Ghost Light (short story)

Here we are, a short story! Much more in my element than poems 🙂 I wrote this a few years back but I still like it, particularly because I generally don’t write ghost stories so it’s fun to try something different.

So, Ghost Light. 

                                                             

It was clear from the beginning that the ghost light was broken.

It wasn’t broken in the traditional sense. The bulb worked just fine, no flickering. In fact, the whole lamp—which, according to tradition, sat lit in the middle of the stage when the theater lights were off in order to keep ghosts away—was shiny and new. They’d replaced it last summer, after the old one broke. The problem was this: instead of driving ghosts away, the ghost lamp attracted them like the dangling light of an anglerfish.

“Admit it,” Lucy said later, as we lounged together on the scaffolding beneath a painting of a growling lion, “You were glad we were here.”

I’d been hired to refresh the paintings on the walls, which had begun to crumble in the way old paintings tend to do. I was determined to dislike the job. On top of that the work wasn’t very creatively exciting, the theater administration was a huge pain-in-the-ass. They refused to let me paint during the day because there were rehearsals for Hamlet going on and they didn’t want me to interrupt anything—this was bad enough, but then they also refused to let me turn on the lights at night because electricity bills are expensive and we’re a small theater to begin with, and it’s financially difficult, I’m sure you understand…So I was exiled to dark scaffolding at night, lit only by the far-away ghost light and a small battery-powered lantern I kept sitting next to my paints and brushes.

Lucy was right. I was glad the ghosts were there.

                                                             

All things considered, my first impression of Lucy was a thoroughly un-dramatic one.

It was my first night on the job. I had decided to begin from the top of the walls and slowly descend towards the floors, so there I was, pressed against the ceiling like Michelangelo, when a voice interrupted my sullen reverie. My paintbrush sat poised against the white skirts of a siren, one of many mythological subjects that graced the walls of the once-grand but now downtrodden theater.

“Excuse me, miss,” Lucy said, “I’d just like to say that I quite like your hair.”

I looked down at the stage to see Lucy poised in the glow of the ghost lamp. She was slight, blonde, blue-eyed, and dressed in a sparkly silver slippery fish-scale dress. My first thought was that she was an actress from Hamlet who’d perhaps returned to the theater to retrieve something she’d left behind after rehearsal. I then realized  she was vaguely see-through and had no shadow, which made me reconsider.

I sat up and patted my thick dark hair, which I’d chopped into a short bob earlier in the week after I’d accidentally dipped it into dirty paint water one too many times. “Really?” I asked. “I don’t really like it much. I think cutting it was a mistake.”

“Oh, no. I think it’s lovely. Very chic.”

“Excuse me—are you a ghost?”

“Oh yes,” Lucy replied, nodding. “My name is Lucy Howard. I died in nineteen-twenty seven. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

I didn’t quite know how to reply to that. For a moment, I just didn’t.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you too,” I replied eventually.

Lucy smiled, as bright and warm as sunshine. There was an inherent air of niceness about her, as if she would bake you and your mother chocolate chip cookies if she weren’t quite so dead.

“Isn’t the ghost light supposed to keep away ghosts?” I asked, confused.

“Oh, yes. But this one is dysfunctional.”

“Oh.”

“There’s a lot of us here, actually. Most of the others are shy.”

“You’re not, though.”

“Oh, no! I’ve never been shy a day in my life. I’d never make any friends that way, would I? And even when you’re dead, friends are always a nice thing to have.”

                                                             

And Lucy and I did become friends.

I was glad for the interesting company. I’d never met a ghost before, and Lucy seemed to be the best kind of ghost one could ever hope to meet. She was cordial and enthusiastic, always ready with a joke or a compliment. She liked my hair, my shirt, my grimy tennis shoes, my smile. She was endlessly fascinated with the strange ways the twenty-first century had blossomed. She didn’t quite understand the concept of the internet but was enamored with cellphones, even though, as we discovered when we tried to call my sister, her voice couldn’t make it through phone lines. She wished she could taste fast food. She loved that women could acceptably wear shorts and bikinis in public.

“Well, isn’t that just the bees’ knees!” She exclaimed, clapping her hands. “Oh, I wish I were still alive to see all of it.”

She likened being dead to being trapped behind frosted glass.

“You can clearly see bits and pieces of the world, but only bits and pieces. A child being born. A tree on a rainy hill. Someone’s gravestone. Someone setting a cup of coffee down on a table. Sun off of glass. The rest is just colors and shapes.”

“But you seem so present here. How does that work?”

“Well, thatdeath andthisdeath are different. Naturally. Different things entirely. I’m not entirely sure why, but I do know that much. See, something happened to me, like an on-off switch. Out of nowhere, everything became crystal clear, and I found myself here, in this theater, next to that ghost light. I manifested, if you will.”

“And you can’t leave?”

She shakes her head. “No. And I’m only fully here when the ghost light is turned on.”

“Is it sad, waking up after being asleep for so long?”

“Oh, yes. But at the end of the day, there’s no use dwelling on everything I’ve left behind because it won’t do any good. Life and death go on.”

“And you’re here because that ghost light is broken,” I confirm. “It’s the reason you’re attached to this place.”

“Yes. The light is broken.” She shrugs. “Who knows why?”

“Perhaps you’re bound to it somehow,” I suggest.

“Seems that way, doesn’t it?”

“Maybe you’ve accidentally possessed it. I’ve heard stories about ghosts possessing things, teapots and dishwashers and hotel rooms and stuff.”

“Oh, I don’t accidentally do anything. And besides, where did the other ghosts come from, then? Are we all possessing it?”

“Who knows?”

“No one knows,” Lucy replies, setting her head in her hand. “It’s all a huge mystery, isn’t it? Don’t you just love a mystery?”

She’d been here for a year, lonely save for the company of the apparently un-talkative other ghosts, before I came along. She was even gladder of my company than I was of hers. She followed me around the room as I painted the walls back into splendor, cross-legged and chatty as I swept my paintbrush back and forth, back and forth. She watched with glee as I illuminated wood nymphs, sirens, gods, gold-leaf vines twisted around the ankles of Persephone. She told me of her life, of smoky bars, of the boys she loved and the boys who loved her.

“Golly, you should have seen me in the day,” she sighed and giggled and oohed and ahhed. “I was the cat’s me-ow. I was an actress, you know. Stage. I was in all the most stylish musicals. Whenever I came back to my dressing room at night, there were bouquets and bouquets of roses waiting for me. Red, always bright red. Everyone wanted to take me out to dinner. And other things, of course, but we won’t go into that, will we?”

“And what about you?” I asked, swiping a blue paintbrush to create Persephone’s beautiful and hell-bound gaze. “Who did youwant to take out to dinner?”

“Oooh, boy. Let me tell you. There was this one tough cruiser named Charlie Maloney  I could just eat for dinner. Now there’s a story.”

                                                             

Lucy and Charley Maloney met on a Friday night in a glitzy speakeasy clogged with cigarette smoke and girls trying to make a splash.

It was a rough crowd, Lucy said, but an important one. The men were the big cheeses of the parts of the city you didn’t want to wander into at night, and the women were the dangerous jewels that hung around their fat necks like a prize. Those women could kill just as well as the men, Lucy said. And just as much, too. Lucy generally tended towards more polished criminals—wall street embezzlers, classy assassins and the like—so she didn’t exactly feel at home. But she smiled and tried her best anyway, and in the end she glittered bright enough to  attract the attention of one Charlie Maloney.

He sat in the back of the bar smoking cigars, smoke clouding across his bright blue eyes and strong-cut jaw. He wore the cleanest-cut khaki suit Lucy had ever seen. He rolled with the wrong crowd, lots of it. And when he had one of his boys cross the speakeasy and tap Lucy on the shoulder, saying if you please, Mr. Maloney would like to speak with you, Lucy was, quite frankly, terrified. When she found herself poised in front of his table, feeling something like a ballet dancer still learning her positions, not knowing how to stand through the gasps of air rising anxiously up and down through her throat, he leaned forward and smiled like a shark around his cigar.

And somehow poor little Lucy fell headfirst into those smoke-screened blue eyes.

“You’re a pretty little doll,” he said. “Would you like a drink?”

Lucy had a drink, then many drinks. She ended her night in Charlie’s bed, staring at him as he stared out the window at the city beyond.

                                                             

“Wait, that’s it?” I asked, paintbrush pausing. “You spent one night together, and then the whole story’s over?”

“No, of course the story goes on,” Lucy said with an uncomfortable laugh. “But God knows I don’t like to talk about the rest.”

“Does it have something to do with how you died?”

Lucy didn’t reply.

                                                             

I painted my way across the tops of the walls and down towards the floor, myth after myth, ghost story after ghost story. Sometimes I told Lucy about my particular life, my older sister struggling with mental illness in Seattle and my mother living alone in Dallas while I dealt with the unpaid tuition bills of art school in an apartment frequented by seven different alley-cats and mostly taken over by paints and canvases I couldn’t really afford, but she never really seemed that interested. She liked hearing about the present world, but always in the abstract, never in particulars. She liked technology and fashion, not so much family or politics.

She told me about the past in much the same way, as if she were creating an impressionist painting. She didn’t care about details. She told me about smoke and sex and the foxtrot, but never about faces or events or names. I began to wonder about those, of course, but I rarely asked. There was never much point. Lucy liked to talk, but she was uncooperative when someone else picked the topic.

“Why would you want to hear about that?” she’d laugh. “It’s not interesting. Here, let me tell you about this speakeasy in Boston where I met Cole Porter…”

            Oh well,I thought. Life and death go on.

                                                             

Lucy and I began to coax the theatre’s other inhabitants out of the shadows. They were apparently much simpler creatures than her, more instinct and emotion than actual consciousness. “Here, darlings. Here, here, darlings,” Lucy purred to them, as if she were talking to small pets. I took a different route, leaving found pennies and Chinese takeout fortune cookies and other cheap trinkets near the ghost light for them to find while Lucy and I looked away. Whenever I looked back, to my satisfaction, the trinkets were always gone.

Eventually the others grew bold enough to speak, reassured by my kindness.  They were reluctant to show their faces, preferring instead to sit disembodied in the glow of the broken ghost light. They didn’t talk much, but they did talk enough to let me know  they were there. When I said something interesting, they chimed in with a little hmmmor oh, I see. Sometimes, when they were feeling bold, they’d run their cold invisible fingers over my bare shoulders. Up and down, up and down, like tiny shivering rivers. There were at least five of them, perhaps more.

I only saw them all once.

One strangely cold and rainy summer evening, Lucy retreated into the rafters above the stage to investigate the icicles and crystals forming on the half-rotten wood near the roof, exclaiming from a distance that this whole theater needed to be ripped to the ground before it collapsed, and I found them all sitting on the edge of my scaffolding, staring at me wide-eyed.

Even now, I couldn’t quite tell how many of them there were. They kept shifting back and forth, shuddering and vibrating like the strings of an instrument. All of them were well dressed, most of them male. The steadiest among them seemed to be the leader. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, handsome in a khaki suit with a cigar resting in the corner of his mouth.

“Charlie?” I found myself asking dumbly, wondering, of course, what Charlie Maloney could be doing here of all places. It probably wasn’t him, was it? How could it be?

But then he nodded, pointed to the center of his chest, and mouthed silent reply—

Charlie. Yes. Charlie.

It seemed to be taking a lot of effort to even make himself visible to me, as if his soul was much weaker than Lucy’s somehow. All of them looked like that, come to think of it. Less present here than her.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I offered hopefully.

But again, Charlie didn’t say anything in reply. The blue-eyed ghost just tilted his head, and in that moment Lucy called out—

“Golly, you should see the size of this icicle!”

And then, like smoke, Charlie and his comrades wisped into nothing, leaving me alone and wondering at the strange desperation in his wide blue eyes. He was trying to ask for something, but I didn’t know what.

Strangely, the other ghosts never showed much interest in Lucy. In fact, they tended to avoid her.

                                                             

The walls were done. Only the ceiling was left. I had been here for three months, and I was surprised to realize how little I knew about Lucy despite all her story-telling.

“Admit it,” Lucy said as we lounged together on the scaffolding beneath a painting of a growling lion, “You were glad we were here.”

I re-painted the curve of the lion’s fangs, the heavy grip of his claws, and didn’t respond. Lucy creased her brow and propped herself up on one elbow. “Hey, did you hear me?”

“I heard you,” I reply.

“Well, weren’t you glad?”

“I suppose.”

“You don’t sound all that convinced,” Lucy half-laughed.

“Lucy, how did you die?”

I felt the tenseness ripple through her like it was physically punching her in the chest.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Just curious. We’re friends, aren’t we? Why won’t you tell me?”

Lucy sighed, and in that strange way of hers, that strange floating way that always made me remember that she was very much not of this earth, she leapt off the scaffold and landed gracefully on the edge of the stage thirty feet below. She paused, then whirled to look back up at me.

“Is it really that important to you?” she asked softly, but her voice echoed and carried.

I sat up and nodded.

“Yes, it is.”

“I died for love,” she replied. “I killed myself because Charlie Maloney didn’t love me back. I put rose petals in my bath, stepped in, and shot myself in the head.”

Another ghost lit on my shoulder and whispered in my ear.

Liar,he said. Why is the ghost light broken?

                                                             

I called in sick and don’t go back to the theater for four days.

Why was the ghost light broken?

I had no idea. But the question haunted and widened and twisted and haunted again. I barely slept. I ordered pizza three times and Chinese four because I couldn’t muster the concentration to actually cook. I tried to paint, but could barely smear an acrylic background on canvas before giving up. Even when five of the seven alley-cats came inside when it began to rain, I still managed to feel eerily alone. I was aware of almost nothing except the question.

Why was the ghost light broken?

I Googled Lucy, knowing full well  there would be no mention of her on the internet the same way there was no mention the first time I Googled her. She was a ghost in life as well as death, it seemed. She said she was an actress, but was she really? Why was she so much louder and more fully-formed than the other ghosts? Why were the other ghosts so wary of her?

Why was the ghost light broken?

I didn’t want to go back to the theater. Something had lit in me—a sense of wariness. A soft fear nudging me to go away, forget the job, run away… but in the end, I didn’t have a choice. I needed the money, and I’d never been the type to run from fear anyway.

Why was the ghost light broken?

On the fifth night, I walked into the theater to find Lucy dancing to no music in the center of the stage, twirling like a spun top, eyes closed and arms outstretched towards me as if she could find me even without looking.  There was a great pain in her, an inconsolable loneliness.

“Why is the ghost light broken?” I asked.

Lucy stopped short mid-spin and opened her eyes.

“What do you mean? I have no idea.”

“How did you really die?”

“I told you. I died for love.”

“Why are the other ghosts afraid of you?”

“Afraid? What ever could you mean?”

“Why is the ghost light broken?”

She tilted her head at my sudden insistence, half-amused. “Like I said. I have no idea.”

Liar,another ghost hissed, loud enough for Lucy to hear this time.

There was a brief and breathless pause wherein Lucy stared straight into my eyes and I stared straight into hers. Nothing passed between us. There was just emptiness, complete and hollow space.

Liar,another bodiless ghost joined in. Why is the ghost light broken?

Liar, liar, liar…

            Why is the ghost light broken?

            Why, why, why?

And then somehow and suddenly the voices were more than whispers.

WHY IS THE GHOST LIGHT BROKEN?

            WHY WHY WHY

            LIAR—

            WHY IS THE GHOST LIGHT BROKEN?

And slowly, inexorably, Lucy’s expression shifted from confusion to complete, undeniable anger. Something changed in her. Her face grew pale, her eyes deep-set. Her teeth sharpened. Her dress became ragged and chipped and I could see the wiry strands of her tendons in her knees and elbows. From the sheen of her beauty arose her true form, the violence within her, the angry strength of her murderous will.

“Why is the ghost light broken?” I asked one more time.

“I died for love,” Lucy snapped. “It was only right Charlie died with me too.”

Liar,the ghosts hissed. You liar, you took me with you too…

            More than just Charlie…

Our blood is on your hands…

            Liar, murderer…

            Killer, killer, killer…

            Seven of us in that booth in the bar where you fired the gun…

I took a few steps away from her, trembling.

“I didn’t deserve to die,” she hissed.

“You brought it on yourself,” I choked out.

“It was Charlie’s fault!” she yelped. “Everything was Charlie’s fault. Why couldn’t he just love me?”

I clench my fists and stood my ground as everything clicked together.

“You possessed the ghost light, didn’t you? Like a teapot or a hotel room, just like I said. You did it on purpose. You said it yourself, you don’t do anything by accident. You possessed it so you could stop seeing the world through frosted glass.”

“So what if I did? So what if I didn’t like the limbo kind of death I’d been given to begin with?”

“By extension, you tied all your victims here too, didn’t you? Your deaths were strongly connected, so your after-deaths became connected too. Aren’t I right?”

“You’re never going to leave me, are you?” Lucy whispered, as if she couldn’t hear me at all. “Not like him.”

“They wanted to be behind frosted glass, didn’t they? They wanted peace. But you made them manifest instead, or at least half-manifest. You dragged them along with you when you came here. It was the only thing you did accidentally.”

“Don’t leave me,” she begged.

“You’re evil,” I breathed.

“You can’t leave me.”

“I can’t stay!”

She paused. Narrowed her eyes.

“You’re not allowed to go,” she hissed.

And then her cold hands were on my neck and I was pinned to the floor and I thrashed against her but I was powerless to do anything. All my blows went through her but her hands stayed tight and palpable against my neck. Her eye sockets were hollow and filled with maggots, her jewelry cracked and rusted and greasy.

“You aren’t allowed to leave me. No one is allowed to leave!” she screamed.

“Let go!”

“No!”

WHY IS THE GHOST LIGHT BROKEN?!One of the ghosts screamed, just that much louder than the rest.

“The ghost light is broken because it’s mine,” she growled. “Because I have the power to do what I want. I can do anything. Anything at all. And what I’m going to do is take you with me too. Because you can’t leave me either, can’t leave me any more than Charlie could.”

            Lucy!

Lucy froze and let go of me and turned. And there, wavering in the aisle, just there, just for an instant, was a man—tall, blue-eyed, smoking a cigar, wearing a perfect khaki suit, grimacing as if suffering from the effort of making himself more of a ghost than simply an idea that had latched onto Lucy like a suckerfish.

And I saw my chance. Charlie gave it to me. I pushed Lucy aside, leapt from the floor past her, straight through the pale mirage of Charlie, scrambled onto the stage, clawed my way to the ghost light. And Lucy followed, screaming my name, but she wasn’t fast enough. Not quite.

I knocked the ghost light to the ground and the bulb shattered.

Everything went dark. And Lucy’s screams went silent, almost as if they had never been there at all.

                                                                                                                                               

 

Charlie Maloney was buried in Boston. He, unlike Lucy, I could find on the internet, and a week after I shattered the ghost light and the theater emptied itself of ghost-voices I took a bus out there and put some yellow flowers on his grave. It wasn’t much of a grave, just a muddy patch with a few feeble stems of grass forcing their way upwards through the dirt, but it was something. Enough.

Charlie Maloney. 1894-1923. Poor bastard.

“Thanks,” I whispered to no one, knowing full well he wasn’t around to hear me anymore. “I mean it.”

Life and death go on.

 

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