Halloween Story

So here’s my Halloween story.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but there is no denying the otherworldly feeling that comes when it’s late on Halloween night, and the trick or treaters have all gone home, and there is a dark and quiet moment before you make your way to some party when the world rustles gently in the cool breeze.

That was my Halloween a couple years ago. I love giving candy out to trick or treaters; it seems like my duty, actually, now that I’m a grown up. If we don’t cater to kids, then what point is there to us, right?

I always make sure to keep my cats inside, so that the parade of strangers doesn’t freak them out and make them run away or anything. They’re indoor cats anyway, but occasionally I’ll let them out and give them some supervised play time before I scoop them up and pull them back in. They’re good animals, and know the rules, but if I leave them outside too long their wild blood gets stirred, and they’re likely to roam. So on Halloween, with so much energy coming from every direction, it’s best to keep them in.

Kids came and went, and my cats watched fervently at the window as each little costumed figure passed. They’re vocal, and frequently meowed at me to let them be a part of what was going on. But I knew better, so I let them be.

It was chilly, and I could hear the fallen leaves blowing about in the yard as the candy bowl emptied and I sipped away at a small glass of whiskey I kept tucked out of sight behind my chair. The porch was washed in red and purple decorative lights, and the steady orange glow from a half dozen jack olanterns lit the little concrete walkway that led to my porch. By nine o’clock the streets were empty, save for the occasional car with costumed adults going to their own Halloween celebrations. I finished my whiskey, finished what little candy remained, and turned off the lights, then shut off the speakers that filled my yard with screams and the sound of roaring saws. The night was then quiet, and yellowed from sodium street lights. All I could hear were the fallen leaves, stirred by the wind.

I opened the door to go in but wasn’t fast enough to keep the cats in. They’re big, strong boys, and nimble, and the jumped and shoved their way out almost without effort. Whatever; they would spend the next five minutes sniffing everything in sight. As long as I got to them quickly they wouldn’t wander off.

I grabbed a cigar (I’d quit smoking, but enjoyed the occasional stogie when the mood took me), poured a finger of whiskey, and went back out, watching from the porch as the cats bounded through the leaves, pouncing on one another and generally enjoying how awesome it is to be a cat. I sipped bourbon and puffed smoke, and in the dim light it was tough to notice at first.

The cats weren’t pouncing on each other. They were prone to play fighting – they grew up together, and always wrestled – but as I watched I realized they were jumping around each other. Not randomly; they were both focused on some point between them. They would rear back, and leap forward, rolling as though they held something in their curled paws, then spring back to their feet and jump again. It was playful, and they were laser focused on it. I figured maybe they had found some insect to pounce on. This deep in the south bugs are an issue well past October.

I let them jump and roll and kick up leaves, and when I finished my bourbon I put my cigar down and whistled. They know that whistle – “come here!” – and know that usually treats follow when they answer it. They stopped playing, looked to me, to each other, and then down at something between them. I whistled again, then called out loud for them. Finally, after a pause, they made their way to the door, and I ushered them inside.

I heard the leaves blowing again before I stepped in after them, and at that I paused. The whole time I’d sat outside, I realized, the wind hadn’t been blowing; even now the air was completely still. The remaining leaves in the trees hung unmoving, everything was quiet outside of the yard.

But in the yard…in the yard, I could see the leaves stirring. Not just stirring, really; I could see them shifting, as though jostled by something jumping around in them. Then there was the sound of scampering, and I could see leaves kicked up in the dark. My cats were back at the window, watching something in the dark. After a moment the leaves were still, but next door I could hear the neighbors’ dog begin to bark. I walked down to the driveway, and saw her through the backdoor, focused on something outside and barking excitedly. In the light that poured through doors windows, the freshly raked yard seemed completely empty.

I blew out the jack olanterns, and went inside.


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Ghost Story, October 9, 2018

So here’s my ghost story.

Y’all, grad school is…an experience, to be sure. Some classes are ridiculously easy…like, to the point I’m suspicious of it…and others are crushingly, crushingly difficult (to the point that the term “identity moratorium” is taking on an unexpectedly personal meaning).

There have been…a lot of late nights. Memorizing, conceptualizing, possibly overdosing on caffeine but being too preoccupied to notice the physiological symptoms. I live on campus, and between the hours of midnight and two a.m. you’re likely to find me downstairs in my building’s common room, hunched over a laptop and occasionally typing notes in Google Docs.

Anyhow, a couple weeks back, just as the fall air was beginning to blow cold here in Tennessee, I was downstairs at around one in the morning, wrapped up in a hoodie and flannel pajamas. I was absorbed in the differential diagnoses for schizophreniform disorder, and I as I busily made flash cards I nearly jumped out of my chair as someone pounded on the window about a foot to my right.

The blinds were closed, slanted downward, so whoever was outside likely couldn’t see me. But I could see their form well enough. I saw them hover for a minute, then walk over to the other window, pause, and walk back over to the window by me. I expected someone to call out asking that I let them in – which, hell with that, I ain’t looking to get robbed – and then they walked off. A moment later I heard the double doors rattle, as though someone was trying to shake them open. Then the figure passed my window again, paused, and walked off.

Again the doors rattled.

I got spooked, gathered my things, and made my way upstairs. Before leaving I turned my head as the doors stopped rattling. I couldn’t see anyone who might have been outside.

The next day as I made my way to and from class, I passed the front desk on the way to my room. I heard a resident talking about the portrait of the elderly lady in the lobby – our building’s namesake – and how when she dozed off on the sofa she had been surprised by how the painting seemed to be staring at her.

“Yeah,” the desk clerk said, “people say they get unnerved by that painting.

“So funny,” the woman said. “I mean what’s a painting really gonna do, right?”

“I dunno,” I heard the clerk say before I made my way up the stairs, “People say the doors shake sometimes…”

Maybe I was being inhospitable. But if so, I think I’m comfortable with that.

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Ghost Story, October 6, 2018

So . . . here’s my ghost story.

When I was little my dad would sometimes take me to work with him on teacher planning days. It was fun to see his classroom, and all the individual activity stations he’d set up for his students. While he was busy with lesson plans and department meetings I’d rummage through the old paperbacks he kept in the corner, for when his students had earned free time, or wander the halls with the promise I wouldn’t leave the building.

So I was maybe seven years old when this happened. I was walking down the hall a few doors down from my dad’s classroom, and I turned the corner to the library. It was an older campus, full of big wooden doors and heavy transoms, and the library double doors seemed grandiose compared to the plain steel doors I was used to.

The lights were off but sunlight poured through the windows, illuminating the entire space. I walked in, hoping maybe to find something interesting (preferably something about Greek or Roman mythology; one of my favorite movies back then was the original Clash of the Titans), but the books in the high school library were significantly denser the ones in my elementary school. After wandering around for a bit I walked up to the desk to ask the librarian if she had any “books about monsters.”

She had short brown hair highlighted with bits of gray, and gave a pleased grin that stretched wide and deep red when I asked her my question. I think the frames of her glasses were a similar shade of red, but I could just be misremembering.

“You know,” she said enthusiastically, walking out from behind the counter, “we sure do!” She walked quickly but easily, and I double-timed it to keep up. She took me to a stack near the center of the room, and pulled out a wide, heavy reference book and handed it to me. “That’s got every monster in the world in it! Not to heavy for ya, is it?”

I told her no and thanked her and sat down at a table. I was absorbed in the pictures and descriptions and folkloric history, and I didn’t keep track of time. I started to feel hungry, and remembering the sandwich my pop had in the staff fridge, I closed the book and looked up to tell the librarian I was heading out. I was a very important seven-year-old, you see. But she was gone, probably taking her lunch.

So I made my way back to my dad’s classroom and pestered him for grub, and as we walked down to the break room he asked me where I’d been. He hadn’t truly been worried (he knew I wasn’t one to wander where I shouldn’t go), but he joked that he was gonna call me on the intercom if I’d been gone any longer.

I told him where I’d been, who I met, and about the book I’d read. “Huh!” he said as he popped coins into the soda machine. “I didn’t think the librarians were coming in till tomorrow!” And then we ate and he let me talk about cartoons for a half hour.

Afterward while my pops got back to work, I walked back down to the library, wanting to read more of “the monster book,” but this time the doors didn’t open. The blinds were drawn across the windows now, and it was noticeably darker inside, but enough light came through the cracks that I could make out my book on its table. I looked over at the front desk, and behind it I could see several portraits. They hung in two neat rows, and some had little black ribbons tied around a corner.

In the top row, at the far end, I could barely make out a smiling face, with what seemed like red-rimmed glasses, and short hair that may have had streaks of gray. But I couldn’t quite make it out. It was dark, after all. But even in the dark I could make out a little black ribbon, tied tight around the corner of the frame.

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October 5, 2018

So here’s my ghost story.

I used to work at a children’s museum near my hometown. The building was old, and there was a big, creepy basement below, complete with a heavy steel door that rumbled when you pulled it open. Every October, the museum hosted a professional-grade haunted house down there, and it was known around town for being one of the better Halloween attractions in the area.

While I was paid for the work I did for the museum, the hours put in at the haunted house were solely on volunteer time (permissible since the haunt was technically a separate entity from the museum, even though it’s profits helped fund museum operations). I didn’t mind, despite the dust and the noise and the crazy long hours. It was an immersive, month-long Halloween experience, and I revelled in it with childish glee.

Besides, had I not volunteered I would have had to rouse myself out of bed at 3 AM each evening it operated, to make sure the building was secure after everyone left for home. So every evening I stayed behind until the last haunter left. Invariably, one of them would turn to me and ask: “You ever see any ghosts in here?” And my answer was always an honest no.

But people will never accept the idea of an old building that isn’t haunted, and between groups the performers made up stories to convince themselves and each other that their haunted attraction was literally haunted. People claimed to hear voices coming through the walls when everything else was silent. Of course they heard people talking; groups left through the floor upstairs, and we shared walls with several business, including a popular martini bar. They were hearing drunks, not ghosts.

One night, the night before Halloween in fact, I went out with the other performers to grab a bite at Waffle House. I was halfway through my grub when I realized I hadn’t set the alarm before locking up, and when I was done I mentioned to the haunt manager I had to head back.

“Oh, shit!” he laughed. “Sean’s goin’ back to that place alone, y’all!” And everyone made fake-solemn goodbyes, since clearly they would never see me alive again.

I rolled up to the front doors a little after 3:30 in the morning, opening the door without leaving it unlocked, and made my way to the far panel that would set the necessary series of alarms. I could hear the usual smattering of voices overhead, trickling in through the vents from the martini bar. Some nights there would be opera music accompanying the drifting conversation; the proprietor lived in an apartment over his business.

I stopped halfway across the floor. The bar…would have closed at 2. And when I’d driven by, the lights were out, upstairs and down. The street was empty; the only occupied parking space was my own.

And the conversation seemed…closer than the kind that typically trickled through the vents. It almost sounded like there were two or three people in our upstairs mezzanine, talking amongst themselves.

“Do you think he hears us?” a distinctly female voice said then.

I was standing in the center of a wide, open space. There was nothing above me, nothing behind me. But from just behind and a little above I heard a man’s voice answer:

“I think he does.”

I didn’t set the alarm that night.

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October 4, 2018

So here’s my ghost story.

Somehow I’d managed to avoid tornadoes until I moved to Nashville. I didn’t realize they sounded like revving diesel engines until I woke up one night thinking some asshole was was trying to flex outside my apartment. It wasn’t till I took a look out the window that I could see the neighbor’s plastic porch chairs tumbling across the parking lot.

Some December, a few days before Christmas, the weather had been unseasonably hot and humid all day. Sure, it gets hot and stays hot here in the south, and humidity is just a fact of life down here, but this was springtime weather conditions in the depth of winter. Air pressure had been threatening to bottom out all day, and a constant, steady breeze stirred quietly enough to let everyone know things were going to get loud sooner rather than later.

The weather forecast told us that things likely wouldn’t get too heavy until a little after six, and after spending my day at the kitchen table wrapping gifts I (stupidly, I know) put on my Asics and left for a run.

Something I find really unique about the Nashville area is the surprising number of random graves you find as you go about your business. I’m not talkin’ fresh graves, mind you, dug by some brazen mafioso; hundreds of old graves, dug by settlers, dot the surrounding countryside. You see them all over, but half the time you don’t even realize it; often I would be caught by surprise upon finding out that what I assumed was a nondescript rock was actually an engraved and weathered tombstone. It’s not very unusual in the more rural areas to see a neighborhood stop sign casually erected beside an antebellum grave marker.

So as I ran I noticed the wind picking up, substantially. It was well past sunset, but the sky was almost a glowing purple color. I could feel the air pressure dropping as time ticked by, and I knew I needed to head back as quickly as I could manage. I crossed the street, to a side less dense with overhanging tree branches, and made my way back up the mountain road that led to my apartment.

I was coming up on a pile of rocks, a marker I would usually rely on when coming home from work to let me know the turn to my driveway was coming up. Beside them there was a woman with a gray shawl wrapped around her. Strangely the shawl didn’t seem affected by the wind. She seemed to be looking past me down the road, and I could hear what sounded like the rumble of an engine. By that time, I knew that twisters sounded like revving engines.

I looked over my shoulder, my blood running cold as I did, but luckily it really was an engine I heard. She’d just been waiting to cross the road. The truck passed me by, and while my heart slowed back down to normal I noticed that the lady ahead of me was gone. Probably crossed already.

I slowed as I passed the rocks. Growing nearer, I could see that something was carved into it. Erosion had eaten too much away to make any sense of it, but I could definitely make out numbers. “1846-1868”

For whatever reason I felt compelled to look over my shoulder, and when I did I saw the lady with the shawl again, for just a moment. Then my attention was pulled away by another engine sound – another pickup – and when I looked back, she was gone to…wherever she was heading.

The tornado came about half an hour later, whipping sideways rain across the hillside and rocking cars on their suspension. When things began to quiet down I risked a look through the window, and for an instant I thought I saw a figure in a gray shawl, standing oddly still in the violent storm. But I must have been seeing things, because when I blinked she was gone.

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October 3, 2018

So here’s my scary story.

I used to live in the town of Goodlettsville, a bedroom community just north of Nashville. It was a pretty typical stretch of suburbia but I was impressed with the local park, which had been carved out of an abandoned plantation and army camp, and the ruins of an exploratory fort. Both still exist after extensive reconstruction, and in addition to public use the space operates as something of a continuous museum, complete with tours and educational events. I fell into the habit of going on runs on the extensive creekside trail that encircled the area.

My favorite time to run was in the evenings come fall and winter, when it would get dark and cold and most people had gone home. A few groundspeople and a patrolman stayed until closing (10:00 PM) but the park sprawled, and sections of the trail branched off into unlit brush. Go deep enough past most of the lights, and you would smell deer musk, and hear distant coyote cries.

One night in late October I didn’t reach the park until a little after nine, so when I ran I did so at a faster clip than usual to make sure I could get back to my car before they locked the gates. A mist from the burbling creek added a chill to the already frosty, and through the trees I could make out bright and garish Halloween decorations. I could hear bats chirping around the special rookeries set up for them by the local Lions Club. It was a great night for a run, and I felt energized.

I had intended to keep it short, and turn back at the halfway point before I reached the unlit stretch the dipped into the woods. But I’d had a long day and wanted to wind down, so I kept running, onto the section of the trail without electric lights.

Sometimes I ran with music, other times I didn’t. It was windy that night though, and I enjoyed the sound of it through the trees. And while I ran I could hear the branches creaking as they swayed and knocked against one another. A storm was coming but it was not yet here.

As I ran I could hear the branches crashing even harder against each other, and after a beat I thought I heard something heavy hit the ground. Assuming a bough had broken, I ignored it, but then there came another heavy thud. And then a few beats later, another heavy sound of impact. And grunting, like a buck would grunt, except…heavier, somehow.

And for whatever reason, I got scared. I generally like the nighttime, and while I’d rather not be in the dark it usually doesn’t bother me. But I started increasing my speed, and my heartrate started going up. I turned down a fork I knew would take me back to the main section of the park, and I ran at top speed. I had no reason to think it but for whatever reason I knew that something. Was. Following. Me.

I let myself slow down once I got within sight of my car, and further away I could see a parked cruiser, near the entrance gate. I was panting when I got to my car, and I let myself calm down before I hopped in for home. I turned to the trees, chuckling softly at how silly I’d been.

The half-leafless trees were perfectly silhouetted by the glowing, cloudy night. I could them swaying against one another, and could hear the scraping of gnarled branches. And I blinked, because where there had been darkness in a distant section of the trees, there was now open space, as though something massive had moved on.

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October 2, 2018

So here’s my ghost story.

Growing up in the country, my granddad and his twin brother Roy saw their fair share of wildlife. They grew up with two other brothers and two sisters, with a widowed mother who was kind and gentle in her tone of voice despite the grueling labor that came with Depression-era subsistence farming. There were plenty of long hot days when the family would built heavy, sturdy fences to keep the few animals they owned safe from the creatures that roamed the pinewoods around their homestead.

One night when my grandad was fourteen, there was a great big scream from outside, and as he told it, he and Roy were they first ones outside, both of them in their underwear, my granddad holding his daddy’s gun and Roy fumbling with a box of bullets, They got a few rounds loaded as they ran around, trying to figure out what was going on. Their mama hollered at them to be careful while she threw on a housecoat. The littler kids stayed inside.

Eventually Granddad and Uncle Roy found a section of the heavy wooden gate that had been completely knocked down, and inside was a wounded goat, jerking around but clearly dying from a nasty bite to the neck. Granddad shot the poor thing and noticed one of its horns had broken off.

The goat was buried out of fear of rabies, and it was a significant loss for such a little farm. The gate was fixed and the two boys took turns for a couple weeks staying up late with the rifle, watching the animals. One night, while prowling around the treeline, Uncle Roy called out to Granddad, and when he met up with him he showed him the carcass of a wild pig, a broken goat horn stuck in its belly. Boars were mean, but Granddad had never thought one would could ever get that mean. They buried the pig, too, just in case.

Granddaddy was quick to dismiss this next part as “horse piss” but Uncle Roy often claimed he would still hear those animals around the property, usually late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. He would hear a screaming goat and a screaming pig, but the animals would be as calm as could be when he would check on them, like they didn’t hear a thing. He said sometimes he could even see dust getting kicked up like there was a scuffle going on, even though there weren’t any animals moving nearby. Granddad didn’t believe a word of it, and would always respond with a disdainful “Aw, come on” whenever Uncle Roy would share his story with the kids.

When Uncle Roy passed he left the house to Granddad. All his kids lived several states away and had no use for it, and Roy’s wife Ruth could comfortably live off her own pension as well as the widow’s benefits from Roy’s. Plus, she was moving into an apartment in a retirement community, and wanted nothing to do with the hassle of selling the property. So it fell to Granddad.

Granddad was always an active man, but by his mid-eighties the two-and-a-half hour drive to the old homestead was a little much, and he asked me to head out one weekend to make sure the house was cleared out and ready for sale. Roy had lived where the old family home had been, but by the early fifties he’d torn down the old house his father had put together and replaced it with a one-story brick home. Most of the farmland had been sold off as lots, so only a half acre remained in the family name. What had once been countryside was now a quaint but populated neighborhood.

So one Saturday afternoon I drove out. Movers had already cleared everything, and whatever Ruth didn’t want she’d either given away or stuck out by the road. I couldn’t see anything that had been left behind, and there was nothing major that was wrong with the place. I took some pictures in case a realtor wanted to see them or something, then spent about ten minutes taking apart a bookshelf I thought I could use in my apartment. This was November, just after Thanksgiving, and by the time I had the pieces in my trunk the sun had gone down. I locked the place up and made my way back to my car. It was silent and cold and dark, and I immediately froze when a scream filled the air. And then another, and then something guttural and angry answering it.

I don’t really know what I heard or where I heard it, because while the area was now a neighborhood it was still plenty country, and there were plenty of wild animals just outside the light of the lone streetlamp. But I thought I could hear shuffling stomps, like maybe the kind made by hooves. And when I jumped into my car and backed out into the street, I thought maybe I saw some dust kicked up from the yard.

But it was dark, and like I said, I don’t really know what I heard.

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