Listening to Ghosts

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1

Jed Blancher, now there was a good paranormal investigator. Rumour had it, he could talk with the deceased without need for a planchette or Ouija or anything. Now, of course, there are those that would poo-poo Jed’s abilities and skills, and say that he was naught but a conman, swindling heartbroken souls of their hard-earned cash.

But I know better.

Jed was a true medium, able to reach the other side. Few people are gifted with such an ability, and even fewer learn to hone their natural skills. I myself also belong to this prestigious group, although I hardly think I could ever reach the levels that Jed operated at. I don’t think that means I’m not good at what I do – because I’m not bad – it’s just kinda like saying someone’s good at basketball but they’ll never be Michael Jordan. That’s not an insult, it’s simply reality.

No, Jed Blancher had a gift and boy did he use it. As far as I’m aware, old Jed put widowers back in contact with lost lovers, reunited parents with deceased children, let offspring speak to departed guardians, shone new light on murder cases, solved crimes that led to the grave, and even prevented further deaths and more. I know there are frauds out there – aren’t there in every profession? – but Jed was an honest to goodness medium. And believe me when I say that he used his powers for good, no matter what anybody else thinks. He helped me, at least.

It seems only appropriate, then, that old Jed died whilst in the line of duty. At Cartwell Manor, no less; one of the most haunted places in the country. Even other mediums avoid going there, as they know it’s bad news. Even the fakers – the ones that simply pretend to converse with the dead – don’t go there. I have a feeling the fakers don’t believe in ghosts, not really (and why should they? They’ve no definitive proof), and yet they avoid Cartwell like the plague. I think that deep down, beyond their sensible understanding of the world, where only primal instincts and irrational fears lurk in the gloom like warped shadows, they know. They know.

If you’ll allow me to briefly digress, I think we all know that there are ghosts. Oh, sure, many people profess to disbelieve in anything for which there is no solid, concrete evidence. There are those that say there is only that which can be seen, and no more. Science and scientists say that the world is a rational place, with rational answers to rational questions. And I don’t necessarily disagree with these types – for, more often than not, they are correct. Plus, when it comes to things such as disease, technology, or whatever, we need the scientific types to help us along. After all, where would be without antibiotics, telephones or lightbulbs?

But, after all is said and done, after the scientific types have packed up their workbenches and laboratories for the day, after they’ve kissed their loved ones goodnight, after they’ve switched off the light, something within them changes. They’ll never admit it, but they all know it. They’d never confess such thoughts to each other, as they’d be laughed out of the room; even though the ones laughing would secretly know, in the far reaches of their minds, that they’ve had the same inclinations. When they’re alone in the dark… when there’s nobody else for company except the creeping shadows and that whispering voice inside their heads… they’re afraid.

What are they afraid of, exactly? Well, that one’s easy, isn’t it? They’re afraid of the unknown. We – as humans – love to break down the world into simple, digestible chunks. Bite-sized bits we can easily comprehend. It’s why we have scientists and why we are scientists. Humans intrinsically love to understand. To put labels on things. To compartmentalise. To explain, to rationalise. To take it apart, until there’s nothing but bits and pieces and screws and springs scattered across the table, to say, “Ah ha! So that’s how it works!” and then try to put it all back together again.

But with the dead, there is no rationalising. Beyond the walls of mortality, all explanation evaporates like sweat from shining skin. There is no consistent reason. That’s why being a psychic or a medium isn’t a science – for something to become a science, like chemistry, physics or biology, there has to be a central pillar or tenet. These are things which everyone who is a professional within said field agrees upon. Or almost everyone, at any rate. Such as cell theory or gene theory. Or the physical laws of matter, energy, and the fundamental forces of nature which govern the interactions between particles. And so on, and so on.

But with death, and subsequently those individuals who have succumbed to it, no two cases are the same. Sure, there will be people out there – mostly fakers – who give spiel about how it all works. “Ghosts are simply people who haven’t moved on, they’ve got unresolved issues here,” they’ll say. Blah, blah, blah. They’re wrong, of course. Mostly. Sometimes ghosts do operate under such rules, but not always. The deceased use patterns so infrequently that it can be said that there is no pattern.

I think that’s what scares us so. The idea that we can’t explain it. We can’t put name to it, can’t record it three times and take an average, can’t predict it. We can’t use the tools that we use for everything else. The ideas and approaches we take in fighting disease or progressing technology work well enough, and I’m very thankful for that! But to use the scientific method on something which is inherently not scientific will yield no useful results. It’s like that learning game you play as a baby. You know, the one with the shapes that slot into the corresponding holes? It’s like that – like trying to shove a cube into a round hole. Only, the slot we’ve got is the rigid square of scientific thought, and the thing we’re trying to forcefully push inside it is the shapeless form of the paranormal. I suppose that’s why they call it paranormal, right? It’s beyond normal experience or explanation.

But if there was ever a person who could attempt to clarify the paranormal, it was Jed Blancher.

It’s just a shame that he died.

 

2

My first view of Cartwell Manor came when my black taxicab rounded the corner of a bunching of overgrown willow trees. The things were quite clearly dying, yet obscured the view of Cartwell fairly sufficiently, their finger like branches extended towards us in a gesture that was both threatening and wanting. My eyes passed over the vegetation, half expecting to meet an inhuman gaze within the withering canopies.

When the manor lurched into focus, I’m not ashamed to say I felt a heavy dropping sensation within my gut. The building looked sullen and grey, somehow like the face of someone who knows they are about to vomit and are helpless to prevent it; ashen, drained of colour.

“I s’pose yer comin’ here because of that,” said my driver, nodding towards the yellow police tape, which was fluttering around the building, draped over tent pegs that had been pounded into the ground. I simply nodded in response to the question.

“No good can come o’ this, Sir, I can assure you o’ that.”

“Thank you, that will be all,” I said, a tad more curtly than I had intended. “You can drop me off just here. How much do I owe you?”

“Look…” said the driver, hesitantly, continuing to drive up the road towards Cartwell at a sluggish pace. “Why don’ I jus’ drive you back into town? Hm? There’s some lovely pubs along the way. In fact, my sister told me that the old—”

“No. Thank you.”

“Right you are,” said the driver, quietly. To his credit, he drove me right up to the manor, even though I could tell that he didn’t want to get near the thing. I thanked him and paid him, smiling all the while. It wasn’t enough to dispel the awkwardness between us – or the growing sense of unease in my stomach – but I wanted him to know I harboured no ill feelings. This was simply something that needed to be done.

I watched the taxicab perform a turn in the driveway and gently pull away, gravel crackling under its tires. In the periphery of my vision, I saw several men approaching me. I took a deep breath that bordered on a sigh. Time to get this sordid business over and done with.

“Martin Weatherby?” asked one policeman.

“Yes.”

He nodded in response, as if to say, We’ve been expecting you, although I sensed his distrust. After all, this was a crime scene, was it not? The police should be conducting an investigation, not sending for a loon who thinks he can chat with ghosts. I don’t necessarily disagree, and I wouldn’t have come back at all, not to Cartwell Manor, but Jed Blancher had requested my presence, and that was truly an honour. Imagine if your local hard rock cover band got an invitation to open for Led Zeppelin, and you’ve got a rough idea of how I felt. Except… that’s not quite an accurate description. No, imagine if your local hard rock cover band was invited to play the funeral for John Bonham. Honoured, yes, but also feeling sad, nervous, and a little sick.

“Follow me,” he said gruffly, without introducing himself or any of his colleagues, clearly wanting me in and out of the place as quickly as possible, and with as little disruption as could be managed. The officer – who I came to think of as The Chief (although I really don’t know what position he held within the force) – held up the yellow police tape for me as I ducked under it. I suppose that counts as politeness with these sorts of people. “Thanks,” I mumbled, smiling a flimsy smile, but The Chief was already walking away, up the stony steps to Cartwell.

“Don’t touch anything if you can help it. Don’t step on anything if you can help it. Here,” said The Chief, giving me a pair of plastic shoe covers and a pair of latex gloves, “I’ll need you to wear these.” I took them silently and diligently put them on, feeling his eyes probing me. “Your hair’s short, so a cap won’t be necessary. Come on in. Welcome to Cartwell.”

 

3

I felt the eyes upon me as I crossed the threshold. Outside, the weather was mild – a late August afternoon. Inside, however, was cold and damp. The smell of mildew and water damage filled my nostrils, despite the fact that the surroundings looked well-kept and protected from the elements.

I found myself trailing The Chief into a large foyer, lush red carpet squishing silently beneath our feet. With the exception of two ornate vases standing on two polished oak side tables either side of the entrance door, the foyer was empty. Great gothic windows stretched from floor to ceiling, filtering the dying summer’s light into a watery greyness, which collected in Cartwell’s interior like a fog. Directly opposite the door which we had entered, a large staircase twisted upwards into the brains of the manor.

“He’s this way, Mr. Weatherby. Please follow me,” said The Chief, footsteps thudding dully against the carpeted steps. Feeling like a man floating through a novocaine dream, I followed him. God damn me, I followed the fool. I knew where we were going, of course – to the room behind The Black Door. As my feet moved beneath me, I became distinctly aware of fate drawing inwards to its inevitable conclusion; of claustrophobic inescapability. I felt as if I were a cart moving along a set of predestined rails. I moved of my own free will – I know it, I’m sure of it – and yet I had no options before me.

Thump-thump-thump. My footsteps thudded quietly upon the carpet as I followed the soon-to-be-dead Chief down the upstairs hallway of Cartwell Manor. Thump-thump-thump. The Chief looked back over his shoulder at me, and I feigned a small smile, my waxy features creaking with the expression. A brief look of uncertainty fluttered across his eyes, but then it was gone again, replaced by stoic professionalism. He turned back around and pushed open The Black Door, holding it open for me.

Jed’s skeleton, aged thirteen years following his untimely demise, sat atop an ornate throne; yellow and unmoving. Adorning his head was a crown that appeared to have been made from human teeth. Stacked either side of him were the offerings – bits of bone, a fragment of a skull, bloody knives, vials of bodily fluids, small sacrificed animals (mostly rodents). I looked Jed over, from toe to skull. “You’re sure its him?” I asked, knowing full well that it was. The dull throb behind my left eye told me so.

“Positive,” said The Chief. “Dental records,” he added, matter-of-factly.

I nodded. “I see,” I said, my voice sounding very far away, even to my own ears. My mouth was getting increasingly dry. It was hard to pretend that I didn’t hear the whispers. My eyes kept drifting back to the empty sockets of Jed’s skull, so empty, so black, and yet…

There was a sound of a clearing throat. “You say you know who did this?” said The Chief, shifting his weight from one foot to another. He was clearly uncomfortable being here, and not just because of the skeleton. I could tell he was itching to get back downstairs, to get back into the fresh air, to get back into the unfiltered daylight, to get back to his colleagues, to get back amongst the other humans.

My eyes darted upwards to the symbol that had been splashed across the wall behind Jed. It looked to have been hastily decorated with crimson paint, but I knew better. An identical symbol had also been chalked onto the wooden floor behind us – the only non-carpeted section of the house. It had been removed, of course, for such a purpose. The same symbol was also inked on my inner arm, but the art was not needled by any tattooist on earth. It was a simple symbol, a thing of beauty: a small circle in a square, the square in a triangle, the triangle inside a greater circle.

“Oh, I have an idea, Chief,” I said, voice barely above a whisper.

“Hm? What’d you call me?” he asked, but I wasn’t properly listening at that point. The whispers were too loud, increasing in intensity to the point that they sounded like hoarse screams. I suppose they are rather lame last words, but I wasn’t instructed to be poetic in my duties, merely thorough.

As I knelt before the shrine, listening to the ghost whispering into my ear, my tongue began the arduous task of winding itself around the forbidden words.

 

4

I watched the whites of his eyes, waiting. This was the crucial moment – the point at which the door would open for one, and for one only. I’d done my part. The rest was up to Jed. I was anxious to get going, as the whispers were now completely filling my ears with unearthly obscenities. I could feel them tugging at me, searching, probing, wanting, lusting. They could smell my familiar scent and it drove them mad; they wanted what I had fought so hard to achieve. They were jealous, oh, so jealous. If me, why not them? Why not them? Why not them?

I wanted to get up and run, to pass through The Black Door for the third time in my life, but I couldn’t. Not yet. Even as the damned, rotten things that pulled at my tenuous grasp on my mortal shell like hands yanking at the string of a kite, I had to wait. Seconds, mere seconds. I just had to wait until…

The blackness swam into the eyes of the thing that had been The Chief. It swirled and grew more concentrated, like ink in water. The thing that had been The Chief but was no longer gasped the first breath of its second life – the gasp of a thing that has waited thirteen years to breathe the air of the living once more.

“Welcome back, Jed,” I said, before I got up and ran. I’d fulfilled my promise. I didn’t want to fall victim to the same fate that Jed had, although there certainly would be a certain symmetry to such a demise. I couldn’t stand the thought of thirteen more years in The Abyss. I’d gotten far too comfy in my skin.

I wasn’t happy to do it, not at all. But I had to do it. I’d do anything for Jed; especially because it was partly my fault that he died in the first place. Getting a fresh body for him – and a pretty good one, at that – was only fair. And we are creatures of contracts. Besides, he’d been hounding me for over a decade, and he promised to leave me alone afterwards. I was getting tired of listening to ghosts.

So, yes. Anything for Jed.

After all, he’d found this body for me.

 

30th January 2020

 

Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest

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