Camaraderie and Creepy Conceits: Advent Ghosts Storytelling 2018

light lantern

Shared Storytelling: Advent Ghosts 2018 by Loren Eaton

“We hardly look at the stars anymore or even the lanterns we hung centuries before to blot out the night from our sight. The wind whistles down empty city streets whose cratered and pocked surfaces betray their long lack of use. Commerce of both the legitimate and illicit type takes place in the light-strung skyways linking the megopolis’ highest spires or in the metro tunnels beneath the ancient pavement or through the indecipherable network of hand-carved caverns chipped out by generations of subterranean squatters. But only the moneyed or mad or desperate or damned venture out much anymore. Even infants get socketed, and once you’ve pegged in to the Lattice, slipping the thumb-sized plug of hyperconductive alloy into the surgically installed socket between your C1 and skull, then you see it. The vast digital distraction sends its digital shivers shuddering down your nerves, a distraction bespoke and beautiful—at least until the signal bleeds or the power grid surges. Then the lights go out, and a district seems to shudder, to rouse itself, to move as a great beast wakened from slumber. Doors open onto balconies. Blinking forms peer out into hallways. Children scamper off into the shadows, scavenging up scraps with which to mock physical forms of their digital simulacra. And wide-eyed, jack-scrambled wanderers stagger this way and that, saying they saw those crude golems move.

People laugh, shift uncomfortably, and try not to admit to themselves that there seem to be more children frolicking in the gloom than they’d initially noticed …

Welcome to Advent Ghosts 2018, the ninth annual shared storytelling event at ISLF. For more than a century, the days preceding Christmas have been a time to swap spooky tales, building camaraderie around creepy conceits. So we write . . .”

Join us here tomorrow for Esse Diem’s offering this year, then swing over to Loren Eaton’s blog, I Saw Lightning Fall, to find links to all the 2018 stories!

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (the conclusion)

The young officer squinted with painful eyes into the unrelenting sunlight.  His partner hospitalized in critical condition, he felt strangely alone on the Thomas property, even though other officers and a team of forensic specialists were with him.

A drug addict had been arrested a mile from Ella’s shed. The dead woman’s blood was on his clothes, but given the episode’s violent nature he seemed oddly whole; no scratches, bites, or injuries were documented.

A female detective crossed the yard to approach the young detective.  They were longtime friends, and her speech was slow and careful when she spoke about the Sera Thomas case.  “So she never said goodbye to anyone in North Carolina?”

“That’s what all the interviews indicate,” sighed her colleague.  “Most say they just accepted it because it was so soon after everyone found out about her affair.  They thought she was ashamed, skipped town to save face.  The church people bought the shame thing, hook line and sinker.”

“I guess I can see that,” she said.  “But the boy….that seems hard to explain.”

“In hindsight, sure,” said the young officer.  “At the time, the community thought it made sense.  Even his parents believed he killed himself.”

“What do you think?”

“I think he was forced off the bridge, I don’t think he jumped.  We may never know, though.  Sera is a different story, if we can just find her.”  He looked into the sun, even though it hurt.

The woman forced herself to ask the obvious but forbidding question.  “Do you have any idea where she is?  Any gut instinct?  I mean,” she drew a deep breath, “There is a lot of territory in question.  Thomas was good.  Everyone believed him about everything.  God.  Was she ever even in Mason County?”

His gaze fell on the Thomas flower garden.  Heavy rose blooms weighed down even the strongest stems as if they were marble spheres.  A honey bee lifted itself from a flower, its legs coated in nearly invisible pollen.   Carrying its fertile payload to another farm, the bee lifted itself out of sight.

“Yeah, she was.  She is.  Life never disappears.”

Pulling his long-neglected sunglasses from his breast pocket, he gestured to another officer holding a shovel to go ahead and stepped into his car, careful to knock the soil off his soles.

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (6)

(This is part 6 of a 7 part ghost story.)

I see Sera.  Her face is so pale and pinched.  Is it worry or fear?  I can’t read her. 

Webb exhaled an enormous breath of relief at the sight of his wife, but then immediately spun around to the gaze of two strangers in his house. Webb glanced away from Sera’s face to see the uninvited men standing in his kitchen, each wearing a handgun holstered at the hip and strapped over the chest.

“Who are you?  What the hell is going on here?  Why are you here?  You need to go.   You need to go right now to my neighbor’s house, to Ella Williams’ place.”

“Mr. Thomas, we already have a car headed over there.  Someone called in a disturbance.” The younger of the two cops was gentle but direct as he said, “What you need to do is sit down.”

Webb suddenly felt exhausted, and he welcomed the chance to sit.  He was still completely confused, but he was too tired to do anything but go along with the request.  He sat down at the kitchen table where he saw Sera and reached for her hand.  “It’s OK, baby,” he told her. The officers exchanged glances.  Then the younger one continued.

“Mr. Thomas, we’re here at the request of Ella Williams.  She’s made several calls to the Sheriff about your frequent trespassing, but she doesn’t want to press charges.  She just wants you to stay off her property uninvited.  Do you understand?” The first officer’s voice remained even but stern.  The older of the two men took it to another level.

“She says she told you to stop coming over in the morning and then she found you digging in her yard at night.  What is wrong with you?”

Webb rubbed his palms against his damp forehead.

Ella never told me to stop coming over. 

Image: Courtney White

The digging at night felt familiar. He used to do that at their old place in North Carolina when he couldn’t sleep, get up and do soil amendments or plant tender perennials by moonlight.  He knew it was a little eccentric, but it helped him get back to sleep.  No mosquitoes, no hot sun, just him and the earth.  Nitrogen and calcium plus lots of organic matter and compost had built one of the prettiest gardens in Forsyth County.

I wish I could have just picked it up and put it down in West Virginia when I moved.

“Thomas, do you hear me talking to you?” The older cop was getting agitated.

“Yes,” said Webb.  He looked into the other man’s eyes and held them.  For a moment, the cop lost his bravado and had to shake off the feeling of ice and mud in his chest.

“I’ll be right back,” said the younger man, “I have to take a call from Don.”  Don was the Mason County Sheriff and officers used his first name in front of people they interviewed to keep anxiety low.  The sheriff knew where they were and what they were doing, that it was pretty small potatoes, and it was unusual to get a call during an outing like this.  The officer stepped quickly into the dining room, and spoke in a low tone into his mobile phone.

Back in the kitchen, Webb held the older man’s gaze.  “You know, you don’t have to speak to me like that,” he said.  “Shut up,” retorted the cop.  “I could care less.  You’re an idiot who bothers women who are too nice to tell you to get lost.”

Webb felt his heart rate was increasing but there was no outer sign.  Webb’s perspiration had disappeared, too.

The young officer returned to the kitchen.   His right hand was free and hovered near a now unsnapped holster.  He looked at his partner who instantly released his own gun with a movement so fluid and rehearsed it was like slipping off a watch worn for decades.  They never spoke, but the two men were in complete communication.

“Mr. Thomas, we need to know why you moved here.”  The young man’s face was a stony veneer, but his throat muscles were convulsing violently.  He had never tried harder to exude control. He’d never had to try like this before.

“For my wife’s health,” Webb said slowly.

“Where is your wife?” asked the older man.

Webb’s eyes sped to every corner of the room.  “She was just here.  You saw her.”

The young cop’s voice was controlled when he said, “No one has seen Sera Thomas for over a year.”

I see her.  I see her every day.

“She’s a private person,” Webb said.  “We don’t socialize much.  We broke ties when we moved.”

“Mr. Thomas, you need to come with us.  Nothing fancy, let’s just do this easy.  Some people back in North Carolina say Sera disappeared.  Her family is very worried.  We just need to ask you some questions.”

Life never disappears.  Idiots.  Don’t they know?

Webb dropped his shoulders and rose quiet and defeated to his feet.  Davis reached for his handcuffs.  He never saw the weapon behind the door.

Like a snake strike, Webb seized a newly sharpened shovel as he passed the open door.  He spun towards the older and slower cop, the shovel’s long wooden handle held at the far end with both hands.   The man staggered back but not before the shovel blade sliced his chest.  His partner’s bullet entered the back of Webb’s skull and exited his eye socket.

In the microcosm of time before the steel left his brain, Webb saw his wife.  She was in the garden, her arms outstretched, reaching for him as he fell into the loamy soil.

What was left of his face crushed against the hard stone floor.

 

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (5)

(The Mason County ghost story continues . . . go back to read parts 1-4 if this is your first time here!)

Ella was their closest neighbor, just a short hike by foot to the west.  She had blonde hair and big hips and a loud laugh.   She was up on current events, funny, and independent.

She’s everything my wife isn’t. 

Sera was spending more and more time in bed alone and disconnected from the world, from his world.

I need company.  No crossed lines, no harm.

Webb crossed onto Ella’s property.  They had a regular coffee date Saturdays to talk about soil amendments, horticulture, politics, and county gossip.  There was a woman missing from Point Pleasant, she’d last been seen buying limestone pellets and a seed spreader at Southern States two days prior.  Her husband reported her missing when she never came home as expected, and now everyone was a-buzz with what could have happened.  Her abandoned car was found on the side of the road, but there was no trace of the woman.   Oddly, the receipt from her purchase was on the front seat, but the items on the receipt were not in the car, nor were any personal affects.

I’m not the only one who feels a rush thinking about what might have happened to her.  I know I’m not.  Everyone thinks mysteries and missing people are exciting.  They do.  If they say they don’t, they lie.

He called to his neighbor through the screen but there was no answer.  He opened the door and called again, but still no answer.  Cautiously he went to the top of the stairs to the second floor and loudly said her name.  No one was in the house.

Webb walked around to the back of the house and that is when he heard the sounds.

What he heard was unmistakable.  It was where he heard it and its ferocity that stopped him in his tracks, his spine suddenly rigid with a hard cold that seemed like an instant paralysis.  He wanted to move.  He wanted to move fast, to turn and run back to his farm as fast as he could, but his mind was so confused it wouldn’t allow any decision or action.  He pictured Sera at home.

She must be awake by now, making eggs and waiting for her roses.  What am I doing here?

A woman’s screams vibrated in his ears.  There was a pattern to her voice, and it paralleled the pattern of the crashing sound against an interior wall of the shed.  Webb saw a side wall shudder violently as something or someone slammed against it again and again.   He heard other sounds too, like heavy tools hitting the floor and large pieces of gardening equipment rolling around and knocking against each other and the doors of the shed.  He wanted to open the door of the shed, to save her, to make it stop, but he was frightened and not even entirely sure it was her or what was happening inside the building. Whatever it was, it was bad.

He heard a few more tools fall over, and that’s when he found his legs.

He was across Ella’s acres and back on his own in a third of the time it had taken him to get to her house.  He ran up the stairs to the porch and straight into the house.  Sera must be up, the door was wide open.  He tried to stop his heart from beating through the walls of his chest, but he couldn’t calm down.  He heard Ella’s voice screaming in his head, the pick axe and shovels falling off their hooks, the creak of the shed itself as it groaned against the weight of whatever assaulted its walls.

Sera, Sera, Sera………….where is my wife?  Why did I ever leave her, ever, for one minute?  I said never again.  I lost the roses.  Should I call Ella, the police?

He had no idea what to do next.  He walked through the dining room to the kitchen where he hoped Sera would be.

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (4)

(Part 4 – go back to read Parts 1-3 to catch up with the story.)

The darkness ate people alive, all the while numbing them to the consumption.  Children starved to death while their parents got so high and disconnected that they forgot to feed their offspring.  Sometimes Webb thought the dead children were the lucky ones.

You just make it yourself with stuff from around town.  It’s so cheap it’s crazy.  I feel like a god.  I’m never stopping.  You have to try it.

The county couldn’t keep enough social workers on the job to respond to all of the calls about burnings and beatings and assaults of kids by their own parents torn out of their skulls, an evil coursing through their veins.  In one news item, a band of children managed to escape the hell of their own home, only to run to the neighbor’s house for protection and find all of the adults there dead.  The corpses were thin with mouths full of black teeth and fingers charred from fire damage.  The children were all in the county’s custody now, eligible and waiting for adoptions that would never come.  In their hollow eyes one could see they would live forever in a house they could never flee.

I can’t tell Sera these stories.

He felt the stabbing pain of fear as he thought of what might happen if his wife were aware of the deadly plague that seemed to circle ever closer to the center of their world on the farm.  He was sure she knew something about what was going on, but she chose not to engage it.  He chose not to tell her everything he knew.  It just seemed unkind and unnecessary.

The kitchen clock said 9:00 a.m.  He left Sera a note at the foot of the stairs.   He pocketed a pair of sharp anvil pruners and slipped back out the screen door, careful to lock the latch on the wooden door behind him.

It’s unlikely out here.  Still, who wants uninvited guests with your wife home alone?

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (3)

(Are you just joining the story? Go back! There are 2 short parts before this one!)

The sun was fully over the edge of the earth now.  He decided against more coffee and in favor of socks and shoes.  He slipped through the screen door, closing it gently and purposefully rather than letting it bang shut.

Sera has been working very hard in the new garden.  “She deserves to rest,” he whispered to himself.  She is a good woman, a good wife.

When Webb and Sera left North Carolina, Webb was able to buy ten times the land in West Virginia without even noticing the money gone.  They settled on ten acres of property on the river bottom of the Ohio in Mason County.  Huge bright blue skies, the sparkling river, rich soil, charming wildlife, four seasons, and tremendous privacy all made the decision simple.

For awhile, Webb could not understand why more people weren’t relocating to this gorgeous, cheap land.

I got it first.  Sera doesn’t read the paper, and she won’t even turn on the computer any more.  I had to figure it out on my own, but it wasn’t hard to do.  I should have done more research.  It was such an urgent mission for change, for a new place.  I only looked at acreage and price. 

Rural life has a dark side. 

I hate the darkness.

Image by Max Frear 2008

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (2)

(This is part 2. You did read part 1, didn’t you?)

Sera was beautiful in the way all women are at twenty.  She had thick brown hair that she wore in a pony tail most of the time because she didn’t really know what else to do with it.  Her slight slender simplicity was what drew him to her.  That night his eyes fell on a young woman wearing garden boots and a kitchen apron as she volunteered to serve the meal in the fellowship hall.  She had a strange transcendent quality that rendered him mute, and when she said hello to him, all he could do was nod and look away, confused and almost ashamed.

Webb invited her to his house to talk about life, God, and love.  He knew it was manipulative, but he couldn’t stop.  He even invited the preacher’s son to come over with her on several occasions to extend the illusion of a chaperone to her father.  The first time Webb kissed Sera on the mouth in the kitchen the other fellow was thumbing through Garden and Gun magazine in the living room, oblivious.

Webb could still see the e-mails he found on his computer between his wife and that same boy, the boy she’d known from childhood.  The words glowed off the screen with passion and affection, ripping Webb’s guts and leaving him catatonic from grief.

He held his temples tightly, his eyes pinched until stars came into the blackness of his thoughts.