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Creepy Crawley Halloween Short Story Contest

The winner Messages from the Afterlife by Lisa Richardson We bought a church, my partner and I. A renovator, with character.
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The winner

Messages from the Afterlife

by Lisa Richardson

We bought a church, my partner and I. A renovator, with character. (Pink and aqua paint scheme, floorboards rotting away at the entrance, sun-warped shingles that fly off in thunderstorms, layers of dust that trigger prospective vendors’ allergies. In short, a fire sale.)

Cue jokes about lightning strikes, blasphemy, sex on the altar, David Koresh. But the most common question, after “Can I have a stained-glass window?”

‘Is it haunted?’

***

Our tenant suspects so. She lives in the finished half of the building, while we prepare ourselves, amongst plywood floors and plastic sheeting, for Phase 2. She wakes up at 3 a.m. Her stereo has suddenly come on: the luminous green of the LCD glows across the room. Heart slamming, as though her slumbering soul has been snapped back into her body like a violent bungee, she switches it off, resists the urge to cross herself.

She visits a psychic.

“Tell me about the little red church,” she asks.

“Don’t do it,” warns the psychic.

“It’s too late. I moved in a month ago.”

“I see a fire,” says the woman.

We talk to our insurance broker.

***

Lisa’s boss lives in a priory, outside Gravesend, England.

It’s called Gravesend because that’s where they dumped the bodies, in mass graves, during the Great Plague. Too many bodies and not enough time to dig individual plots. A bucket of lime and away you go.

The priory is haunted. This is a known fact, recorded in travel guides and history books. Someone has researched the ghosts of Kent, and interviewed previous tenants from the heritage-listed building. Her boss gets a kick out of this macabre fame, but Lisa thinks it’s so he has some company apart from his witch of a wife.

The ghost is a woman in a habit. Long skirts, a veil covering her hair. Previous visitors are reported to have come down for breakfast and said, “Please thank the nurse for her kindness last night. I had such a headache, and she brought me a wet cloth; it was very comforting.”

“Nurse? There’s no nurse here. That’s the ghost you saw,” the owners of the estate reply, nonplussed.

She walks a certain pattern around the priory, doesn’t ever hurt anyone. She is not a nurse, as she is sometimes mistaken for, but a nun. It is believed she was a nun who had an affair with a monk at the priory, and for her sins was bricked between two walls. Alive.

Lisa’s boss hosts a dinner party. After dessert, he pulls out a Ouija board, turns down the lights.

“Is there anyone else who thinks this is a dumb idea?” asks Lisa.

She stares up at the stained glass window, which features the exorcism that took place to get rid of another evil spirit that inhabited the place in the eighteenth century. It looks like they’re sacrificing a two year old. She refuses to touch the glass at the centre of the board. Whimpers from the corner, “Is it really necessary to have the lights out?”

The spirit who joins them in séance is a eunuch pope poisoned last century. He answers their questions, about the afterlife, about their destinies. Everybody leaves at 11:15 p.m. The next day, Lisa’s boss tells them that the clock in the room stopped. At 11:15 p.m.

Here’s the thing that bothers me. What motivates that spirit to enter into conversation with a bunch of drunk people? Are the spirits all sitting around watching us fuck up our lives and moaning, “Ohh, if only they knew…”

***

When Alec was nineteen, he shot himself in the head. He didn’t kill himself outright. He was hospitalized, in a coma, then died several days later. In my husband’s family, it is a forbidden topic of conversation.

Stephanie is Alec’s sister-in-law. She married the brother who found Alec with massive head wounds, still breathing, in the family basement. That would be the insomniac brother, Ron.

Stephanie and Ron live in a little house, the rabbit hutch, on the back of the family property, with their kids. Ron’s parents still live in the front residence, across the street from the river. Stephanie can see Alec. He’s often there, sitting on top of the shed roof, a long-limbed crow, when she hangs out the washing.

She doesn’t tell anyone this. She talks to him.

“What does he want?” I ask.

We’re in the kitchen mixing up drinks, she’s tending to dinner, whispering. She can tell me, because I’m in that strange place of family by association. Another in-law. We become privy to the family secrets, but it’s recognized that we’re outsiders, that we don’t feel the forbiddenness of these stories, the shame. Especially after a few drinks.

“I don’t know. I just talk to him, tell him what’s going on with the kids.”

“Are his intentions good or bad?”

“Oh, sometimes I think they’re bad and I just tell him off.”

He sits on the roof like a bird, watching, and waiting.

The old man dies. He was a chain smoker. Heavy drinker. No one quite knows how he stayed alive so long, except maybe out of spite. I think he was afraid of meeting up with Alec’s angry ghost.

Once the old man died, Stephanie didn’t see Alec again.

***

“Is it haunted?” people ask us.

“It’s only thirty years old. And nobody died there. People went to sing and clap and eat chocolate slice.”

Still, we’re careful to yell “Fuck!” instead of “Jesus Christ!” if we swing a hammer on our thumbs.

I gather up all the ghost stories I know of, the defying curfew-school-and-camp stories, the ones that triggered a rash of goosebumps down the back of my neck. These spirits seem to wander in some half-world because of the suddenness, the violence of their death. They do their thing. They watch and wait. They don’t seem to have a particular message.

But my mother received a message.

Bev is a workaholic. A 10 cups of coffee a day, sit at the computer and ream off entire reports in record time, workaholic. Cigarette for breakfast, don’t have time to get outside, workaholic.

One night, she’s lying in bed. Her heart skittering in the dark, irregular and rapid, like the sound a jar of marbles makes as it falls on a parquetry floor. It’s hot outside – the regular hum of the air conditioner softens the noise from the neighbourhood, the voices growing boisterous from the tavern across the road, the occasional defiant screech of tires skidding, the slamming doors of nearby units. She tries to keep her breath still, wishes she didn’t live alone. Who would know if something happened to her? Presses her hands on the wild tattoo drumming of her chest, afraid.

A shadow appears in her doorway. Leaning against the doorjamb.

“Bev.”

Someone is here. In her house. In her room.

But it’s not a stranger. It’s her friend, Richard.

Richard, who just died of a heart attack.

“Bev,” he says. “Be careful. You have to take care of yourself. You have to take care of yourself.”

Dead Richard. In her bedroom. That’s the message. Then he’s gone.

And I thank him. If he only had one message to give, in that moment of disembodiment, that he used his quota on her.

Lisa Richardson has never seen a ghost, despite living in a converted church for five years. Her greatest fears are that her computer will crash during a busy month when she's totally forgotten to back anything up, and that she won't grow a green thumb before Peak Oil hits.

The Runner-Up

Lost Sole

By Steve Vernon

I saw the sneaker again today.

Cast off, with its eyelets glinting blindly in the sunshine. A dirty pink tongue poked out. One frayed lace snaked from the left upper eyelet like a pointless question mark. A single frayed oak leaf, dead since last autumn, fluttered against the decaying cotton walls of the shoe.

She’s still following me. Three years of looking over my shoulder, listening for footsteps, I’ve forgotten what forward looks like. I just sit here, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I can hear it all as if it had just happened yesterday. The scream of my old gray Plymouth’s sadly worn brake shoes, the reeking squeal of friction scorched retreads, the impotent thud of my work boot stomping against the brake pedal and finally the thump. Hard and soft all at once like a muted drum beat. Her face spraying out like a handful of pink plasticine against my windshield, her hair a mad halo haystack spidered in all directions.

The tire tracks of memory charred out behind me even now. I cannot escape them. I still smell the burnt rubber and taste the tinny dryness of barely swallowed fear. All of these elements mosaic together in my memory, haunting me like a half remembered lullaby.

I saw the sneaker for the first time, three days after the accident.

That’s what it was, you know. A single stupid accident. I hadn’t been drinking. I hadn’t been talking on my cell phone. I hadn’t been under the influence of anything but my mind wandering down some long forgotten footpath. I just hadn’t been thinking, was all. That’s all I can figure happened. I looked away or just stopped watching and then she came running out from the woods straight onto the road.

It was her fault. Not mine. I only blinked. I blinked and then I panicked.

Three days later I saw the shoe. Dangling from a power line, like a forgotten suicide note. If this were some story in a book of ghost tales I would have recognized the shoe immediately but I didn’t.

Think about it. How many times have you seen a sneaker lying on the sidewalk, forgotten as if the runner had simply stepped out of his or her shoe and kept on walking. Abandoned by a frustrated one-legged man, perhaps. Maybe dipped in dog dirt, smeared irreparably and simply chucked away. You might think about it in passing, maybe even wonder where the other shoe was but you wouldn’t look any closer. You certainly wouldn’t stop to try the shoe on.

I didn’t do anything either. I just walked away. Perhaps that was the problem. Maybe if I’d picked it up and given the thing a decent burial. A public burial. That’s what she wants, I expect. Some declaration of her passing. Perhaps an obituary for her shoe.

Let me compose my recitation.

Adidas, left sneaker. Passed peacefully on the sidewalk outside of the Bitter End Coffee Shoppe, barely a block away from a shoemaker. Survived by a pair of mismatched socks and a Doctor Scholl’s insole, slightly used. In lieu of flowers, donations are most gratefully accepted at your local Bata Shoe Store.

Two weeks following the accident I found the shoe lying on my front lawn as if some dog had dropped it there. I told myself it was nothing more than a coincidence. Shoes are left everywhere. Some child had thrown it here. Perhaps a prank or some sort of a game. Let’s see how far we can toss Suzy’s shoe.

That was her name. I found it out when the newspaper and television began to shout of her disappearance. Young Susan Ellie Whitmore, age 7, was playing in her parent’s backyard on the eve of her disappearance. Foul play is suspected.

In her backyard. I read those three words, over and over. What had she been doing out there on that backwoods road? Had somebody else taken her? Had she been kidnapped and escaped only to find herself hopelessly lost in the woods? Had she run in front of my car hoping to flag me down? Hoping that I’d help her?

I couldn’t find any answers to these questions. Death is seldom a tidy affair.

A month later I found the sneaker in my desk drawer, next to my stapler.

I panicked. Somebody knew I’d killed her. Somebody had seen it. It was impossible to believe yet I couldn’t imagine any other possibility. Someone had seen me or perhaps someone in my very office had kidnapped little Suzie and left her out there in the woods to run into the road and be struck by my old gray Plymouth.

I didn’t find it ironic to think how I had begun to paint myself in a hero’s light. We all cope with grief and loss and tragedy in our own individual ways. Shining armour is nothing more than a poorly polished funhouse mirror.

I began watching what I said aloud in the lunch room at work. I paid attention to the comments that went on around me, trying to find some sort of hint or pattern. What did this one mean by “Nice day, isn’t it?” What did that one mean by “The crunch is on.”?

The echo of her trail grew more and more subtle in the weeks that followed. One morning I awoke to the distinct aroma of stocking sweat on my feather pillow and the scattering of pine needles haloed about my head. Another morning I stepped from the shower stall only to find the tracing of a tiny sneaker sole outlined in the condensation of my bathroom mirror.

I’ve lost twelve pounds over the last month. People have stopped complimenting me on my weight loss. They can see the hunger hiding beneath my eyes. They can see the fear and the haunting despair. I think they can even see the reflection of a young girl screaming.

Only yesterday morning I found a carton of spoiled milk in my refrigerator. I don’t remember buying the milk. There was a picture of her on the side of the milk carton. Have You Seen This Child?

I shook the carton.

There was something inside it.

I didn’t open it up.

Some nights I awaken from the vision of the dark forest floor, the cross hatch of pine needles and dead leaves, limbs and roots of trees twisting through the dirt like a mosaic of stark, petrified eels.

And then I see it. Right where I buried it. I see a small pink foot poked out from beneath the dirt of a hastily dug grave. It looked like a strangely twisted mushroom, five fat pink blossoms, a red centipede oaring itself across her cold bare sole.

On nights like these I will awaken and climb into my old gray Plymouth and drive out to the lonely country road where she’ll be waiting for me in the moonlight, her bright pink tracksuit smeared with road dirt and grease.

I pull up quietly beside her and open the passenger door.

“Get in,” I say.

And in the morning when I awake, uncertain as to whether or not I’ve dreamed the whole damn thing, I’ll rise up, placing my feet upon the bare tile floor, my left foot falling precisely into the open mouth of a sneaker.

It fits.

The damn shoe fits.

Steve Vernon is a Nova Scotia writer and collector of ghost stories. In his words “I stumbled upon your contest in the same way you might stumble over a footstone in a graveyard.”

He has two collections of ghost stories published: Haunted Harbours: Ghost Stories from old Nova Scotia and Wicked Woods: Ghost Stories from old New Brunswick (Nimbus Publishing). He is currently attempting to move from the realm of the regional publisher and break into the YA Canadian fiction market.




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