Tuesday, October 16, 2012

True Ghost Story

Yes, a true ghost story! It happened to a close family member - though, of course, details have been changed to protect the innocent. However, the ghost is 100% real and what happens related to the ghost in the story is exactly what happened to my relative.

So, in honor of one of my favorite holidays, Halloween, I've decided to re-publish the story here for free - October Twilight (originally published in the October 2011 issue of The Ultimate Writer) - and share it with my fans. Enjoy...

By Tara McTiernan
Copyright 2008 Tara McTiernan

Maggie was on one of her Sunday get-out-of-the-house-before-you-lose-your-mind drives, moving fairly slowly as no one was behind her, and that was probably why she saw it at all. It was a small old graveyard, complete with a black wrought iron fence full of curlicues and a gate. As it was nowhere near a church or even any houses, she wouldn’t have thought to look. But she was drawn to graveyards lately; they were the only places that felt comfortable and right these days. 

She turned her wheel hard and pulled onto the high-grass and wildflower filled shoulder. A few late black-eyed Susan’s leaned in her open passenger window as if to ask her a question. Maggie looked at the flowers. “Don’t look at me. I’m just crazy,” she said. She was talking to herself a lot recently, so it didn’t seem strange to talk to flowers while she was at it.

Glancing in her rearview mirror to make sure no cars were coming up on her side, she opened the door and then walked back to the graveyard, looking around the area. There weren’t any houses in sight, not even a lone driveway leading to some house hidden by trees, just the thick woods and the road. The graveyard was set a little back from the road and up on a rise. She climbed the crumbling brick stairs to the gate and tried it. It was locked. The wrought iron fence was Victorian in style, the pickets topped by pointed arrows as if telling the souls where to go when they died. Go to Heaven and see little Brian, less than a month old, too young to sin. 

She shook her head. I won’t think about that today. It’s Sunday, a good day, a family day. Only that was the problem. First Brian had been taken from
her, and then John left because she couldn’t get over Brian, double punishment for a crime she didn’t commit. She shook her head again, more violently this time. Stop it!

Through the gate, the old gravestones leaned in every direction, some broken, some completely flat as if heaved from the ground, others sunken as if being dragged down into the earth by the dead. Many were covered with moss and hard to read from the gate. A few had carvings of skulls with wings above the worn away name and date. The skulls stared at her. She turned away and started walking around the outside of the fence, looking for a break. All around, except on the side that faced the road, the woods pressed tightly to the edge of the fence, forcing her to walk further into the woods than she wanted to in order to continue. A few rusty-sounding crickets sawed out the last of their summer song in the leaves that had already fallen. Most of the trees still held their foliage and they blazed above in bursts of red and orange and yellow, a display Maggie was numb to. Other than the crickets and the occasional sound of a breeze passing through the treetops, the woods were silent.

Maggie weaved in and out, coming closer to the fence to find it still whole and sturdy, being forced away by thickened areas of trees and shrubs blocking the way. At one point, as she got closer the graveyard, she saw a white form that seemed to be watching her from among the gravestones. She froze, and stared. It didn’t move, but the prickling feeling of being watched remained. She walked closer and saw that it was a statue of an angel standing over a grave she hadn’t noticed earlier, all the way in the back of the cemetery. Being watched! She chuckled and walked on.

Finally, she was back where she started. If she weren’t wearing the summer weight cotton skirt and thin flats she’d thrown on that morning, she would have tried to climb over the fence. It was one of those Indian Summer days in early October in Connecticut, when the heat of the day fools you and the minute the sun starts to sink lower in the sky you end up with your arms wrapped tightly around you and your teeth chattering. Already the heat had left the air. Maggie shivered and felt that prickling feeling again. What is that? Forget it, I’m just being paranoid. I’ll come back tomorrow with my camera, wearing jeans, and get in there. 

She was taking a photography class with Continuing Education at the local high school, one of her best friend Lauren’s many suggestions to help her grief-stricken friend get out of the house. Maggie smiled, thinking of Lauren, sunny and elfin, her short black hair sticking out every which way, her green eyes smiling. Lauren and her husband, Bob, had invited her over for dinner that night. Maggie hoped they weren’t going to invite any more eligible bachelors. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t even officially divorced yet, but everyone was trying to set her up, get her out, help her. With the exception of Lauren, it all just felt like a swarm of buzzing flies around her head, getting in her ears, flying at her eyes.

“So, what do you do?” Tim asked. Lauren and Bob had invited Tim, a very cute bachelor, to dinner.

“I’m an office manager at Imtek in Weston. You?” Maggie listened politely as he told her about his job as a pharmaceutical rep. He was definitely the type: handsome enough, charming, chatty. She could tell he liked her, which made her sad. Here was this perfectly great guy, and she couldn’t feel anything. She felt like telling him he was drawing at a dry well. Instead, she smiled and asked him questions about himself, her mama’s good girl ‘til the end. 

They moved from cocktails and cheese and crackers to steaks off the grill to coffee and apple pie. Finally, Tim left, tucking her phone number into his pocket and promising to call her the next night.

She was watching his car back out of the driveway when Lauren came up behind her and hugged her.
“Oh, I’m so psyched for you! Isn’t he the greatest? I knew you guys would hit it off!”

Tim’s car disappeared, and Maggie heaved a huge sigh. “Phew! Thank God he’s gone.”

“What? Maggie!” Lauren released her.

Maggie turned around to face her friend. “When are you going to learn? I’m so not ready!”

“You’re going to let this ruin your life, aren’t you?”

“No, no, I’m not. I just need some time.”

“What, to hide out in your house? To lurk around in graveyards?”

Maggie brightened. “Speaking of graveyards…”

Lauren turned and walked away towards the kitchen. “Mags, I’m warning you.”

Maggie followed her into the cheerful red and white kitchen and watched Lauren start filling the sink to wash the pots and pans from dinner. “What? It’s just a subject for my photo class, the class you suggested.”

“Well, I think it’s morbid. Why not do a series on wildflowers or –wait - fall foliage! I mean, right now, we have the world’s most beautiful fall foliage. You could include some of the local old New England architecture, like a church or something. That would be fantastic!”

“You should see this old graveyard I found today. I mean, it’s got to be from the 1800’s. It has this amazing wrought iron fence around it and these mossy gravestones all leaning different directions. I could probably work in some foliage, too. That’s a good suggestion.”

Lauren shut off the tap and turned to face Maggie. “You know that’s not what I meant. It’s been over a year. You need to move on, be happy. You deserve it. I think you need to move out of that house, get a condo. That old place is too full of memories. And you better go out with Tim! He’s perfect for you!”

Maggie looked at her friend’s sweet heart-shaped face and knitted brow. “Okay! I’ll go out with him! But one time! I’m not promising anything more than that.”

She didn’t mention the house. She wouldn’t even discuss it. It had been love at first sight three years ago, with its wraparound porch and old converted barn that operated as a garage and a studio for John. Well, now the studio was empty, but she’d fill it. And the big tree in the backyard, complete with a tire swing. She used to imagine the early years, little Brian paddling in one of those plastic pools in the shade of the huge oak, then growing bigger and swinging on the swing. Still older, he would be climbing the tree to the very top, making her worry. 

After all her loyal thoughts, she expected the house to envelop her in familiarity and sweet-smelling home when she walked through the kitchen door. Instead the place seemed cold, indifferent. Even the grandfather clock ticking in the hall, one of her favorite sounds, seemed to echo hollowly across the painstakingly refinished floorboards. She turned on the light. Everything was where she left it, neat, lined up. Suddenly, the kitchen seemed all askew, as if something wasn’t right. She inspected the curtains to see if they were straight, refolded her antique cotton dishcloths with their bright oranges and cherries merrily dancing across them. She looked at the prints of fruits and flowers she and John had picked out. Why did nothing work in this room? She went from room to room and each seemed wrong for the first time, instead of her usual verdict of perfect. 

“Lauren. This is all your fault,” Maggie said to her empty guest room. 

She walked into the bathroom and looked at her refection in the mirror above the sink. I’m tired. That’s all. 

She went to bed, needing every blanket in the cedar chest at the foot of her bed to feel warm. Even with four blankets, she shivered until she fell asleep on her side of the bed, still leaving the other side empty, as if expecting John’s return.

After work the next day she drove straight to the graveyard, packing her camera this time and wearing the jeans and sneakers she’d changed into in the bathroom stall at work. The sun had fallen behind the trees, shooting bright bolts of light between the leaves into her eyes as she climbed the stairs to the gate, the wind gusting occasionally and sending dry leaves scuttling down the street. 
Maggie walked to a little rise outside of the fence, giving her a few extra inches of a boost. She dangled and dropped the camera on the other side of the fence and then put her hands on the cold wrought iron and hoisted herself over, one of the arrow points catching hold of the edge of her back pocket. There was a zipping sound of the pocket tearing, and then Maggie was loose and over. She rubbed her butt to see how bad the tear was, but it had only loosened the bottom half of the pocket. She picked up her camera and looked around. 

A cricket was occasionally creaking away, but other than that it was quiet. Maggie walked around, examining the headstones, taking photos at angles where she would get the late-day sunlight coming through the trees with a headstone in the foreground. In one corner of the graveyard, near the back, there was branch of a nearby maple tree, thick with bright orange leaves, hanging low. 

“Here’s some fall foliage for ya,” Maggie said and walked closer. She squatted and got a row of small headstones and the leaves in the shot. Squinting through the viewfinder, she saw something white in the corner of the frame move. She pulled the camera away from her eyes and looked. 

Nothing. But the tickling watched feeling she had felt in the woods yesterday was back. Someone was here. 

She stood and looked around. Where were they hiding?

“Hello?” she called. 

She started walking slowly, searching. After an entire circuit of the graveyard, she’d found nothing but gravestones, overgrown grass, and the tall statue of the angel over a grave marked Sarah Lockwood and the dates 1901 – 1929. It was the only grave not dated sometime in the 1800’s. What town had this cemetery been for? It certainly wasn’t a family cemetery; there were too many different last names. Why was this one grave added so much later? 

It was getting cold and dark, the sky turning a deep royal blue overhead, tiny clouds catching the last rosy rays of the sunset. Maggie took a last look around the graveyard, dropped her camera on the other side of the fence as she had done before, and then started climbing over. 

Like a cold breeze, a voice behind her whispered. “Don’t go.”

Maggie gave a little scream and turned to look over her shoulder. Behind her stood a white form, its face that of a young woman, the eyes black holes in its paleness, the mouth open as if to speak again.
Then it was gone, as if a switch had been thrown.

Maggie scrambled over the fence, her feet landing with a sickening crunch on top of her camera. She let out another shriek, looked down at her broken camera and then back at the graveyard. Empty. Still the cold tickling feeling.

She snatched up the camera and the pieces she could pick up, leaving the broken pieces of lens on the ground and ran down the stairs, taking two at a time. She jumped into her car, throwing the camera and its pieces in the passenger seat. An SUV roared past just as she shut the door, headlights temporarily blinding her. She revved the engine and hit the gas, spinning the tires before they gained purchase. Then she was speeding away, down the curving purple twilit road toward home. 

“Just get home. Just get home,” she whispered to herself as she drove, taking risks she usually wouldn’t take, wheeling around other cars, pushing through yellow-turned-red lights. She didn’t look in her rear-view window or she would have seen that she had a passenger, fading in and out in shades of white and grey, black eyes lively, sitting in the back seat. 

“Lauren, you’re right, graveyards are morbid.”

“Well, it’s about time. What’s up? Are you home? Can I call you right back?”

Maggie sat down at her kitchen table, cradling the phone with both hands to her face. “No, no, Lauren! Just talk to me for a minute.”

“It’s just that I’ve got some spaghetti sauce boiling over and the phone doesn’t reach that far. Listen, I’ll call you right back.”

“Please, just for a minute.”

“What’s the matter?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Hold on a sec. I’ve just got to turn that down before it burns. Don’t go anywhere.”

“I’m not,” Maggie said in the smallest possible voice.

She waited, clutching the phone, and felt the cold tickling again. She turned her head and looked into the living room. Black eyes looked back at her from the wing chair by the fireplace. 

“Hello,” it whispered.

Maggie’s eyes grew wide as she stared at the beautiful wraith from the graveyard, white wisps dissipating out into the air around it, sitting in her living room. She gripped the phone so hard with sweaty hands that it slipped and fell with a clatter.

“Okay, I’m back,” Lauren said from the phone on the floor.

“Go away,” Maggie breathed at the creature.

“You’re lonely,” it whispered. 

“Sarah? Are you Sarah?” The angel statue, the 20th century grave.

It nodded, white wisps around it seeming to reach toward Maggie. “You’re just like me. All alone.”

“Hello?” Lauren called.

 “What was that cemetery? Why was it like that?”

The ghost just shook its head.

“Leave, go away,” Maggie croaked.

“Maggie? Are you there?” Lauren said, her voice taking on an edge.

The ghost’s face turned horribly mournful, black eyes becoming deep pits. “You don’t want me either. No one wanted any of us.” Then it was gone.

Suddenly Maggie remembered a story she had heard years before about a local graveyard of outcasts: the mentally ill, the borderline criminals, wanderers. Was that it? 

Maggie leapt to her feet and stepped into the living room. Icy cold enveloped her, her breath coming out in clouds in front of her. She hesitantly walked toward the wing chair. The cushion was still plumped. She placed her hand on it and it was freezing cold. 

She looked around the room at the antiques she and John had so carefully picked out together, going to estate sales and little antique stores and auctions to collect them. It was suddenly all so dry and stale and dead. She wanted everything fresh and new and smelling of sawdust and manufacturing.

“Maggie! I’m coming over there!” Lauren called from the kitchen floor. 

Maggie ran for the phone, grabbed at it and made it skitter across the floor. Finally she had it in her hands. “Lauren?”

“Maggie! Oh, my God! You totally freaked me out!” 

“Lauren, I’m selling the house. I’m going to get a condo with big skylights, lots and lots of skylights. Really modern.”

“Maggie, what are you talking about? I mean, that’s fantastic, but I thought it would take a lot more to unglue you from that place. But wait a second, modern? You hate modern stuff.”

“Not any more. Listen, I better get off the phone so I don’t tie up the line when Tim calls. That’s right, I’ve got to get call waiting…and a cell! No more old-fashioned Maggie. Oh, and by the way, feel free to set me up with anyone else you think would be right for me,” Maggie said. She looked toward the living room and the empty wing chair. “You’re right, it’s time to get rid of the ghosts and memories.”

“I think I’m having a heart attack. I better sit down. Maggie!”

“And no more graveyards.”

“I’m dying here!”

“Don’t you dare!” Maggie said and they both laughed, Maggie’s laugh high and hysterical with relief.

Her eyes kept darting back toward the living room, checking, but the room stayed empty. They talked for over an hour; the living room growing warm while Lauren’s spaghetti dinner grew cold, Maggie finally planning her future while her best friend cheered her on.

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