took a slightly sinister turn with the development of the sixth photo, taken on a whim of the street scene viewed from the east corner window of Kasprak offices. In the notes, the assistant who clicked the shutter described the scene as “peaceful, a trolley about to turn the corner, and a man waiting with his hands in his pockets.” KD-6 only barely resembles this description. There is a street, but rather than fading into the middle distance it seems to stretch out beyond a typical vanishing point. No vehicles are evident. There appears to be a slight malformation in the man’s appearance, his facial features have sunk until his mouth resembles a cavernous maw. His eyes appear to have tapetum lucidum, and there is no clear distinction between pupil, iris, and sclera.

This is the first photograph taken without Eberstein present, as the research assistants were finding him increasingly distant. One of the few interactions between them was the day an assistant attempted to assess damage to the camera following a four-foot fall from a countertop. The assistant noted that the camera’s inner workings did not conform to any format he had seen, and that he could not comprehend how the camera managed to operate. The assistant received a severe dressing-down from Eberstein, who was noted as remarking that he “was the only one who knew this sonovabitch worked.” Eberstein vehemently requested the assistant be fired, but Kasprak refused his request. In his eyes Eberstein had gotten “too full of himself…strutting around ordering [Kasprak’s] assistants like they were his.”

In fact this was but the first in a series of clashes between Eberstein and the rest of the company. He was temperamental, belligerent, and displayed sociopathic tendencies. According to head researcher James Arnett, “if you weren’t a boss of something, [he] didn’t want to see you.” This nearly resulted in Eberstein’s expulsion after insulting Kasprak’s secretary one too many times.  Kasprak laid down an ultimatum: either treat the staff with more respect, or leave. Eberstein had been almost fawning in his behavior towards Kasprak up until that point, but at the perceived subordination he quickly became abusive, threatening to leave the company and his prototype camera. When Kasprak pointed out that they already had possession of his diagram, Eberstein remarked that it didn’t matter, the camera didn’t work without him. Testing continued on a tenser note, which the latter photographs seem to reflect.

KD-6(03/01/48): The street scene. “Displacement” phenomena evident.
KD-7(03/19/48) Several staff at coffee break. “Cigarette burn” phenomena evident. No noticeable apparitions.
KD-8(04/05/48): Photograph of [personal info redacted]. Cigarette burn directly over subject’s mouth. Elongated, dark apparition behind subject. Facial features of subject register pain. Background unknown.

It was around this time the entire company began to display reluctance towards operating the camera, even Kasprak himself wrote that “if [cameras] are supposed to display the thing happening right in front of your face, what the hell is going on that we’re not seeing?” The staff began to categorize the phenomena, which showed up with increasing frequency:

  • Displacement: The appearance in the frame of an object or setting divergent from the one described by eye witnesses.
  • Cigarette burns: Like the similar holes in film stock, these blotches gave the appearance that someone had rested a live ember on the photograph .
  • Apparitions: Increasingly bizarre, these were the staff’s greatest source of discomfort. From the “owl man” of KD-6 to the “spaghetti mother” of KD-9, these often appeared to interact with the photographed subjects, though the subjects said they felt no change in sensation upon the shutter click.

Through the years Kasprak had seen many clients, both paying and non-paying, but this year marked the first “real” client the company had ever seen. Edward Wilmington was the inheritor of a respectably large estate and had a passion for spiritualism that had not waned with the confession of the Fox sisters. He got wind of the K-400 through a medium acquaintance and immediately penned a letter of introduction to the company, pledging enough money to get the company off the ground if the camera worked. The announcement was met gladly by all staff, even Eberstein, upon hearing the news, was said to have laughed out loud for a number of minutes.

The next letter sent the company into a flurry, as the septuagenarian had chartered a boat(“at [my] age, a man will have little truck with aeroplanes.”) and would be arriving at their company to test the new model.  Their understandable nervousness at meeting a prospective partner was tinged with fear as the camera had been “acting up” and they worried about the impression it would make. They availed upon Eberstein to repair the camera, which he refused, assuring them that the camera was working as it should.

Their client arrived at the offices sometime in July, the staff note his momentary disappointment on viewing their sparse operations, his umbrage upon greeting Eberstein, who promptly turned and shut himself in his own office. Kasprak tried to make Wilmington as comfortable as possible while presenting the camera. One assistant’s journal notes a “childlike delight” gracing the old man’s features as he studied the camera, and requested a picture taken of himself.  Upon production of the photograph, the old man “snatched it away before anyone else could see it. His face, all the joy behind it, drained away.” According to records, the old man got up, thanked the staff politely, and promptly left America forever.

The staff, in great distress, forced open the door to Eberstein’s office. Eberstein was nowhere to be found, and in fact never seen in person by the staff again. Record search of the name Eberstein turned up a civil engineer, who had died after four year’s internment in Dachau. Search of the home address he’d given payroll turned up a gas station, whose puzzled owner produced Eberstein’s unopened payroll envelopes for the staff. The man had disappeared completely.

The staff, understandably shaken by the turn of events, attempted to continue testing the camera.

KD-9(07/?/48): Edward Wilmington. So-called “spaghetti mother” image. Heavy apparition. No cigarette burns evident. No sign of subject.
KD-10(08/13/48): a tableau of hired models, told they were doing an advert shoot. Total background displacement. Unknown object in foreground, appears to be vibrating. Subjects appear to mold together as a single apparition.
KD-11(08/13/48): same models, different poses. Dubbed “the death horse” by one of the models. Total background displacement, major cigarette burns. Tapetum lucidum effect on the “eyes” of the apparition.

The models refused further work after viewing KD-11.

All this was taking its toll on the health of Elia Kasprak. He’d had his third heart-attack shortly before the “model” photo shoot, and many employees noted how he looked aged before his time. However, he did not give up his mission of manufacturing a true spirit camera until the night of September 3rd. Testing had all but halted on the K-400, and with no plans for a new camera many employees were left idle. Kasprak was alone in the office on that day at five o’clock, and on a whim he picked up the camera.

While he had been reluctant to divulge the subject he was photographing, Kasprak maintained that it contained no other human being besides him.

KD-12(09/03/48): subject unknown. Total background displacement, resembles earlier “street scene” photograph. The man known as Eberstein is in the foreground, poised as if caught in the midst of turning. The eye that is in view shows sign of tapetum lucidum. The background is slightly visible through his body.

Elia Kasprak died of his fourth and final heart attack in 1956. The whereabouts of the camera are unknown.

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