This story was borne out of an experience I had when I was nine years old.
“So how long have you been retired?” she asked. She crossed her legs and twiddled her pen between her fingers, waiting for his reply.
He ashed into a coffee mug, one neat chunk of burnt paper and tobacco dropping into the wet muck at the bottom. “Two years.”
Her pen scritch scritched against the yellow Steno paper. “And what was it you did before?”
He shrugged. “This and that. A lot of odd jobs. Painting houses, surveying land, driving a truck. I was a forest ranger for a few years. But what does it matter? That’s not what you wanted to talk to me about.”
She smiled and looked up. “No, you’re right. It’s not. I’m just trying to get a back story, to see where you’re coming from.”
“You get a lot of crazies answering your ad?”
“We get a lot of people who…,” she paused, carefully choosing her next words, “…who maybe aren’t authentic. We interview a half-dozen people every month and they all claim to have seen ghosts, to live with ghosts, to even be possessed by ghosts. Of course, that’s impossible. We get the full interview each and every time, but if we think that the person maybe isn’t of sound mind, then we don’t use the story.” She shifted her weight and leaned forward in the wingback chair. “We’re looking for the real deal, you know?”
He pulled another cigarette out of the box and lit it before snuffing out his old cigarette in the coffee mug. “I don’t know if I can give you what you’re looking for, but your ad said ‘ghosts’ and I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen one, so there you go.”
“Well, great! Let’s begin.” She turned to the two men standing beside her. “Sound okay? Lighting?”
The cameraman nodded and the sound tech stirred a finger in the air.
The man laughed gruffly. “I guess that means get on with it. All right.” The muscles in his weathered jaw clenched for a moment and then he said, “When I was 12, my brother’s little league team got into a tournament, and one weekend my parents loaded us all up and drove us down to Friendswood. The game was the first thing in the morning, so we got two rooms in a motel–“
“Oh, I don’t know. This was fifty-something years ago. Probably doesn’t even exist anymore.”
She frowned and made a note on her pad. “Okay, continue, please.”
“So anyways, we got two rooms, side-by-side like they do, with a door that connected them. My sisters, Lily and Ann, got one of the beds, my brother Robby and I got the other bed, and Jim took the cot between the beds ’cause he was the littlest. My mother and father had the other room to themselves. We got there at dinnertime so we ate, then Pop let us play in the pool for a while, and then we all went to bed.” He stared down at his leathery hands clutched together in his lap.
After several seconds of silence, she gently asked, “Are you okay?”
He shook his head. “Yeah. Sorry. Just thinking about his next part.” He looked up into the camera. “Are y’all sure you want to hear this? It seems kind of stupid and childish when I imagine saying it out loud to you. It’s a ghost story, for chrissake.”
“I know. That’s what we’re here for.” She smiled and tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Please continue.”
He began to speak rapidly, as if forcing himself to tell the whole story before his mind told his tongue to stop. “I don’t know why I woke up, but when I did, everyone else was asleep and it was the middle of the night. I lay there for a minute trying to go back to sleep when I noticed something moving in the corner of my eye. I looked over to my left and there was a shadow on the wall. It was short, maybe hunched over. And it was tip-toeing, kind of like it didn’t want to wake nobody. I sat up without making a sound and watched as it crept along the wall.
“I looked to the other bed to see if one of my sisters was up, but they were both still asleep. Robby was next to me on my right, and Jim’s cot was to the right of him. I couldn’t quite see Jim so I turned back to the shadow and softly called out, ‘Jimmy?’
“The shadow man stopped and turned to look at me. I guess he hadn’t realized that I was awake. He didn’t have any eyes that I could see, but I knew he was studying me. That was when I knew for sure that it wasn’t any human casting that shadow. My blood froze in my veins and I couldn’t breathe.”
The man licked his lips and swallowed hard. “The shadow man started to grow. I mean, he stood up straight and got taller and taller, until his head touched the ceiling. His feet came off the floor. He floated up and up, until he was on the ceiling above our beds, looking down at us. He stared at me for a moment, and then he shifted, the way that shadows do whenever the light moves, over to my sisters and stared at them. He hovered there and I got the feeling he was making some sort of decision about them. He started to come back over to me, but when he saw Jim he stopped. And Jimmy–“
The man choked on his words and stopped. With a trembling hand, he wiped his brow and upper lip. He lit another cigarette and sucked in a long drag, then blew it out in a thin ribbon between pursed lips. The smoke curled in the air, as if it had been pulled through scissors, and disappeared.
He coughed once, then continued: “Jimmy was sitting straight up now and had one arm raised up to the shadow man. I remember his arm looked blue in the moonlight, and I wondered if he was dead, if the shadow man had killed him. Then I saw his eyes. They were open and wide, his pupils so big they looked like black marbles. The shadow man was reaching for him with both arms. He was getting closer to Jim and I just knew that if he touched him, he’d take him with him.
“So I screamed. I screamed, ‘Jimmy!’ and then I grabbed my pillow and hurled it at the shadow man. It went right through him and landed on the floor. The shadow man whipped his head to me and then he was right above me. Just a few feet away. He split and then there were two of him, and each of those split, again and again, until the whole ceiling was covered with shadow men, and then all the walls.
“When the room was full of shadow men, they started to spin. Around and around, faster and faster. It made me dizzy to watch them, and they were all looking at me and grinning. I shut my eyes and squeezed them tight. I couldn’t look anymore. I waited for something to happen.
“But nothing did. I peeked out and they were gone. The door to my parents’ room was open, so I ran through to check on them, but they were still asleep and there were no shadow men in there.”
“Had the door been open all night?” she asked.
“I don’t remember anymore,” he admitted. “All I remember is they were okay, and when I checked on Lily and Ann and Robby, they were all okay, too. Jim had gone back to sleep, like nothing had happened. I stayed awake the rest of the night, watching all the shadows of the room to see if the shadow man would come back out, but he never did. I asked Jim the next morning if he remembered anything about the shadow man, but he just looked up at me like I was crazy. We left the hotel after breakfast, and that was that. Haven’t told nobody about it ever since.”
She jotted more notes down. “Didn’t anyone wake up when you yelled Jimmy’s name?”
He frowned and deep wrinkles appeared in his jowls. “No.”
“But you screamed, right?”
“I guess my family is full of deep-sleepers.”
More notes. “Did you ever see the shadow man again?”
“No, but I felt him.”
She looked up. “What do you mean, you ‘felt’ him?”
“At Jimmy’s funeral the next year.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “What happened?”
“Smallpox?” she repeated. “What year was this?”
She furrowed her eyebrows. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize people were still dying of Smallpox then.”
He clenched his jaw and stared into her blue eyes. “When Jim died, his skin was black, like burnt lumber, because of all the blood pooled underneath. His eyes were completely red with blood. Even after he was dead, blood seeped from his tear ducts. He had been dead two days when we held his service, and we had to keep the casket closed because blood was still running down his face.”
She furrowed her eyebrows. “Your family didn’t have him embalmed?”
He shook his head. “That’s not the way we did things.” He took a deep breath and continued. “I sat directly in front of his coffin, holding my mother’s hand, staring at the floor under Jim’s coffin. There were flowers everywhere you looked, but not there. Under there, it was just shadow. It was pure darkness under there. I couldn’t see the color of the carpet, or if there was any carpet at all, even. I couldn’t take my eyes away from it. I was sure, I am sure, that the shadow man had come to Jim’s funeral. He was watching us, from there under Jim’s coffin.”
“I see,” she said. “And is that all? Just the two encounters?”
The man nodded. “Two’s enough…two’s enough.”
Later that night, when he was alone again in the apartment, he lay in bed and stared up at the ceiling. A moth-eaten blanket lay across his chest, which rose and fell in uneven waves. A cigarette butt smoldered on a scarred nightstand next to an old photograph. Thin curtains filtered the moonlight. The man’s eyes closed and he fell asleep. The wind picked up and something flew in front of a streetlight outside, casting a flickering shadow across the ceiling. The man’s snores were interrupted by a deep rattling cough that shook his lungs and caught in his throat.
The shadow man waited until he was quiet then crossed the room and stood over him. He had a decision about the man to make tonight but he could take his time, and so he patiently watched the man as he slept.