The door opened to reveal a dusty wooden floor that led into darkness. An objective eye would not have seen anything out of the ordinary with the picture, but fear twisted angles out of their ordinary proportions, shredding perspective. Dave tried to remain objective, and realized what an absurd notion that seemed to be. For all the glory of science, it failed to account for the observer or the participant of an event. Science was the act of looking in from the outside and he was very up close and personal with what he was encountering. Perhaps it was not something supernatural but only fear he experienced. But fear was enough. Fear was more than enough. Still, Dave knew it wasn’t the only thing he was experiencing. The cold that whispered from the darkness of the room was more than a result of the season. It wasn’t caused by his fear but rather the reason for it. He wasn’t sure which sense it played upon, whether it were light drafts of air upon his skin or subtle whispers that found their way into his ears.
Johnny took a few steps inside and Dave followed, his hands involuntarily groping in the cold darkness. The light bulb had been blown out by the Wilsing’s last encounter with whatever it was that inhabited the attic and had not been replaced. Johnny’s flashlight illuminated their path but it only showed what was in front of them and it was the shadows that frightened Dave. Fear always waited in the shadows. Dave’s foot touched the wooden flooring, found it less sturdy than he would have liked. Perhaps it was only his fear, but the mere act of walking seemed treacherous to him.
What a moment ago felt cold now gave way to a warm dampness, the moisture in the air hinting at coolness while the warmth seemed to make the air feel heavy. Dave wanted to keep Johnny in his sight, know that his protector was there for him. But his eyes followed the beam of the flashlight instead, searching for whatever danger may await them. The light did not travel as far as he would have wanted, did not touch the wall on the further ends, though it illuminated the beams of the roof above. “It’s just an attic, damn it,” thought Dave. “Pull yourself together.” But it seemed to stretch further than the size of the house should permit, the way something from one’s childhood can seem bigger in memory than it is in reality. Fear and reality were tugging at his perception, distorting and stretching it in waves that confused his vision.
He felt like a child again, confronting the fear that walled off his safe little world like an electric fence. And while he was fighting against his inner weaknesses, he felt a smooth presence brush up against him like a sentient waft of air. It felt like a large crawling thing gently feeling out its prey before coiling about it. He looked at Johnny, who appeared to be readying himself for contact. Dave didn’t know if Johnny felt what he was feeling. Fear spiked in him. The thought of running leapt in his mind and he couldn’t find a rational reason to oppose it. But his body was not responding, as though he was frightened of calling attention to himself. For good or ill, he was rooted to the spot.
“I can feel it,” said Dave in a whisper.
“Shh,” said Johnny. “Allow it to make contact.”
Dave willed himself to be quiet despite the desire to scream. He still felt what seemed to be a sentient draft brushing up against him, as though it were insisting on intimacy. There was a certain smell that seemed to accompany it that Dave found familiar but could not quite place. The whispering that Dave had earlier witnessed seemed like snakes writhing on the floor around him.
Dave felt a sudden jolt, as if time itself were being wrenched and he were alternating between two moments that should have been separated by decades. Light flashed like a strobe, providing glimpses of an occurrence from long ago interlaced with the present darkness. He saw a thin man in a white shirt and tie with his head cast downward. Each glimpse the light provided was accompanied by a feeling that built flash by flash within Dave, a despair the likes of which he had never felt. The whispers became more insidious, and the occasional word could be distinguished from the general murmur. Love. Betrayal. Death.
The bulb in Johnny’s flashlight burst, making the contrast between visions of the past and present more extreme. Behind him, he heard the door they had left open slam shut. Fear and despair alternated within Dave as he seemed to switch back in forth in time, each of them equally debilitating to his emotional state. The smell became more noticeable, but he was still could not remember what it reminded him of. Burnt rubber perhaps, but there was more to it than that. If he could just place where he had smelled that smell before, he might be able to deal with the fear a little better, if not the despair.
The man Dave had seen in the relative light of the flickering image raised its head now, and suddenly the look of despair merged with a hatred that seemed to burn its gaze right through Dave. The image was visible now in both the light and the darkness. Despair and fear still alternated within Dave, threatening to tear him apart from either side. Edwin Gauthier opened his mouth to speak, and it was a voice of hatred not despair that sounded.
“You shall die,” came a voice that sounded like a thousand whispers woven into a single scream. The thousand whispers that had writhed around them were summoned by that voice and came together to speak Edwin Gauthier’s message. The voice did not seem to be aimed at them, but Dave knew the hatred would not refuse any target it chanced upon.
And suddenly Dave recognized the smell around him, the smell of burnt rubber and blood, the smell he would always associate with a moment of his childhood when Gordon could not run fast enough to save his life. And it felt to Dave that death and hatred and fear were all the same thing, aspects of the darkness that always surrounded life even on the brightest of days. The look of hatred upon Edwin’s face seemed the same look Dave saw on the grille of that car that took his friends life. He remembered staring at it after the accident, stared at it because he could not bring himself to look at his friend’s body lying on the ground. He didn’t know if his friend was still alive, did not want to know. As much as he feared that he was dead, the thought of him being alive and experiencing the horror seemed to Dave to be worse. So he just stared at the car that was now stopped on the busy street, the grille of it like a grinning entity of malice and hatred. Like the embodiment of all that was evil, it did not care who or what it killed, the killing was all. It would eat its fill of children and mothers and puppies and anything that chanced in its path. It was this look he now saw upon the face in front of him, and the flashing of the light did nothing to deaden its intensity.
“Well hello to you, too.” The voice was Johnny’s, and the tone was a jarring contrast to everything that was going on inside Dave.
“You have betrayed me. I trusted you and you betrayed me!”
“I’m afraid you have us confused with someone else,” said Johnny, as though he were impervious to the hate and despair. Johnny’s voice expressed concern, but he maintained a certain authority, as though making sure that the world in which they both existed was Johnny’s world, subject to the laws of the living.
“Those who betrayed me will die. Those who stand between me and my revenge will also die.”
“Oh, believe me, I’m not standing in the way of your revenge,” there was sympathy in Johnny’s voice, replacing for a moment the authority he felt the need to convey. “That was a horrible thing they did to you, there’s no excuse for it. But they’re dead.”
The presence that had earlier seemed to rub up against them now seemed to smash into them from in front, as though confronting the source of its frustration. Long stagnant dust shook free from the overhead beams, falling upon them as the house itself seemed to shake. It seemed to be a physical projection of the image they saw. But Johnny and Dave were able to withstand the shock of the onslaught as one might stand against a bitter cold wave.
“In fact, everyone you know is dead,” Johnny continued, his tone of voice at absolute odds with everything Dave was experiencing. Johnny was talking as a mother explaining something to her child. “You’ve been hanging on quite a long time. Not to say I blame you. You must have been awfully hurt. But you see, the reason for all of your hatred is gone. You’re just a bit of emotion that has outlived its usefulness. The only people you can still affect are the current inhabitants of the house, and from what I know of them they seem like pretty decent people. They’ve never done you any harm and—to be honest—you’re creeping them out.”
The presence that a moment ago was in front of them now swirled around them. The cold seemed to intensify as the emotion grew. It was no longer a brooding hatred but an active malevolence, searching for a target. Why it did not strike them where they stood, Dave did not know.
“I live for vengeance!” The voice had lost none of its ability to strike fear in Dave’s heart.
“Uh, no you don’t,” said Johnny. His voice was compassionate but firm. “You’re not actually alive, I hate to say. And since there’s nobody living to exact your vengeance on, there’s really no reason for you to be here anymore.”
The rage in the voice woven from malignant whispers intensified, but it seemed to be coming from a greater distance. It felt to Dave like a hurricane that had passed by in its ferocity but did not touch down.
“I will kill those who have betrayed me.” The voice was desperate now, each utterance scraping Dave’s nerves like razor blades on violin strings.
“They’re already dead,” said Johnny, using a calm but firm voice to dissipate the violence. “Whatever judgment they receive is in God’s hands now.”
The presence before them had been flickering like a candle in the wind. At last, in a wavering motion upwards, it faded before them as if caught by a gust of air that blew it away. Dave and even Johnny let loose with sighs of relief as they felt the thing that was Edwin Gauthier’s grief-fed rage fade away.
“And so the life that Edwin tried to take from himself is finally ended,” said Johnny.
But even as they let down their guards, the presence seemed to blast from the floor, radiating a heat that made Dave close his eyes. But closed eyes did not prevent Dave from receiving a clear vision of the ghost in front of him. Gone was whatever despair had emanated from it, replaced with an intensity that demanded response. This was not a spirit that would abide Johnny’s paternal attitude.
The spirit spoke, its voice one of authority rather than fear and hatred. No longer did Dave see the vision of a man with hunched shoulders and broken spirit. “Mine was no act of suicide,” he said, and as he spoke, his image became part of a scene that acted out once again the events of nearly a century ago. In a bluish light, Edwin Gauthier could be seen with eyes staring at a figure that slowly entered the limited stage upon which the drama was being played for Dave and Johnny. “It was not me but my wife’s lover who took my life. They murdered me in order to live together in unholy union.”
Dave was silent and still, watching the scene of murder play out in front of him, Edwin confronting the other man, the other man striking Edwin, knocking him unconscious. Like an old film poorly shot, Dave witnessed as one man dragged the other up the stairs to the attic, threw a rope across a supporting joist and tied it to Edwin’s neck. As the man drew the other up, he saw the betrayed husband regain his consciousness as the noose tightened about his neck. Panic raised in his features as his eyes began to bulge. His gaze was unfocused as he struggled for breath. But as he came to accept the reality of his situation, his gazed fixed upon the man who was the cause of all his pain. There was calm in his stare, a cold calm that promised revenge despite his inability to achieve it. Edwin’s desire for vengeance would outlast his earthly existence, regardless of whatever physical laws he would have to break to attain it.
The scene in front of Dave and Johnny slowly faded, leaving at last only the bluish stare of those intense eyes, burning their conviction into the fabric of the material world. Turning away from the glare, Dave turned to look at Johnny, who seemed to get a glimmer of understanding in his eyes.
“I see,” he said. “You want not only vengeance but the truth to be told.”
“The truth will be my vengeance,” said the voice, no longer the slithery voice of fear and hatred but an ardent appeal for justice.
“I will let your story be known,” said Johnny solemnly. “The world will know that Edwin Gauthier did not die by his own hand. They will know the truth of your betrayal and death.”
The intensity in the air seemed to slowly dissipate as the eyes that were all that remained of the vision of Edwin Gauthier faded. So too did the presence that had seemed to crave physical contact with them vanish like dust in a breeze. This time, Dave felt as though it were really over, felt a normalcy beginning to creep back into his jangled nerves.
“What the hell was that?” asked Dave. “Were there two ghosts, or what?”
“An intense experience such as Mr. Gauthier evidently felt can bring about some strong emotions. I would guess that in this case, there were two separate strong emotions that survived Edwin’s existence: grief and a desire for vengeance.”
“You guess? You seem to trust a lot to guesses.”
“You could say I’m learning on the job. What a rush though, eh?”
“I don’t think it’s my thing.”
“But you saw it thought, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I saw it. I saw it and heard it. And I felt it. With every nerve in my body.”
“That’s pretty good. Come to think of it, I don’t think I saw anything on my first encounter. The first time, it was just all purple, and then the second time, it was like the purple separated and it was red and blue.” There seemed to be excitement in his voice, as though he were a surfer talking about a wave he had ridden.
“That’s all very good, but can we get out of this attic now?”
“Yeah, I think our work here’s done.”
Dave stared into the darkness. “Any idea where the door is?”
Groping around, they eventually found the door that led them back downstairs.