A Ghost’s Story
For the first three years he lived on Peachtree Trail, Eric had tried to have the ghost exorcised. Holy water, priests, rosaries, sacraments, crucifixes – that kind of thing. He was rather unimpressed by the results. Not only would the ghost return on the same day the next year, judging from some of the priests’ reactions he was fairly certain it was the first demonic entity most of them had actually seen.
So eventually Eric had decided to stop wasting the money. He wasn’t overly rich – he was a roofer, a profession and family business he had inherited from his late father. He wore flannel and pilling sweaters because they lasted and he enjoyed cutting coupons. Besides, he thought, it wasn’t as if the ghost was hurting anybody. You had to weigh the costs against the results when it came to things like this.
The ghost was only ever around once a year, December 3rd, and it was only ever in one room – the one room that was the kitchen, or the dining room, depending on whether you wanted to define it by the stove and refrigerator or by the scratched wooden floors and the dinner table. The ghost appeared as the sun went down – the darker it got, the clearer its outline was. It always appeared sitting at the head of the old pine dining table. It stared down at its hands, which rested on the table before it, holding something that looked like a square sort of locket. Its fingers traced the edges.
It had remarkably good posture, Eric had noted, considering it spent the entire night looking down. Its shoulders only stooped a little. He assumed it was because of the ghost’s military background. It wore its dress uniform – polished black boots, white gloves, buttoned dress coat complete with small metal scales on its shoulders. Its black felt hat, which had a small brass pin of an eagle coat of arms on the front, always appeared sitting in front of it on the table. Its high-collared coat and pressed pants were a translucent sky blue. It smelled vaguely of ozone.
Because the ghost appeared in the dead of winter, when the sun was setting around seven, it ended up horrifying anyone trying to have dinner. This was particularly the case if it happened to materialize in the same chair they were sitting in. But for the first six years it was just Eric in the house and so it really wasn’t an issue. He just marked the day on the calendar and was sure not to invite over any of his numerous elderly, heart-attack prone relatives. He also avoided anyone he didn’t want to have a deep theological discussions with. This was the majority of people, and so December 3rd remained, for the most part, uneventful. Sometimes he would wander downstairs to watch the ghost appear and have a beer, much like he assumed one would watch the northern lights.
The first year Alice moved in, however, she had declared that it was time for a change. The ghost was suffering, wasn’t he? Something must be done. She trooped down to the kitchen the night it was to appear and dragged Eric with her. He was perfectly content to spend the night in and share the apparition with her – he hadn’t shown the ghost to anyone since his brother Ace, who had since run off to be a missionary in Honduras — though he assured her that talking to it was no good.
The kitchen had brightened with Alice’s arrival. A red cotton tablecloth with embroidered magnolias on it that she and Eric had received as a wedding gift now covered the nicks and dents in the table, and, per usual, dishes that she hadn’t quite gotten around to washing sat in the sink. The ghost appeared on time, in its usual spot. Its hat appeared despite a glass of water in its way.
Alice’s intervention was solemn. She and Eric sat at the place across the table from the ghost, holding hands. There were long pauses between the questions she posed.
“What’s your name?” she asked. “What are you still doing here? Who is in the locket? What can we do for you? What do you need? What are you waiting for?”
She never got an answer but that didn’t seem to faze her. Instead, she simply decided to answer some of the general questions herself and go from there. She had work off on Tuesdays — more people can make it in to the optometrist on the weekends, and so it made sense for her to work Saturday instead – and so for the year after that, she spent the occasional afternoon at the library doing research. Every few Tuesdays she had some new development to share over dinner. They had both inferred that the ghost was a Union soldier, but did Eric know the sky blue, rather than Prussian blue, indicated that he was enlisted? Or that the pieces on his shoulders were called epaulets?
“The thing it has – it’s not a locket,” she said one week, brandishing a poorly maintained public library book at Eric while he stirred spaghetti sauce. “It’s a daguerreotype. It’s like an early photograph, but they had to make them on tin or silver surfaces, so people would keep them in ornamented cases.”
Eric did not really see the practicality of this distinction, told her so, and so they had argued good-naturedly about it while looking over the book of dashing young soldiers in the black-and-white photos that she had brought home.
That year the ghost’s appearance became more like an interrogation. Alice had notes prepared. Why was a Union Soldier here in Georgia? Was he killed there? Was he from there? Who had he fought under? Was it General Sherman? Had he been part of the March to the Sea? The house hadn’t been built until 1920 – if the war ended in 1865, why here? Soldiers usually gave daguerreotypes to their girlfriends – why did he have one? Was it of his girlfriend? His wife? Another soldier? Him?
Eric felt a little bad for the ghost, but it never responded, so he guessed it didn’t really matter one way or the other. Eventually Alice ran out of questions. When she finished, she had pursed her lip and stared at her papers. She sat there looking for something she had missed until Eric convinced her it was time to go to bed. They could try again later.
Alice had continued to research the Civil War – she would get a book about it every year from her dad for Christmas, who was confused but utterly pleased by her newfound interest in history – but she never found anything directly related to their ghost.
She wandered downstairs to see the ghost, alone this time, two years after the interrogation. She wanted to ask it if it knew its side had won the war, she had told Eric, and it wouldn’t take long. She had sat down next to it at the table and told it that it was part of the reason her great-grandmother was freed. She told it that it had done a good thing, a horrible, necessary, inevitable thing, and thanked it for its sacrifice. Nothing happened, so after a bit she wandered back upstairs again, and she and Eric watched a soap opera they secretly liked but said they only watched to appease his mother, complained about the plot, and went to bed.
Eric was the one who had confronted the ghost alone the next year. The kitchen cabinets, courtesy of Eric’s enthusiastic mother and aunts, now had what looked like zip ties on their handles to keep them closed in case of ground-level interference. Formula was ready, tucked away inside of them. A box of bottles loomed, unopened but ready, on top of the refrigerator. Alice was upstairs, already asleep. The pregnancy had hit her hard.
Eric cleared his throat and sat down across the table from the ghost.
“Look here,” he said diplomatically, “I know we had some trouble at the beginning, but since then all I’ve tried to do was help you out. I really haven’t minded you staying. But I’m about to have a family start, and I’m going to need you to move on. You’ve had your time. You’ve had more than your time, and now you’re trespassing on private property.”
The ghost remained silent.
“You need to pull yourself together,” Eric said. He was having a difficult time taking the stand he had wanted to. He had no idea how to threaten a ghost. “You should try to get to the afterlife – it will be so much better for us and for you if you were there.”
He stared the ghost down for a while, but it never looked up. It’s finger slowly traced the edges of the picture. Its image always wavered a bit – like it was at the bottom of a pool of water – and Eric found this unpleasantly distracting.
“You could at least do us the decency of trying.” Eric said. He stood up — the chair jolted back with a screech as he did — and he left.
Since the ghost refused to leave, Eric and Alice vowed to. They had talked it over and decided that a haunted house was no place for a child. But they didn’t really want to go – Eric’s whole extended family lived nearby, and they wanted their little girl to grow up around cousins and tire swings. And Alice loved her coworkers and the neighborhood park. So they compromised. If the ghost was only there once a year, they would leave once a year.
They bought a timeshare in the Appalachians, though everyone they knew told them it was a horrible investment, and then pretended they could never get it for the holiday season – not really a stretch, they couldn’t have if they tried — and they always reserved it for the day the ghost was going to appear a year in advance. It became Eric’s favorite time of year. They would go hiking through evergreens and come home to a fireplace, hot chocolate, cards, and Alice’s annual jigsaw puzzle. When she was little, Josephine thought it was funny to hide the last piece. When she was older, she’d buy them harder and harder puzzles. She and her mother liked the challenge. Alice always insisted they go ice skating — she could float on skates — and Eric always fell down.
And so for a long time the ghost was alone. Over the years Josephine’s multicolored magnetic alphabet kit had first spelled out words like CAT on the fridge, and then transitioned into being used to hold up scribbles, and then a multitude of drawings of unicorns, and finally particularly good test grades and her parent’s favorites of her sketches. Eventually Eric and Alice got around to taking down the wallpaper. They painted the kitchen a toasted marshmallow color instead. On the counter sat a new coffee maker, to which Alice had become extremely attached, and the pantry was usually filled up with jams Eric and Josephine had made together. His mother had taught them how before she passed.
The ghost didn’t ever move, so perhaps it didn’t care.
The one year Alice and Eric couldn’t get the timeshare they had spent a good two weeks debating whether or not to tell Josephine about the ghost. She was old enough then, almost off to college. But they had decided against it. It was just a conversation they didn’t want to have. It would bring up questions that they felt unqualified to answer, and yet they didn’t quite feel like she was old enough that they could admit that. It was the frustration of that year, what with scheduling a visit to Alice’s parent’s house and sleeping on the floor and coming up with excuses as to why they had to be out of town on that particular day – termites – that caused Eric and Alice to make a pact that neither one would come back as a ghost.
It had been Eric’s idea, and it was an offhanded one he had said mostly as a joke while he held his wife’s hand and they whispered in the dark on an uncomfortable air mattress in her parent’s basement.
It was an agreement he would regret when a car slammed into Alice’s Ford early April. It was her fault – she had cut someone off while turning left across traffic. She had been running late, like she always was. She had always been an impatient driver.
Eric didn’t quite believe it had really happened, even through the wake and funeral, until about mid-May, when he started sobbing while he was on the phone with the insurance company. The employee on the other end of the line, who had been assuring him that the wreck was covered under their accident-forgiveness policy, made his awkward excuses and hung up.
That year was a long year, though nothing of consequence happened.
The ghost appeared that year as well, but there was still no one there to see him. Eric knew she wouldn’t be there with him. So he and Josephine had gone to the mountains instead. They went skating together, and Eric had watched Josephine. She’d grown into grace. She had on a pink yarn hat her mother had (poorly) knitted her, and her hair poofed out around the edges in a little halo. It framed her face. The longer she did laps around the rink the more Eric felt like he had released a sigh he had been holding onto.
The next year had been Josephine’s first semester at college – she was studying art, and was utterly confident in the job opportunities that would provide – and Eric visited her early December in Chicago every year of her undergrad. In the years after he came to visit the little apartment she shared with the young man she eventually married, and then their first house. He didn’t have to leave the ghost – there was no child at home to protect anymore – but he wanted to. He didn’t like to look at him anymore. He visited his daughter even more when his first grandbaby, who was called Phillip, was born. He finally understood why his mother had been so enthusiastic about baby-proofing his kitchen.
It wasn’t until Phillip was eight (and his two siblings were five and three) that Eric couldn’t visit on December 3rd. Phillip had a soccer tournament, and Josephine was helping organize that on top of her work at the gallery, where they were having a large auction the same week. She had been apologetic, but firm. Eric could visit over Christmas this year. She’d never understood why he chose such an odd time of year to vacation anyway, though she said she’d enjoyed the tradition while it lasted.
Eric visited a few more times on the third, but after that year it was never a staple. Christmas was just easier. And so Eric spent those evenings with the ghost. Not at first – at first Eric avoided him. But it was just too much trouble – to avoid seeing him completely Eric either had to go to bed far too early or stay away all night. So he gave up — he refused to change his plans for something so silly. He made dinner as he always did, and he ate dinner as he always did, and if the ghost was there, well, then a ghost was there.
Besides, Eric didn’t have many dinner guests, and this visitor would never cancel.
So, as was the norm, a few years later, Eric stayed home. He treated the day like he would any other day. He went to a men’s breakfast and fellowship event at the church that morning. That afternoon he went by the office to give advice and do what he could, though he’d long since passed his business onto his nephew. And then, when evening came, after he’d fixed and eaten a bowl of soup, the ghost appeared sitting at the table.
Eric fumbled around the kitchen as the he materialized. He washed his dish and spoon as the ghost stared down at the case that held the picture in his hands. Occasionally he slid his nail between the two metal sides, as if he would flip open the case and look inside, but he always thought better of it and kept it closed. The ghost’s epaulets and buttons were just as polished as the first day Eric had seen him. It struck Eric suddenly that he hadn’t aged. He was so young — maybe eighteen.
Eric glanced up the stairs, where the television was waiting. Then he looked again at the ghost. He had nowhere to go. He made some tea and sat down. His knees popped as he did.
They communed there in silence, and Eric sipped his tea.
He thought back over his day at first – what he should have done with this or that customer’s call, what more he could volunteer for at the church, what more he could volunteer for at the family business. Maybe they could hire him officially as part-time help. Hell, he’d helped build that business. He’d just order them to hire him as part-time help….
His mind then wandered north. He wondered if Phillip, now on junior varsity, would still play soccer when he got older, the same way Josephine had always been an artist. He wondered how hard it was to make it big in that sport. Eric had no idea — he’d always followed football. He thought about what puzzle he wanted to bring for Christmas, and then ice skating, and deliberated whether or not his littlest granddaughter was old enough to take. For some reason remembering the sound of skates scratching on ice reminded him of the voice of the boy on the other end of the telephone that had been trying to inform him about accident-forgiveness policies. His herbal tea now seemed to reminiscent of the smell of the lavender-oatmeal soap Alice had loved and he put it down.
He glanced at the ghost and wondered what had happened to Alice’s collection of history books about the Civil War. One called Brother against Brother, which was filled with stories about families separated and caught on opposite sides of the conflict, had been her favorite. She was convinced their ghost was in there, somewhere. It was because of the feel the book had given her, she had said, she just couldn’t articulate how the two were connected.
Eric knew now, though, what she had been trying to say.
“I’m sorry,” he said suddenly.
The ghost stiffened.
“I’m sorry for everything that’s happened to you,” Eric concluded, after a bit. “I can see they were important to you,” he indicated the daguerreotype, “and it must have been hard to die so young.”
The ghost looked up slowly and met Eric’s eyes. He nodded in what Eric assumed was a sort of thank you.
Eric nodded back, went upstairs, and went to bed.
Katie Sanders grew up in a military family – she’s lived in Cairo, D.C., and she graduated high school in Lima, Peru. She moved to North Carolina for university, and to appease the travel bug has driven all over the state in her Volkswagen beetle.
A recent graduate of UNCG with a master’s of genetic counseling, Katie has mostly non-fiction writing experience. She’s been a reporter and editor for the NC State school newspaper, the Technician – her favorite interviews were probably either with the world-champion lumberjack or with the artists that created the public art exhibit “Cow Parade.” She’s also helped author a scientific paper discussing an experimental perfluorocarbon and she’ working on submitting her graduate school research. This is her first available work of fiction.