Dave and Johnny got out of the van to introduce themselves to Lynn Wilsing, a woman who appeared to be approaching middle age without much care. She was in the process of exiting her car when she was momentarily startled by Johnny’s well-inked face staring into her window. She allowed herself to relax a little when Johnny explained that they had been sent by Doug to deal with her “situation”, but not entirely.
“We’ve been living at my mother-in-law’s house lately,” she said when they were inside and she took their coats. Considering it was her own house, she seemed less than comfortable being there. As they seated themselves in the living room, Mrs. Wilsing, who was a moment ago frightened by Johnny’s appearance, was now talking tattoos with him. Dave was left alone temporarily with his thoughts and the anxiety he was feeling at what he was about to encounter. Johnny had explained that the majority of such cases turned out to be nothing more than the over-active imaginations on the part of those who reported the incidents, but he also expressed his belief that this was likely to be the real thing. It was apparent to Mrs. Wilsing which of the two scenarios was the correct one.
“If you could explain what unusual events you’ve experienced, starting at the beginning, please.”
“Well,” she began hesitantly, apparently uncomfortable sharing the information even with people who took her situation seriously, “I don’t know if it was actually an event, but the first time I felt something was wrong was while I was lying in bed one night. I awoke from a sound sleep with just a really unsettling feeling, an unnamed dread. The more I tried to think about what it was that could be frightening me, the more the fear increased.” Dave noticed the anxiety level rising in her as she recalled the experience. Her skin seemed loose, as though she had recently lost weight through worry. “I wanted to call out to my husband, to reach over just to touch him and know he was there, but I was frozen. I was all alone, staring into some nameless fear. Or…or some nameless fear was staring into me.” She was caught in an imaginary shudder.
“Anyway, that’s all it was…the first time. But it happened again a few nights later, and again. Like the first time, it was just an unameable fear, but it was a fear of something, like something too horrible for my eyes to even perceive, as though they wouldn’t permit me to see what was there. After the third time, I began researching the matter online. I learned about night terrors, did you ever hear of those?”
“Pavor nocturnus,” said Dave, recalling the research he had done when his own nightmares had first started. At the time, he had felt as if he were going crazy. He had no idea he was developing an ability to see things in his dreams. “Feelings of intense fear while being in non-REM sleep. That doesn’t sound like what you described. If you weren’t able to move, it sounds more like sleep paralysis, a condition where one awakens from REM sleep while still subjected to the paralysis that keeps us from acting out physically in our dreams.”
Both Mrs. Wilsing and Johnny looked at Dave with an appreciation he was not used to.
“But there’s more to the story, isn’t there, Mrs. Wilsing?” Dave asked, wanting to remove the attention from himself.
“Yes. At first I tried to look for the most obvious solutions, bad dreams or some kind of sleep disorder. But then I began to hear noises even when I knew I wasn’t sleeping. And…and my husband wouldn’t hear it. We’d be in the living room together, reading quietly, and I would hear a voice whispering, and I’d look at my husband and he wouldn’t notice anything. And he has better hearing than me, he makes fun of me because I always mishear what he tells me.”
“That’s not unusual, Mrs. Wilsing,” said Johnny. “Some people are just more receptive to such things than others.”
“I didn’t know that. For a while, I thought I was losing my mind. I mean, I couldn’t ignore it, couldn’t pretend I wasn’t hearing things, experiencing things. I even began to suspect that it might somehow be my husband’s doing, that he was trying to drive me crazy. Then, one night, I heard something up in the attic, like a buzzing or many different voices whispering. I looked at my husband, challenged him to deny that he heard anything. He tried to soothe my concerns. He wanted to go up there, but I wouldn’t let him. Finally, he pushed past me, walked up the stairs. I was too afraid to follow. It was like he was walking into a meat locker, it felt that cold. And it was summer! I could sense the courage drain out of him, thought he wouldn’t admit anything was wrong.”
She ceased speaking, waited for some kind of feedback from her listeners, as though she were looking for confirmation that what she was saying didn’t make her seem crazy.
“An experience like that can make you thing you’re losing your mind,” said Dave, picking up on her anxiety. He too had a similar experience. When he had first begun to have his revelatory dreams, he had never felt so frightened, never felt so isolated. He prayed he would never feel that way again. And yet here he was, perhaps about to plunge himself into someone else’s experiences. He looked over at Johnny, was amazed that his friend did not appear concerned, seemed almost anxious for such an encounter.
“Your husband’s reaction isn’t unusual,” said Johnny. “People do not believe in such things, do not wish to believe in such things, and so they prefer to pretend they did not feel what they felt, did not see what they saw. Please, continue.”
“Well, as he walked up the stairs, I could hear the buzzing getting louder, more intense. They, it, whatever was up there, was aware of us. I’d done some reading by this point, I knew some ghosts just go about their business without paying any attention to those who live in the house they share. But this one knew we were there, seemed angry at our intrusion. I tried to call to my husband, make him come back downstairs. But I couldn’t. It was like fear gripped me by the throat, and it was stronger than any will that I had.”
“And then…? Prompted Johnny. It seemed like she needed constant encouragement in order to continue her story. Even though she was convinced they would believe her, she was still not comfortable sharing the information, perhaps not comfortable remembering it.
“And then…when my husband reached the top of the stairs, I could tell that all of his courage went out of him. I could see it in his posture. He knew there was something up there. But he wasn’t about to let me know it. He walked to the right, out of my sight. And then, the light bulbs just exploded. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to run and get a flashlight, I wanted to shout to him, make sure he was okay. But I couldn’t do any of that. I could only stare into the darkness, too frightened to do anything.” There something in her voice that made Dave feel as though a cold breeze had suddenly swept through the house. “I could still hear the whispering, no louder, but busier, more menacing. I just stood and waited for my husband to walk out of the darkness. And after a time that seemed forever, after I had time to imagine a thousand horrible things occurring to him, he walked back down the stairs and out of the darkness. But part of the darkness stayed with him. He had seen something in the attic, but he still won’t tell me what it was. Not that I’ve pushed him too hard to tell me. I’m not sure I want to know. But he believed me after that He knew there was something living in the house.”
“We left the house soon after that,” she continued. “When things started getting broken, we knew we were putting our lives in danger if we stayed another night. Of course, we couldn’t tell anyone why we left. Who would have believed us if we told them the truth? We…we told them we had to bug-bomb the house,” The embarrassment was evident in her mannerism.
“It’s true,” said Dave to Johnny. “This sort of thing really alienates you from others just when you need them the most.”
“At any rate,” she went on, “that’s when I started talking to others online. I was amazed at how many groups are out there that discuss such matters.”
“And that’s when Doug found you,” said Johnny.
“We’ll take a look, Mrs. Wilsing, and see what we can do. I’d like it if you and your husband were gone while we deal with this. The only real danger is in your own reactions, but I’d hate to have it said that anyone was injured while I was doing my job.”
What about me? thought Dave. If Johnny was worried about the Wilsings getting hurt, might Dave and Johnny not be in danger as well?
“My husband’s already at his mom’s. To tell you the truth, I don’t like being here right now. I’ll join him and make sure we stay away until you give us the all clear.”
“We’ll let you know what we find out,” said Johnny. “A ghost is a riddle to be unraveled. They’re not unlike a psychiatric patient that needs to reconcile their strong emotions with reality. First I have to understand what their story is, then I need to help them make peace with whatever is bothering them. Oh, and just to warn you, things may get broken. A ghost is really not much more than a ball of frustrated emotional energy and they do tend to act out, especially as they approach the truth of their existence. If you have anything of great value you might want to take it with you.”
“We’ve already had things broken. Windows, dishes, that sort of thing. The neighbors are beginning to talk. After the front window blew out, my next door neighbor asked me if Ken was becoming violent. I covered, said he was playing around with the nail gun he got for his birthday.”
“So you haven’t told anyone you have a ghost in your house?” Dave questioned her.
“Why would I tell anybody that? Who would believe me? I hardly believe it myself. It’s bad enough having odd sounds in the house, things falling off shelves for no reason. I want to at least try to have a normal life outside of my house. If I started talking about ghosts, who knows what people would think of me?”
“But it’s really happening,” said Dave. At least, there was a good possibility that something was happening.”
“Yes, it’s really happening,” Mrs. Wilsing said, “but I don’t like to think about it. I just want it to go away. I just want my life to be like it was before. Can you help?”
“I hope so, Mrs. Wilsing,” said Johnny. “I can’t make any promises with something like this, but I’ll see what I can do. I have had my successes in matters of this sort before. But tell me, is there a certain time of day when the visitations seem to occur? Any certain event that tends to trigger them?”
She paused for a moment to consider, then said, “It seems to be sometime around eleven in the evening. Now that I think about it, that seems to be when most if not all of them occurred. We’re usually in bed by that time, and the one time I told you about in the attic, it was a Saturday night. We had just finished watching a movie and were about ready to go to bed.”
“That should give us a little time, then.”
Before they left, Lynn, as Mrs. Wilsing insisted they call her, gave them a brief tour of the house. It was the kind of place Dave would have considered a dream home, an older building meticulously updated and restored. Everywhere, the walls were coated with fresh, bright paint, augmenting the original design. High ceilings gave an airiness to the rooms without forsaking quaintness. A bright blue paint covered the living room, a cheerful but elegant flower patterned wallpaper in the dining room. Lynn and her husband must have spent long hours bringing the place up to the condition it was now. Dave couldn’t help thinking how unfair life was, for people to work so hard to make something beautiful only to find some darkness at its core.
From the dining room, Lynn led them to the kitchen. It was a bright white, even with the rays of the setting sun the only illumination. From the kitchen, a second set of stairs ran upward towards the bedrooms above, stairs that had originally been for the use of servants. They led to a bedroom that was once the servants’ quarters, which was also connected to the main upstairs hallway. But the stairs continued upwards beyond the servants’ quarters, as well. Lynn had no need to say anything, Dave knew that those stairs led to the attic. Without saying anything, Lynn led them through the servants’ quarters and out into the main upstairs hall, back down the other set of stairs that led back into the living room. Without further mention of the stairs that led to attic, Lynn grabbed a few items from around the house and left to join her husband. But before leaving, she turned back towards Johnny, apparently feeling the need to share one more piece of the puzzle.
“I wasn’t going to mention this, since I’m not sure it’s related. You must already think me…unusual. But in the interest of being honest, when we first moved into the house, I began to experience a rather intense bout of depression, despite the joy we had at finding this house. I’d had experienced depression before, but nothing like this. I don’t know if it’s related or not, but I thought I should mention it. Maybe it might help convince you it’s not the house but me that has the problem.” She laughed a nervous laugh, and then exited.
Dave and Johnny were left alone in the house, Johnny with a relaxed air, Dave not so much.
“Do you think we’ll encounter anything, Johnny?”
“Quite likely, quite likely. Mrs. Wilsing seemed honest enough. Her story sounds like a few I’ve heard before. The man I was telling you about, Edwin Gauthier, the one that committed suicide. I reckon it’s his ghost that’s causing the trouble. Although it seems odd. If he’s a suicide, he died in despair. That might account for the depression Mrs. Wilsing spoke about, but that doesn’t account for the rest of what they experienced. There seems to be a lot of anger. Angry ghosts instill that kind of fear, not suicides. Well, whatever it is, we’ll likely find out soon enough.”
Dave watched his companion as he talked, amazed at the calmness with which he discussed the impending appointment with a ghost. Johnny must know something Dave didn’t because Dave couldn’t imagine not being afraid. It seemed the Wilsings knew the right way to react a ghost, at least.
Seated on a couch, Johnny was content to stare absent-mindedly out the window. Dave was unsure if he were preparing himself for what was to come, or if he was trying to pick up on subtle emanations of the otherworldly nature. Either way, Dave didn’t want to distract him, so he tried to empty his thoughts, make himself receptive. But it was no good: he could not silence the disquiet that seemed to bubble up from the pit of his stomach. He wondered if this might be a result of some kind of supernatural contact, but decided it was just plain old-fashioned fear. Why was he here at all, and what did Doug think he or anyone else could accomplish against such phenomena? They were not things that humans were meant to deal with, they were all of them out of their depths. And yet they were each of them aware of things that others weren’t. Whether or not they were equipped to deal with such things, they seemed destined to encounter them nevertheless. At least it was better to deal with them as a group, not alone as Dave once had to do.
Alone, thought Dave. I wonder what Mindy’s up to now?
“So how come a ghost tends to show up at a certain time of night?” the question occurred to Dave suddenly.
“It’s probably the moment he died. Or some significant instant.”
“Yeah, but what does time mean to a ghost?”
“Well, it’s kinda…”
“You don’t know, do you?”
“Well, no. But I’ve found it to be true. And I’ve had luck with ghosts, so far.”
“But you’re more or less groping in the dark. That’s just the way Doug described the whole problem. Something works for a while whether or not we really understand the situation. So we just get comfortable with it and trust it’s always going to work. It works until it doesn’t. It works until you encounter something that doesn’t fit your paradigm.”
“That’s life, inn’t? There aint no real answers, just some clues, some inclinations and a bit of faith. Leastways, I guess I know about as much as anyone about ghosts. Anyone living, anyway,” he said, and a smile slid across his face.
“So tell me something about them.”
“Well, for starters, there aint no such thing as an old ghost, at least not what I’ve seen. As far as I know—and like you said, I only see what little I’ve seen—a ghost is a thing formed by the intense passions of a particular event. Like this case here, a man’s wife cheats on him with his best friend. There’s rage for you. Like a child, a ghost is conceived of passion. Like anything that outlives the person who created it, it is conceived of passion.”
Dave was tempted to ask questions, but decided he wasn’t in any hurry to receive the answers. The conversation having come to an end, Johnny pulled an old paperback from his coat pocket that was hanging in the hallway, made himself at home on the couch, and began to read. Dave curled up on the chair he was on and watched the November sun make its early exit. The cold and dark outside should have made him appreciate the comfort of the house, but the thought that they were not alone sucked all comfort from him. Instead, having a few hours to wait until the anticipated encounter, Dave sought some sort of quiet and peaceful place within himself.
Sleep eventually overcame him. In time, dreams emerged from the darkness, though he didn’t recognize them as such. He was lying on a bed, felt himself being brought back from darkness towards the light. Coming back to life, he found himself looking at a man in clerical garb making the sign of the cross over him. The man’s face was filled with compassion, a slight smile on his face somehow connecting with something he himself felt deep within him. Some miracle had just ocurred, whatever had put him in this bed had been driven out by a miraculous power. And it was the man above him who had done the healing, or at least been the conduit for it. There was a bond between the two of them, healer and healed. Becoming more aware of his surroundings, he noticed himself to be in a rudimentary sort of hospital, something closer to a log cabin. There were other occupied beds around him, with other attending men and women dressed in religious garb. There was a warmth that radiated from a wood stove in the middle of a room large enough for perhaps twenty beds, but there seemed to be a different sort of warmth that radiated in the room as well. Without knowing why, he found himself saying, “Thank you Father Oxner.” The man who sat on his bed, a bald man of average build, said nothing but permitted his smile to increase somewhat. It was then that he noticed where the other sense of warmth was coming from. It seemed to radiate from Father Oxner’s smile.
“Did you hear that?”
The words brought Dave’s consciousness out of his dream, but it was not yet fully dragged back to the waking world. So deep had he been in his alternate state of consciousness that he did not immediately know where he was or who had spoken. Opening his eyes to see Johnny’s alert face staring at him mad Dave want to retreat back into himself, back into the comfort of his dreams. The contentment he had felt there was not something he wanted to leave. He felt quite at home there, despite the primitiveness of his surroundings. In the end, it was not the creature comforts but the warmth of a smile and caring community that seemed to bring true contentedness. But Johnny spoke again, wrenching Dave from the comfort he longed for. Instead, he stared at the faces tattooed on Johnny’s faces and arms that appeared to him like spirits trapped on flesh. Each of them seemed to share Johnny’s urgency. But the memory of where they were and why sparked a jolt of adrenaline that soon had him fully alert. Caught off guard as he was, he was unable to combat the fear that was growing within him. Between dream and wakefulness lay a darkness that seemed to cling to him. He did not yet have enough pieces of the puzzle of his current predicament to provide him any context. Fear, for the moment, was his surest protector.
“What?” asked Dave.
“There’s a noise upstairs. Not a noise, really, more like a stirring. I’m not sure if I heard something, but I sensed something.”
“So now what?”
“Now we get chummy with it.” Johnny must have noticed Dave’s state, because he said, ”You okay? Don’t worry, stick by me, you’ll be fine. Just listen to me, not it. Never do anything a ghost tells you to, for any reason!”
Dave and Johnny again ascended the stairs that led to the old servants’ bedroom. But this time, they did not stop there but continued towards the attic. There were perhaps fifteen steps, but each of them made an impression on Dave. Each step ramped up the fear within him. What he was about to encounter was a being the likes of which was once capable of causing sleepless nights for him as a child after merely hearing a story told around a campfire. It felt as he were about to cross a threshold, one that had been very well marked in him deep in his DNA. Every instinct he had, every story he had heard, every movie he had ever watched, was telling him to stay away from the door that by now was only a few more steps away. The image of the door was already etched upon his memory forever. This quite ordinary looking old door, painted white, assumed all of the fearful qualities that his imagination could summon. It was scrawled deep into the neural pathways of his mind, like some childhood trauma. His mind rushed back to such memories, his deepest fears realized. He felt himself again locked inside of a trunk, his brother’s cruel laughter drowning out any appeals to a saner world.
He remembered running with other boys through the crosswalk that led from his grade school towards home, remembered one boy who was a few steps behind the rest. He remembered the car they somehow did not see in the bright daylight of a late spring day. He remembered the daring and the feeling of immortality of youth wash away forever as the car pushed the little body of his friend Gordon, who always seemed to be a step slower than he was, into the air. With the sound of shrieking brakes in their ears, they saw Gordon’s body move in a way that did not appear real. But it was real, realer than many of the things he once believed to be real, and there was nothing—ever—that was going to make it not real. It was a stain in his memory, a black spot on the sun that would forever mar the brightness that had been his youthful life.
Feelings he had hoped never to feel again were rising from the dark places where he had stored them, places he had thought gone forever. And being an adult did not make him any more able to cope with such feelings. The fear he experienced now was the same he had felt as a child; nothing he had learned in all those years had given him any defenses against it.
Dave simply stared at the door, wondering how opening it could possibly make him more frightened, having no intentions of finding out. The price of freedom is high, he couldn’t help thinking, the idea of stepping away from the safety of the collective mind approaching insanity, an utter lack of security. Again he was asking himself to take the plunge into an utterly unknown universe, hoping that he could find something to grab onto before he fell into the awaiting abyss.
He noticed Johnny reach out his hand, grab the knob. He wished more than anything that Johnny would not open the door, but felt powerless to prevent it. And yet, while the better part of him wished for a small place to hide—even a jail cell of steel and cement, as long as it kept him safe from the outside world—a small voice inside him seemed to be whispering, even as the door was opening to reveal unnamed and unnatural fears: cool.