by Charles Ebert
By the time Edward found his old shackles and chains, the storm was almost over. He hurried to the third floor lavatory, with the hardware gathered up in his arms. Carefully, so they wouldn’t clank before he was ready, he arranged the chains on the tile floor.
Edward could hear the new occupant of the house showering in the second-floor lavatory below. The man was loudly singing an aria from Don Giovanni, and Edward had to admit that the occupant had a pleasant baritone—not professional quality, but any amateur operatic company would have prized him.
The realization gave Edward pause. There is good in everyone, he thought. Maybe I should give the occupant another chance.
No, insisted another part of his mind. Edward knew he must think of himself now. The house belonged to him. His father had designed and built it, Edward had lived in it all his life, and his mother had been an occupant for more than 50 years. Memories chained him to this place.
Edward remembered racing along the length of the porch that stretched across the front of the house, and his father jumping out of the French doors of the study to scoop him up and whirl him through the air. Edward had ridden the banister down the central staircase and slid across the highly polished wood floors in the great hall.
Now, he wandered through three floors of empty halls and closed-off rooms, every sight touching off some memory.
To remain in this world, he had to stay interested in it. The house helped, but he also needed stimulation and someone to notice and appreciate him, because the memories faded a little every day. Every day of indifference brought the Light closer.
Edward reined in his thoughts. The storm was abating; the wind slowed and no longer drove the rain clattering into the windows. Soon, the opportunity would be lost.
He paced across the lavatory floor, dragging the chains. They rattled especially loudly when he drew them over the small clamshell sink. He uttered a credible moan as he clanked over the tile. Practicing in advance, while the occupant was away, had been a good idea.
Any time now, Edward expected to hear screams, slamming doors, and footsteps running down the walk outside, then he would be rid of this occupant forever.
“I take it you’re the ghost.”
The voice came from behind him. Edward stopped in mid-stride and turned around. There, leaning against the doorjamb, was the occupant, with his arms crossed and a towel wrapped around his waist.
He was a middle-aged man, about 45, Edward thought. Thirty years older than Edward had been when he became a ghost. The occupant was a lot better looking: not as thin and pale, and he had a strong chin, whereas Edward’s was pointed.
“Yes, I am,” said Edward.
“And all this,” the man waved his hand at the tangle of chains on the floor, “is supposed to scare me.”
“Does it?” Edward asked in a hopeful tone, which he immediately knew was a mistake.
“Worse,” sniffed the occupant. “It insults me, all this Victorian cliché and claptrap. It may have worked for Dickens, but today, it could only be used to frighten a tot, and a very young one at that. Anyone old enough to have followed the adventures of Scooby-Doo with any assiduity at all would simply laugh. Which is what I’m doing.”
Edward noticed, however, that the occupant wasn’t laughing. Instead, the man turned and marched away, leaving Edward to pick up his chains and return to the attic.
“He’s right, you know,” said Edward’s friend Freddie. Freddie was an agreeably chubby little ghost who, after 75 years of independence from the need for sustenance, still snacked incessantly. Even now, as they sat together on the roof of the charming Tudor cottage that Freddie haunted, he was working on a joint of lamb, offering Edward advice between mouthfuls.
“These days, you can’t get away with using the chains and all that. They’re too familiar with our traditions.”
“What am I to do?” said Edward.
“Why do you want to get rid of him, anyway? I thought you liked people.”
“Not this one. I can’t get any interesting reactions out of him at all.”
“Did you steal his socks?” asked Freddie, thoughtfully.
“Rearrange the top of his dresser?”
Freddie furrowed his brow and set the joint of lamb down on the roof tiles. “That is troubling.”
“Can you help me?”
“I think we should talk to Old Silas.”
“Oh, no. I don’t want to bother him,” said Edward, shrinking back from the idea.
“He doesn’t like ghosts,” Edward said. Which is strange, he thought, because Silas is a ghost.
“Silas doesn’t like anything. But if you want to scare somebody, he’s your spirit. Nobody’s lived on that farm for decades.”
“Can’t you come up with something, Freddie?”
Freddie thought it over for a minute and said, “I can give you some modern ideas, but keep in mind, I’m hardly an expert. And I’ll warn you …”
“Yes?” said Edward, noticing the dark look in Freddie’s eye.
“Some of them are pretty gruesome.”
Over the next week, Edward tried Freddie’s schemes. He avoided the really gross ones at first, because he simply wasn’t that kind of ghost. Sending his blood-soaked head floating down the staircase and calling out for Katherine or Victoria or somebody didn’t come naturally to him, and he doubted if he could pull it off with conviction.
Edward tried throwing dishes like a poltergeist, but the occupant’s china was made out of some light, unbreakable material that merely clattered on the kitchen tile. In the morning, the occupant rinsed it off and ate breakfast.
Normally, Edward was not a spiteful soul, but he couldn’t contain himself. He appeared in the dining room as the occupant ate his eggs and bacon and said, “Your china is deplorably ugly.”
The occupant cast him a dark look. “Mind your own business.” But then the man looked down at the plate, caressing the edge with his thumb and forefinger.
Edward walked away pointedly.
Becoming invisible and rushing past the occupant to create an intensely cold draft didn’t work either. The man just went up to his room and took a hunter green sweater out of the closet.
Edward sat on the dresser, watching the occupant pull on the garment. Edward had to admit that it was a very nice sweater, but the dark green washed out the occupant’s already pale face.
As sometimes happens, the occupant sensed that Edward was in the room, even though he was invisible. The man pulled at the bottom of the sweater and then drew the collar tightly around his throat.
“I’m not going out in it,” he said, “I’m just going to wear it around the house until you’re done flitting about.”
It was time to try some of Freddie’s more sinister suggestions. The next night, Edward appeared in the occupant’s bedroom. The man lay in his bed, still awake, no doubt thinking repulsive thoughts. Edward leaned over and whispered what Freddie had told him to say, word for word.
The occupant sat bolt upright, and for a minute, Edward thought he had finally succeeded.
Instead, the occupant turned to Edward and said sharply, “I don’t have a wife, nor do I have a dog. And I certainly do not possess a chainsaw. In future, please get your facts straight. Good night, sir.” And with that, he rolled over and went to sleep.
Making the walls bleed, which Freddie had assured him was “can’t miss,” didn’t work either. The occupant simply glanced up from his book as the gore came oozing out of the plaster in the study.
“Seen it,” was all he said before returning to his reading. He covered up the title of the book before Edward could see it.
This was bad. Freddie’s suggestions were almost completely exhausted. In fact, the only one left was the floating head thing, and Edward was far from comfortable with it.
Still, with the Light becoming more enticing every day, there was nothing left but to try.
The next day, after setting things up, Edward sat on one of the eaves, enjoying the last rays of the sun and watching as the neighborhood kids played soccer on the lawn across the street. Edward enjoyed this world, so full of sunshine, noise, and well … life.
One of the kids kicked the ball, which bounced off another kid’s head and rolled into the street. The second child ran after it. He looked both ways before running into the street, which was why he didn’t see that the ball had stopped right at the feet of Edward’s occupant, who was walking home. When the boy finally realized what had happened, he stopped in the middle of the street.
“Ball, Mister?” he squeaked.
There was a long pause. Edward made sure he was invisible and floated down to street level. He could see the evil thoughts parading across the occupant’s face. The man even started to bend over in order to confiscate the ball, but some stray good thought must have crept in, and this initial nasty impulse was suppressed.
Instead, the occupant kicked the ball back across the street. Of course, it went off the side of his foot and wound up rolling under a car. The man turned his back on the kids and walked toward the house, but he was brought up sharply by the whispered words, “Kicks like a girl.”
The occupant stood, shoulders hunched forward, hands clenching and unclenching into fists. After a seemingly endless moment of this, he shook his head and stormed up the walk to the front door.
With a last look at the kids, Edward flew toward the house and veered around the occupant, entering through the wall. He got inside just in time to see the occupant unlock the door and enter.
Edward flew to the upper hallway, and made the final preparations. First of all, he made his head visible. Then, he put blood around his neck and smeared some on his face.
The occupant entered the front hall and Edward started walking down the stairs.
“Katherine,” he wailed, giving his voice a nice echo.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” said the occupant, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Katherine,” repeated Edward, drawing out the syllables a little more.
“I can see that you’re walking, you know. Your head’s bobbing up and down like a cat toy.”
Edward stopped. Oh, dear, he thought. He had meant to float down the staircase, but in the excitement he’d forgotten.
“Well, now you’ve broken character. Hardly professional.”
Edward cleared his throat, feeling awkward. He floated down the stairs.
“Victoria,” he cried, raising his voice an octave.
“Make up your mind, man. Is it Katherine or Victoria?”
Edward winced at the lapse, and then poured his frustration into a really loud, drawn out wail. When he got to the bottom of the stairs, he found himself looking up at the occupant, who was about a head taller.
“Wouldn’t scare a puppy,” said the man, walking away.
Edward made himself invisible and wiped the blood off his face. With a heavy sigh, he floated through the roof and sat on his favorite eave, watching the now deserted moonlit streets of the neighborhood.
Across the way, he could see Freddie’s Tudor, a cheerful little house. Even now, he could imagine Freddie doing all the normal things that a ghost does: stealing one sock from the laundry, hiding a child’s favorite toy, or making the house creak in the early hours of the morning.
Most occupants delighted in that sort of thing. While not threatening, it gave them a glimpse into the other world, a dash of mystery. It was something to talk about around the dinner table with their friends, a service, really. One that Edward’s present occupant didn’t appreciate.
It was enough to drive Edward to despair, and more than ever, he was thinking about the Light.
He looked over his left shoulder, where the Light always seemed to be. It sparkled, but not irresistibly. Not yet. Edward had never had a desire to see what was beyond it before, but the thought was burrowing in his mind that if he couldn’t successfully scare off one lone occupant on this side, maybe he didn’t belong here anymore.
At that point, Freddie floated by. He lightly set down, digging into a bag of chocolates.
“Saw you up here. Things not going well, I take it?”
Edward outlined the events of the previous week.
“I warned you; I’m no expert.”
“I’m not blaming you, Freddie. I probably just didn’t do it right.”
Freddie nodded. “Don’t blame yourself, either. Serious haunting is a knack; not everybody has it.”
Edward looked over his left shoulder. “I guess not.”
His friend whacked him in the shoulder. “Hey, don’t despair. Your man is an old enough buzzard. If you wait twenty years or so, he’ll be going to the Light.”
“And what am I to do in the meantime?”
Freddie shrugged. “I think it’s time to talk to Silas.”
This time, Edward had to agree. They started off to find him.
Silas was one of those driven ghosts that appear from time to time. A misanthropic soul, he couldn’t abide any sort of occupant and could barely stomach other ghosts. He inhabited a run-down farmhouse about a mile from the city limits. It was, of course, deserted.
“What?” said Silas, after Edward and Freddie had arrived at the farm and summoned him. Silas had been old when he became a ghost. On his sharp face was a scraggily beard. He carried an axe in one hand and a bottle of liquor in the other.
Freddie started to step forward but Edward stopped him. It was Edward’s problem, after all.
On shaky legs, he stepped past Freddie and stammered, “I want to get rid of an occupant.” He once again recited the list of his troubles, concluding them by saying, “I expect that I’ve bungled the whole thing.”
Silas turned his back on the pair and gazed at the farmhouse. “I had an occupant like that once. Insufferable man! He started moving furniture and putting up wallpaper. He was changing everything she had done.” Edward knew better than to ask who “she” was. Driven ghosts often had terrible secrets, and judging from the way Silas was now eyeing the blade of his axe, his were worse than most.
“What did you do?” asked Freddie, who loved these kinds of stories.
“The man had a powerful fear of spiders.” Silas’s face broke into an unpleasant smile. “I gave him spiders.”
Edward swallowed nervously. “I’m not sure what my man’s attitude toward spiders is,” he said.
Silas held up his axe for silence. “Listen carefully. I won’t repeat this. Every occupant has his own secret fear, some deeply-buried terror that drives his every action. You must observe him and find out what it is, and then, act.”
With that, the wicked old farmer melted into the breeze and flew away to whatever private Hell he inhabited.
“Well, that wasn’t much help,” said Freddie.
“Actually,” said Edward, remembering, “I think it was.”
The occupant finished his shower and his aria at the same time. The last notes hung in the steamy air. Edward leaned against the doorjamb of the second floor lavatory and waited. He could see his shadow on the far wall, cast by the sparkling Light.
Pushing open the curtain, the occupant stepped out onto the tiled floor. His hand groped for a towel, and after finding it, started to dry his hair.
“You were a little out of tune during the first chorus,” said Edward.
The occupant looked up, obviously startled. “I beg your pardon?”
“And your voice wavered during the higher notes.”
“I don’t see where it’s any of your—” began the occupant, but Edward went on, seeing that the intensity of the Light had diminished.
“And as for tempo, well, what can I say? You are inconsistency itself. Perhaps you should look at the score again, with a better eye for the time signatures?”
“I was taking a shower, not singing a recital,” said the occupant, taking a step back. Edward saw his shadow grow diffuse.
“Oh, you have excuses, do you? Extenuating circumstances? Just because you’re wet and covered with soap, you think you are exempt from focusing on technique?”
“Stop it,” said the occupant, backing away even more from Edward, whose shadow almost completely disappeared. “I know what you’re doing and it won’t work.”
The Light brightened, its intensity rivaling the mundane electric lamp above the sink. Edward paused for a second, fearing that this plan would fail like all the others. But one look in the occupant’s eyes and Edward knew encouragement. The man was afraid. Afraid of Edward! It was a new feeling. The Light dimmed again.
“I hope tomorrow, you’ll do a better job. I want to see you bear down and concentrate. Stay on pitch, with a nice even tempo throughout.”
“Or what?” said the occupant, defiantly.
“Or I’ll come back and give you my notes, again. And I’ll keep doing it until you get it right. Then we’ll discuss your taste in china, clothes, and reading material, and after that, we’ll address the proper way to kick a ball.”
The man blanched and pressed himself against the wall.
“Stop picking on me!” he shouted. He held the towel in front of him as if it were a barrier and made a break for the door.
“And nobody uses the word ‘assiduity’ in everyday conversation,” yelled Edward as the man ran down the hall.
Noticing that the Light was completely gone, Edward floated up to his favorite eave and watched as the occupant shot out of the front door, still holding the towel, and ran down the street.
Freddie joined him and said, “I suppose congratulations are in order.”
“Thank you, Freddie,” said Edward. “You know, he runs like a girl.”
Copyright © 2014 Charles Ebert