One thought ahead. Two sentences behind.

Fright

 

For the most wild, yet most homely
narrative which I am about to pen,
I neither expect nor solicit belief.
Edgar Allan Poe
The Telltale Heart

 

I am waiting behind the double doors that separate Whitby from Bede Hall. Students pass by the smoke-blown windows, their bodies moving like ghosts ascending and descending the stairs. The reason I wait for them to pass? I want to slip into the hallway unnoticed.

Whitby Hall houses close to sixty guys and not all are dedicated to the pursuit of collegiate scholarship. Some practice the art of the practical joke, always on the prowl, always looking for an unsuspecting victim to throw cold water on in the shower or place a live chicken in a bed. Once, Duane took his patented half-hour shower, giving the whole second floor time to pour into his room and empty it of everything, placing all his worldly possessions on the balcony that overlooked the courtyard.

In this dorm no one is safe.

Earlier I took a break from my studies to shoot billiards with Kenny in the lounge while Mike and Ron played ping pong. Others filtered in and out while Carl slumped into a well-worn couch to watch TV.

“Dave, why the F— am I still up,” asked Kenny after missing the eight ball.

Midnight.

I said goodnight and pretended to make my way to my room, but stopped inside the double doors.

After the shadows passed, I quietly open the doors and slip my thin frame and bulky anthology into Bede Hall. What lies ahead is a tandem of my worst fears: silence and darkness. The hallway is as black as a mineshaft. Still I don’t turn on the lights for I don’t want to alert anyone to my plans. So I keep my right hand on the wall, touching the door handles of the nursing labs much like a spelunker working his way through a cave. The only light I see ahead is the exit sign at the far end of the hall, the burning letters flickering, hopefully never to extinguish and plunge me into the unknown.

 

“… an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees and the gray wall…”
Edgar Allan Poe
The Fall of the House of Usher

 

I am crawling across a concrete floor, my hands trembling on the cold, damp slab. Condensation drips from the above copper pipes. The hair on the back of my neck stands electric as stale dust engulfs my nose. The suffocating smell is overwhelming for I am in the throes of absolute terror once my brother turns off the lights at the top of the stairs and shuts the basement door.

Although I am ten, I cannot help plummet to an earlier time and into the world of monsters, the nightmares that reside under beds, hide in closets and peer into bedroom windows. The basement is their domain and only light will keep them at bay. A swinging light bulb, a dim lamp, a flickering candle, it is these tiny shards that keep me among the living.

Now it is all gone.

Mom asked me to run into the basement and grab a jar of canned peaches. But I didn’t even reach the storage closet when plunged into an inky pool by the cackling howls. I drop to my knees. I make myself small. I remain silent. Every inch my fingers eke needs to touch damp cement. Every drip on my back needs to come from the copper pipes. No steely claws. No dripping saliva. They are here. I can feel them. My only hope is to reach the steps before they cut off my escape.

 

“It was said that ghost and fiend consorted with him there.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Minister’s Black Veil

 

I reach the music department, flip on the dim lights and scan the gloomy hall. Offices and practice rooms line both sides. So, slowly, methodically, I check and close each door. It is my intention to seal out any unwelcome visitors for it is here I plan to finish my studies.

I sit at a large, circular table in the middle of the hall. I place myself where I can see both the front and back exits. It is no secret that ghosts wander the halls of Mount Marty College. Founded by Benedictine sisters in 1936, some of them decided to delay their entrance into heaven and stick around for a while. Even a construction worker, who fell to his death, still wanders as if waiting for a final disability check.

I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. I do know that perfectly reasonable people have reported encounters. The communications’ professor refuses to work alone at night in Marion Auditorium after he saw a wheelchair move across the proscenium without the assistance of a stagehand.

Others have seen apparitions. Then there is that unearthly feel, that eerie presence when the hair on the back of your neck alerts you that something isn’t quite right.

 

The drop of temperature

The rush of cold air

The flickering of lights

The rattling of windows

The sound of footsteps

The opening and closing of doors

 

During the day the buildings of this college are a hive of activity. But at night they are as welcoming as a medieval catacomb: Whitby, Bede, Marion, all connected, looped together, forming an academic fort to keep the uneducated hordes at bay. Most ghostly encounters reside within these fortified walls. My buddy Marco even interviewed the participants and not one ghost appeared in the cafeteria or athletic center. Not one terrified soul reported:

I was shooting hoops in the gymnasium, working on my cross-over, when out of nowhere a floating nun sporting Air Jordans stole the ball and started a fast break the other way.

Why are haunted places usually locations where one feels trapped: forts, prisons, hospitals, hotels? Why not a haunted roller rink?  Why not a damned dance hall? Must one be under siege, held captive, restrained or domiciled before those from beyond will pay a visit?

I open my thick anthology.

I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. I do know I cannot afford to acknowledge their presence. Fright comes too easily to me. Mostly residing in a world of my own, it doesn’t take much for someone to scare the bejesus out of me. Sometimes a simple hello is enough to send my heart into arrhythmia. I hope the ghosts of Mount Marty know this. Does a nun from beyond really want to float through the door and induce in me a heart attack? Does she want to shock my hair white and take twenty years off my life? Is that very Christian? I hold onto this belief that those on the other side still retain a sense of decorum. Still I keep an eye on the front and back exits for there is no worse feeling than having no avenue of escape.

 

“Ah, distinctly I remember it was a bleak December…”
Edgar Alan Poe
The Raven

 

I’m crouching behind a frozen car, my fingers numb, my breath in a panic, heart pounding as warm, blood pours through my ice-cold veins. The hair on the back of my neck tells me something is not right, but my eyes fail to see what is wrong.

Moments before I was delivering the morning newspaper, an edition that needs to be on the homeowners’ front steps before dawn. Darkness surrounds me with only the lonely corner street lamps leading the way, light emerging, then fading, only to return as I make my way down the middle of the street.

Why would a parent, an employer or any sensible adult send a twelve-year old to deliver newspapers in the dead of night? I am all alone. And if I’m not, I am terrified even more. That’s why I am crouching behind a frozen car.

Something is lurking in a homeowner’s front yard. I don’t think it is human. It holds no firm shape, moving slowly, almost floating like a frozen ghost rising, then falling, rising, then … Is it a ice-covered poltergeist , an arctic phantasm? Is it an alien from another world waiting to whisk me away, never to be seen, never to finish my route?

The elevated bluff and thin light obscure my view. I know I’m not delivering the newspaper to this house. I should flee, but how do you outrun what you don’t know? Up until this point, wide, open spaces have been my protector. But here I am granted no cover to make my retreat. If I leave this frozen car, I will be exposed. Still I need to move before I am found. So, quietly, I back myself down the street.

 

“He was moreover approaching the very place where
many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been laid.”
Washington Irving
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

 

I am standing on the stage of Marian Auditorium. Darkness and silence surround me like a burial shroud.

I spent the past three hours reading from my thick anthology, American Lit, pre-industrial, gloomy material from all the depressing heavyweights like Irving, Hawthorne, Melville and Poe.

You wouldn’t want to invite any of these guys to your pool party. They would spend the whole time morosely wading in the deep end, Poe constantly asking if you have anything stronger than “… this miserable punch.”

Would it have been different if the Pilgrims had landed further south? Would any of these writers have been able to create their claustrophobic, suffocating worlds if they resided in Boca Raton, Florida? What is so looming about palm trees? Is there no more peaceful balm than the ocean gently rolling waves to shore?

After spending three hours in a world of dark misery, my mood is as bleak as the empty theater in front of me. Is the construction worker sitting in one of the seats, taking his mandatory fifteen minute break? Is a nun patiently waiting for the winter musical to start? I could not tell. The only emanating light comes from the exit signs to the sides and back of the auditorium. And off in the distance in the upper reaches of the balcony, the faint glow of EXIT above a door that grants access to Whitby Hall’s second floor.

 

All so cozy

All so connected

For the living and the dead

 

My midnight rounds have so far gone without encounter. After finishing Melville’s Billy Bud, I grabbed my bulky anthology, took the back exit of the music hall, crossed a second floor walkway that connects Bede Hall with Marian Auditorium, then back stage and onto the proscenium where it is known that wheelchairs move of their own accord.

I keep peering into the empty seats but I cannot see a thing. Anything could be lurking. Will I be able to walk up the aisle unscathed?

 

“… the gloomiest trees of the forest which barely
start a side to let the narrow path creep
through and close immediately behind…”
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Young Goodman Brown

 

I am at the point where it all ends.

The last house on my newspaper route abuts Terrace Park, turning a street into a cul-de-sac with only a small path through the park to lead me home.

This part of the route terrifies me. Even in winter without a single leaf, the trees are imposing creatures with craggy limbs and knotted branches, sylvan skeletons ready to pluck any twelve year-old who dares venture down the path.

Normally, I would run like I do every night after basketball practice, sprinting through the vacant streets under the dark sky, all six blocks. It doesn’t matter how long the practice or how many laps the coach made us run. Fear is a powerful motivator and the undead have no chance of catching you if you are moving faster than a car.

But this narrow path? Anything could be lurking. How can you run fast enough with looming branches only inches away? Still I gather every nerve I have and convince myself nothing is there.

 

“Here I opened wide the door;
Darkness there and nothing more.”
Edgar Allen Poe
The Raven

 

I reach my dorm room, a single, so tiny it feels like a prison cell. Usually corner rooms offer more space, but not when crammed against a theater. An odd setup, this room, set back from the second floor’s main hallway, allowing access to a small flight of stairs that lead to the balcony of Marian Auditorium. Definitely a unique situation: a coffin-size dorm room abutting a haunted auditorium.

Poe would have been thrilled.

Many nights I stretched myself across this small bed, wondering if those who wander the hallways will pay a visit. What is to prevent a ghost from floating up to the balcony, drifting through the exit door, only to descend the stairs and pass through my door? What is to prevent any specter from tapping me on the shoulder to ask if I have an extra quarter for the vending machine?

Certainly, such an encounter would send me running never to return. But that’s the thing about ghosts.

 

They need our participation

They need us rapt

They need us to believe

 

I am definitely on the fence. I cannot believe in ghosts for I want to maintain some sense of sanity. After all, if a librarian can scare me by saying the library is closing in ten minutes, what would a midnight visitor from beyond the grave do to my psyche?

I take off my sweats, toss them into the closet and plop on the bed.

I did it! I worked to gain safe passage during my midnight tour and this quiet moment is my reward. At 3am my day is over. The strained nerves start to loosen. I close my eyes with a brief sleep to follow. But before I drift, I thank God for the day. And what God returns is a cold hand that locks onto my arm.

 

“[Then] … a cry, at first muffled and broken like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhumane – a howl…”
Edgar Alan Poe
Black Cat

 

No, I don’t scream. I don’t yell at all. Nor do I flee. I don’t do anything. The only action that resides in me is resignation. The Arch Angel of Death has laid his hand and it is time to go. It isn’t until I hear the cackle of laughter that a rush of fear pours over me. I jump up, stand on the bed and see the open transom above the door. Somehow Carl wiggled through the narrow space just enough to unlock the door and hide underneath my bed.  He sneaked in and scared me from the inside out. I am frightened beyond belief. The only thing that registers is his high-pitch laughter. It’s a victorious howl and it reverberates throughout the room.

 

“… from my own bosom deepening with its dreadful echo…”
Edgar Allan Poe
The Telltale Heart

 

I am standing at the open door, my heart in my throat. Short breaths refuse to leave my lips. My hand on the cool brass handle, unsure whether to let go.

Moments before I was walking up the stairs to my second floor apartment when I heard… Was it a rumble? Did it come from my place or the apartment below?

I gather enough courage to open the door, but have yet to enter. The room is dark and quiet, but I feel the reverberations of a former presence.

I flip on the light switch. A thin beam casts a dull pall. I am not greeted with the warm feeling of being home. Instead the living room feels like a rundown funeral parlor, as if all life had been swept away when I unlocked the door.

Something was just here, but what: a wayward prowler, a midnight ghoul?

No, I am too old for this, to be spooked by the simplest of bumps and rattles. This is an old building. And like an old man it can make loud sounds for no apparent reason. It is not a specter. It’s not a spook. It’s not a former tenant returning from the grave.

Still I remain at the door.

It would be so much easier if a burglar came into the room. I may even help him remove my twenty-year-old TV.

I take a deep breath, then a step.

The color of living room starts to return, but there is the kitchen, two bedrooms and a long hallway to take me there.

I don’t think I’ll ever rid myself of this primordial fear. It’s so hardwired. It’s what kept my ancestors alive, guarded around the campfire, telling stories of wolfhounds and hobgoblins and banshees that lurk just beyond the flickering light…   No, I don’t think I will walk down a dark hallway just yet. I think I will stay in the room of the living for a while.

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