I knew all the silly rumours were true the minute the giant, oak door slammed shut behind me. Something wasn’t right. The hair on the back of my neck even tried to escape, standing on end and bristling against my shirt collar; it practically vibrated with tension. I could hear myself chuckle. After all, haunted houses were the stuff of children’s nightmares and bad, low-budget movies, right? But I knew that laugh of mine. It was my nervous laugh. Damn it. I was no longer a child – I was fourteen for Christ’s sake, and too old to be scared of stories. Then why was I holding my breath? I could feel the usual flush of embarrassment rouge my cheeks. Damn it, again.
The deal was that I had to go up to the attic and open the window, wave at everyone waiting for me on the street, and then return to report what I had discovered. That was the bet. Our gang had been staring at the window for years as we walked to and from our bus stop. And every day of those years, this old house patiently sat there watching the world go by as weeds infested its front walkway, and ivy fingers clawed at every inch of brick, strangling the life right out of the place. If this bet worked out, we could very well find ourselves with a cool hangout away from our parents and their stupid rules. Twenty bucks and my pride were riding on this. I wasn’t about to give that up.
I told myself to get a grip and bravely walked a few steps into the foyer. Before me rose an elegant and rather dusty spiral staircase that lead to the second floor of the house. Floorboards creaked and threads of spider webs tickled my face in a rather annoying way as I made my way to the stairs. This was too much; everything about this house was cliché. If this were a movie I was making a terrible mistake; staircases were to be avoided. But this was real life, so there was nothing to worry about. My hand tightened around the wooden banister and I ascended the stairs, slowly at first and then quickening my pace in response to the growing sensation I was being followed.
As I reached my last step I hesitated. The air was heavy with expectation and dread. An eerie, discomforting sound began to penetrate my eardrums. It was as though a set of swings, suspended from rusty chains inside my head, was moving backward and forward, pushed by every stupid fear I never knew I had. I pinched my lips together. I would NOT look behind me; I would NOT cave in to those fears.
I looked behind me. Damn it. Nothing was there but an old chandelier hanging down from the centre of the foyer ceiling, not moving, in complete stillness and without motion. No one was underneath it and no one was on the staircase following me. Of course there’s nothing there, I thought. The sound abruptly stopped. It was all in my head and I needed to get focused on the task at hand. I had reached the second floor and now all I had to do was find my way to the attic. I looked down the long hall to my left. It was in complete darkness. I turned my head and looked down the long hall to my right and it wasn’t. In complete darkness, that is.
Out of nowhere a cold gust of energy shot itself into my chest. I shivered – my body physically shook – until gradually my ability to move shut down, limb by limb. I was frozen in the middle of the wide, dark hallway at the top of a rather daunting set of stairs. About twenty feet to my right stood – or rather hovered – what can only be described as a glowing man. I strained to turn around and run back outside to my friends, but all effort was futile. I was forced to watch as this other-worldly creature made his way toward me.
I felt like I was on the edge of a cliff. My tongue stuck to the roof of my dried up mouth; my eyes locked onto the strange figure in widened panic; my head was drowning in the repetitive chorus of the Ghostbusters’ theme song. I swallowed loudly as the thing moved closer and closer. He looked like a regular middle-aged man. He had a long jaw and a slender frame. Okay, regular’s the wrong word. He glowed for Christ’s sake – an extreme brightness shone out a good few inches from every part of his being and really there was nothing normal or regular about that. Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!
“Hi,” he said, smiling. “I’m Darryl.” His voice was not what I expected – soft and gentle, with a bit of a gravely, chest cold tone to it. Somehow this observation both shocked me and put me at ease. Darryl? This glowing ghost-man was named Darryl?
I stuttered before finally spitting out my name. The ghost smiled again, displaying two rows of impeccably straight teeth that certainly had no need for whitening strips. He held out his hand and as I took it a chilled electric current – I don’t have any other way to describe it – exploded through my body. If felt great. Instantly I was released from my immobile state. Darryl let go of my hand, moved past me and descended the spiral staircase. Halfway down, he looked at me over his shoulder and without a word I knew I was to follow him.
We went into the parlour room just off the foyer. He offered me a drink, and without any problem negotiating the very tangible carafe, his almost translucent hands poured us each a glass of brandy. I know this will be hard to believe, but the only thought going through my mind at the time was how cool it was that I was going to be drinking brandy like a real adult. My Dad wouldn’t even let me have a sip of his beer.
“So,” I started awkwardly. “How long have you lived… um… been here, Darryl?” I was never much good at small talk.
“Time doesn’t really matter to the dead, young man,” he began. “I’ve been here for as long as I have needed to be and I will remain until I’m superfluous.”
“What does that mean?” I wasn’t going to leave this house without a little insight on ghost life or death or existence, or whatever it was. Besides, Darryl seemed to be a friendly sort of guy. I sat back in the big, leather chair Darryl had directed me to and casually took a giant gulp from my tumbler. Instantly a cough sputtered out of my mouth as the burning liquid made its way down my throat. I quickly tried to regain my composure.
“It’s not for me to worry about and so I don’t.”
“Well,” I croaked, “don’t you want to visit your family or descendants?” I was grateful he didn’t acknowledge my lack of drinking know-how.
“My family?” He looked something between annoyed and amused.
I continued. “You know. Before you died- the family you lived with. There must be people out there who want to see you again. Right?”
Darryl sighed then – if you could call it a sigh. “I hate that question, kid. Jesus.” He rested his elbow against the arm of his chair and rubbed his left temple. His glow appeared to vibrate at this time and I wasn’t sure if I had upset him.
“Sorry,” he said finally. “It’s not you – it’s me.”
“Okay,” I said, looking down at my beverage. I didn’t really like Brandy all that much after the novelty of drinking alcohol wore off. I cupped the glass and stared deep into the amber liquid. I also didn’t like being called kid, but I’d let it slide.
“It’s just – I get asked that question all the time and it’s, well – it’s a really stupid question.” He got up and topped up my glass.
“There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers,” I mumbled, indignation rippling through my voice. Against my wishes, I felt my bottom lip protrude out. I could tell I was sulking, but I couldn’t stop myself. So instead, I sipped away at my drink.
“Aw, hey. Damn it all. Now I’ve made you feel bad.”
I looked up and saw Darryl do a movement that can only be described as an aw shucks kind of thing – swinging his arm and ending with a snap. He wasn’t being facetious. I could tell from his grimace that he was upset about the whole thing. I remained quiet, hoping to take control of my sensitive state and make a better impression on the ghost-man. He seemed like a decent guy and I wasn’t in the mood to leave just yet.
“Look,” he said. “It’s just that – well, I’ve only ever been a ghost.”
“Yeah. I mean, how can I be anything other than what I am now?”
I was confused. This was all too existential for me. I mean, at the time I didn’t even know what existentialism was. I hadn’t even been drunk before; I hadn’t felt a girl up or done anything worth contemplating the grandiose question of what does it all mean? With bravado, I swigged back my drink. I could feel the alcohol affecting my thoughts and movements. Heaviness seeped into my limbs and my mouth felt fat, numb, and tingly. It was lovely. And so was Darryl’s luminescence. I could feel myself becoming more and more enthralled with the very idea of him.
“So, you don’t believe in change?” I finally asked, speaking slowly and deliberately. “I mean isn’t that rather limiting? You sound kinda stuck. Don’t you believe that we go from one state to another before, during, and after life?” This was deeper than I ever got in Ms.Disalle’s history class. I hiccoughed.
“Right. I forgot how ego-centric the living are,” he muttered, audible enough for me to hear, but quiet enough that I was expected to ignore it. “It’s all defined around life, isn’t it? Living always comes first. One can’t be dead and come alive, can they?”
I didn’t appreciate the sarcastic roll of his eyes. “You mean like zombies?” I offered.
He visibly cringed at that point. And then- I kid you not- he hit the palm of his hand against his forehead. I mean, was this guy for real? Okay, that was a stupid question, because I wasn’t entirely sure he was real. But all of his silly cartoon-style gestures were starting to annoy me. First the aw shucks and now the doh? Maybe Darryl was mocking me? Maybe he did think I was just some stupid pre-teen, pre-intelligent thing that had to be endured.
“Listen, Darryl. I only know what I’ve been told or taught… or what I’ve seen with my Own. Two. Eyes.” In my slightly intoxicated state I thought pausing between words for emphasis would be more effective. I stared at him for a moment. “Which isn’t much by the way, considering my age and parental restructuring.”
“Restrictions,” I corrected myself. “Ya see, this right here is weird, man. Weird.” I stood up. “Do I believe you exist? I mean, I see ya right in front of me. And if I don’t believe in you, can I believe anything I’ve ever learned from books, let alone from personal experience? What is real? Am I real? I mean, am I cracking up right now? Is that was this is? Me? Losing it? I’m only fourteen, damn it.” I pointed a finger at my ghost-host. “You are not a normal experience. I can’t tell anyone about this conversation. I’m in this old house-mansion-thing talking with you for no other reason than to pass the time by. I’m not up at the attic waving at my friends, making the twenty bucks I need in order to bribe some much older kids into getting me something I may actually want to drink.”
I was breathing hard. I was pissed off. Darryl pissed me off. Ghost or not, he had a real knack for making me feel like a kid. I contemplated leaving, but I didn’t think that would be polite. Instead, I poured myself another glass full of Brandy and leaned against the archway of the door – mostly for support, but I also was pretty sure it made me look confident.
“Listen, kid. I don’t think you’re stupid. I understand where you’re coming from. It’s just that I get a little tired of hearing everything from the ‘living’ perspective. It’s the default ‘normal’ in a conversation between a person and a ghost. It’s just expected that your norms are right and my norms don’t even exist. It’s not easy being an invisible minority. I mean, I can see you guys everywhere. But, in order for you to see me, and trust in what I am as a valid form of existence, I have to literally come out and prove myself to you. And even that’s not enough. You just said you doubted your sanity merely because we are talking. Your scientists consider my kind a hoax. We ghosts are not possible. We are an invention or delusion of the living. It’s disheartening, not to mention insulting. We know all about you. We ghosts give your living world credit. We learn your ways and how to adapt to your lives. But,” he sat back in his chair then. “There’s no reciprocity, kid. You guys don’t want to see what you can’t see. Now that’s limiting.”
I slid down to the ground with a humbled mixture of embarrassment and empathy. It was true; I would never be able to admit my experience with Darryl to anyone else. I had no idea what it would like to live … or exist like that. I didn’t have to. People believed in me – enough to tell me what to do or try to define my existence on their terms. It was my choice whether I listened. Darryl didn’t even get that. I flopped my head to one side in order to get a better look at Darryl. He was just a regular guy. A regular old, ghost guy.
“Kid. I believe in change.”
I sat up straight, prepared to take in every word. I sensed Darryl was going to get real with me. I finally felt respected. Even though he called me kid, I was being treated like someone with a brain for once in my life.
“I was once what my friends might call an asshole.”
“When you were alive?” I offered eagerly.
“No,” he said flatly, not amused by my contribution. “I had a …hmmmm… death-altering experience if you will and decided to change my ways. Now, I’m more relaxed and enjoy death much more than before. I don’t sweat the small stuff.” He took a small sip and set his glass down.
“You enjoy being dead more than being alive?”
“Okay, now you are being stupid. I was never alive!”
I sunk back against the door frame. He’d already said that, but the concept wasn’t so easy for me to absorb and besides that, my head was swimming.
“May I continue?”
“You weren’t asking about belief in changing ones personality. You were asking about the belief in changing ones being; ones state of existence. And that, my friend, cannot be changed. You can only ever be what you are now. And when now is over, perhaps a new existence will take place. Who knows? Who cares?”
It was deep – I could give him that.
“Oh. Okay. So basically you don’t remember living – so how could you acknowledge that state of being? And when I die, I’ll struggle to remember my life?” I really thought I got it then. I smiled proudly at him.
“Listen, kid. You’re not getting it and I’m starting to lose my patience. How can I -” He stood up and paced around the room mumbling to himself. He looked over to me every once in a while, shaking his head. Then, he turned to face me, one hand on his hip, the other rubbing under his chin. “What would you say if I asked you, ‘Who were you when you were dead?'”
“But that doesn’t make sense.”
“Just as much sense as your question does to me. Who is to say that you didn’t die before you were born?”
“Come on.” I felt my face redden with frustration. I wasn’t getting it after all. Maybe I was just a stupid kid.
“Don’t get in a tizzy now. You just asked me an equally ridiculous question and expected a response from me.”
“But, I mean – death before life? Really?”
Darryl sighed again.
“Such arrogance and presumption from the living. I’m getting tired of this conversation. Shall we move on?”
“Sure. To what?”
He smiled then. It wasn’t a smile that I felt particularly comforted by. In fact, I could feel a deepening menace behind it and thought perhaps I had over-estimated this new friendship growing between us.
“To me freaking you out so you leave this house and vow never to return again. Perhaps you’ll piss yourself. You’ve certainly had enough to drink. But, that’s not my concern, really.” He stared casually at his nails.
“Are you serious?”
“It is a bit degrading, I’ll give you that. But it’s my job for now while I pay off some loans. A ghost has to make a deathing. Ha ha. Get it? Instead of making a living we make a … never mind. I see you get it. You got some brains in you, kid.”
I wasn’t amused.
“Are you ready?” he asked politely.
And then I had the living shit scared right out of me. I never did return to that house, but I did piss my pants. For years after nicknames and much laughter were held at my expense all because of that damn ghost Darryl. Also, much to the pleasure of my parents, I never did acquire a taste for alcohol.
Story by P.Barker