From the author: "The Ghost Dog of Stockton Bridge" is the lead story in my new collection "In Death Survive" - fourteen tales of post-mortem existence. It's a ghost story, a story of loss and love, an animal-friendly story, with a touch of humor. It was published initially by the Thema Literary Society in 2016.
THE GHOST-DOG OF STOCKTON BRIDGE
Andrew M. Seddon
“I only have one room available,” said the female member of the couple standing behind the reception desk of the bed and breakfast, quaintly named ‘The Josephine’. She ran her index finger down a ledger book, stopping at a blank line. “But I shouldn’t let you have it.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“It’s haunted,” she said apologetically. She was about fifty, slender, wearing a floral-patterned dress.
“Haunted?” I echoed, frowning, at the same time her husband, his weatherworn plaid shirt stretched over a beer-belly into jeans, said “Janet!” in an annoyed tone.
“Well it’s true,” she rejoined, an edge in her voice. “The gentleman” – she peered over the top of her horn-rimmed glasses at my business card – “Mr. Hayes has a right to know.”
“It’s bad for business,” he argued. “You shouldn’t be telling people nonsense.”
“Haunted?” I asked again.
Giving her husband a final glare, she returned her attention to me and nodded. “Some people have left in the middle of the night. One woman was so hysterical we had to call the doctor. Ran into the street in her nightgown, screaming to wake the dead.”
“Not to mention the mayor!” her husband growled. “All of them neurotic-!”
“That’s enough, Frank,” Janet retorted. “They were perfectly ordinary people.”
She smiled at me. “Of course, some folks don’t mind a ghost. Occasionally people even ask for them. Ghost hunters, you know. I recall one - a retired librarian – nice lady-”
“Is it a horrible ghost then?” I queried, visualizing terrified guests and wondering if perhaps I would be better off moseying on.
“There is no ghost!” Frank exclaimed.
Janet leaned forwards. “It’s a dog,” she whispered.
My throat tightened.
“Crackpots,” Frank huffed, “the whole kit and caboodle.”
“Go away, Frank,” Janet ordered. Frank raised his hands in mock surrender and shambled off.
Janet adjusted her glasses. “So there we are. The Country Inn over in Riverton might have a room, although they’re usually full on a Friday. It’s about half an hour away. I’ll call them for you if you like.”
I thought for a moment, turning to look out the curtained window as I did. I’d taken the turnoff to Stockton Bridge on a whim, thinking that perhaps it might be a good place to spend the night.
Situated on a scenic byway rather than a main road, Stockton Bridge was a quaint New England town that had resisted being over-run by tourism and in consequence had retained its charm. Colonial-style buildings lined a few maple-shaded streets. A white clapboard church smiled serenely across a well-trimmed village green at the sturdy Town Hall opposite. A grocery, funeral home, post office, café, and several specialty shops completed the ensemble. And, of course, just outside the town’s environs was the red covered bridge from which Stockton Bridge drew its name.
I was happy to have chanced upon this peaceful relic of a bygone era. It was one that could have graced postcards and calendars – and probably did.
Disliking the blandness of urban motels, I was pleased to have discovered this guest house as well, which the waitress at the café had pointed out to me after I’d enjoyed a filling dinner of pot roast and apple pie.
The Josephine was a three-story house painted light yellow and adorned by chimneys, gables, and a large covered porch that ran around three sides. Gauzy curtains peeked through the partially open windows, and a cherry tree in full bloom graced the front yard.
It had appeared so inviting – much more so than a motel in bustling Riverton.
Not that I slept well anywhere, not for years. Not since–
Best not to think about that.
“A dog, you said?” I asked cautiously.
She nodded. “I haven’t seen it myself, mind you.”
It was getting late, I was tired, and I didn’t fancy driving along narrow, winding roads in the dark.
I made up my mind.
“I’ll chance the ghost,” I said. “Let me have the room.”
“Are you sure?” she said, raising plucked eyebrows. “I wouldn’t want you to be disappointed.”
“Perfectly,” I said, removing a credit card from my wallet. “But I want the whole story.”
“All right,” she agreed, curving her thickly glossed lips into a slight smile. “But let me show you the room first, just to be certain you really like it.”
The room to which Janet Wells conducted me was on the second floor, in a corner of the house. Facing me as I walked in was a four-poster bed with a scarlet canopy and more pillows than I could ever use. Behind the bed, a window framed the cherry tree. To my left, French doors opened onto a small balcony, and an oak chest of drawers supporting a Tiffany lamp was tucked into the corner. To my right, a door opened into a bathroom with a claw-footed tub. Just beyond that, a fire was laid but not lit in a stone fireplace. A bedside table was laden with a tray of biscuits and bottled water. The hardwood floor was spotless and shiny.
“It’s perfect,” I said, setting down my traveling case and perching myself on the side of the bed. “Now for the story. I suppose a town as old as this must have many ghosts.”
She looked conspiratorial. “This house was built in 1802,” she said, settling into a side-chair, “and you’d think so. But the truth is, our ghost is a mere five years old.”
“A newcomer, eh?”
“Not everyone believes it.”
“Like your husband.”
She half-smiled. “Frank wouldn’t believe it if it was five hundred years old.”
“Let’s go back a few years,” Mrs. Wells said. “The house was owned by an elderly couple, the Phillips. They were blind. He got around with a cane, while she had a guide dog. They didn’t venture out much, but I saw them in church nearly every Sunday.”
She motioned with her hand in the direction of the white church on the green.
“The dog, I’m sorry to say, looked most miserable.”
“German Shepherd?” I asked, having seen photos of seeing-eye dogs, but she shook her head.
“A black Lab. Now, I never saw her hit it, mind you, but she treated that dog like a slave. Never a pat on the head or a word of kindness. It trudged along with its tail hanging and its head down as if there wasn’t so much as a flicker of happiness in its life.”
“That’s not right,” I said.
“It wasn’t,” she agreed.
“Back home I know a veteran who lost his sight in an explosion in Iraq,” I said. “He has a German Shepherd. He loves that dog, and the dog loves him right back. That dog knows he’s doing a job and doing it well. Ears erect, head up – you can tell he’s proud of what he’s doing. Those two are partners – comrades - needing each other, looking out for each other.”
“That’s not how it was with Wanda Phillips,” Janet said. “There was no love for that dog. It was just a thing – like his cane.”
“What was his name?” I wondered.
“I don’t know. She never said – would never tell anyone the dog’s name.”
“Controlling,” she corrected.
We sat in silence for a minute. Then she said, “One day Wanda Phillips came to church without the dog.”
“We wondered that too. All she would say was that something horrible had happened.” She sighed. “If a dog could commit suicide, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it did so. But maybe it ate something bad, was hit by a car, fell into the well and drowned, was stolen…? Who knows?”
She rose to her feet. “The Phillips were carried off in a flu epidemic not three months after the dog disappeared. “Frank and I purchased this house from their estate. This was their bedroom. The dog slept over there”- she pointed to a spot beside the fireplace – “on a threadbare mat hardly thicker than a sheet of newspaper.”
She turned to leave. “And they always slept with the light on.”
“Whatever for?” I asked, wondering what use light was to blind people.
“So any would-be intruder would know there was someone at home,” she said.
“But surely the dog couldn’t get any sleep!”
“She didn’t care. Said it was her room and she’d do what she wanted.”
“Abominable,” I said.
“Do you have a dog?” Janet asked.
I looked down. “I did, until a few months ago. Molly died of cancer.”
“She was the most loveable mutt. Some days I still can’t believe she’s gone. I’ve thought about getting another one – but I can’t. Not yet.”
“There are plenty of needy dogs,” Janet said. “The shelters are chock full of them.“
“I know. But with my new position – I’m on the road all the time – I just can’t give a dog the attention it deserves.”
“Maybe one day,” she said.
“Maybe,” I replied.
She paused with her hand on the doorknob. “Are you sure you’ll be all right?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, more confidently than I felt.
“Good.” And then she slipped out the door, before I could remind her that she hadn’t said a word about the ghost, just left me to assume…
It was a cloudless night, with the moon shining silver above the cherry tree and sending shafts of light in through the window behind the bed. The old house had a cozy feel as its roof and beams crackled away the day’s warmth. I hadn’t heard a car drive by in hours.
I stayed up late reading, as I always did, and made great inroads into the biscuits.
I left the blind open when at last I finished my book, turned off the light and sank into the feather soft mattress.
But despite the comfort, my sleep was light, as it inevitably was, my senses alert for the slightest sound…
The sound of something… approaching stealthily through the night…
If only Molly was still with me…
Molly had been my nocturnal salvation. I’d always slept well with Molly by my side.
But since I’d lost her, the night had become something to fear.
What was that?
I sat bolt upright, straining to hear.
Then it came again – a creak as of a door opening.
Bright moonlight was flooding the room with a milky radiance. I could see the three doors – to the balcony, the bathroom, and the hallway – quite clearly.
They were shut.
I lay back down. The house settling, that was all.
Then there came a clicking, as of nails on the polished hardwood floor.
Click, click, click, click, approaching the bed.
My heart pounded, and immediately I was transported to childhood. When I was eight or nine years old, I’d played hooky from school and gone to the zoo, sneaking past the ticket collector at the entrance. It was a large place, threaded by miles of winding trails between the exhibits. Sometime late in the afternoon, I became tired and lay down for a nap. When I awoke, it was pitch dark. The zoo had closed, and no one had noticed a small boy sleeping under a tree.
I knew immediately that I was trapped. The zoo was surrounded by a high chain-link fence sunk deep into the ground and topped with barbed wire. I could neither climb it nor crawl underneath it. I would have to spend the night lost in the zoo.
Accepting my fate, I hunkered down under the tree with my arms wrapped around my legs, my heart racing like that of a gazelle pursued by a cheetah, my young mind conjuring dire fantasies.
What if the lions or tigers escaped? What if some hungry beast even now was creeping through the underbrush towards me?
In the distance, the wolves howled.
I shivered and made myself as small as possible.
I thought the night would never end - every rustling made me jerk awake, every slight noise broke me out in a renewed torrent of sweat. It was an eternity of terror, much worse than the thrashing my father gave me in the morning.
Now, I raised myself on an elbow, wondering what I might see.
Nothing but shadows cast by moonlight on the floor.
Click, click, click, click, coming closer to my side of the bed.
They paused, replaced by a soft panting.
I held my breath, conscious that I had broken out in goosebumps.
A human ghost I might have dealt with. But not an animal. Not an animal that might have dread designs on me…
You’re thirty-two, I told myself sternly. Not eight.
Click, click, click, click, heading towards the fireplace, hesitating, then continuing to the other side of the bed.
Another pause. Then click, click, click, click, coming back towards my side, halting and panting.
I’d never gone back to the zoo – never gone to any zoo, since. I’d avoided animals for years. Even dogs, man’s best friend.
That was, until Mollie came along. Dear, sweet Mollie, who’d captured my heart and made me laugh… brought me comfort in the night, banished the nightmares…
I peered into the moonlit room, wondering if the better night vision that other species enjoyed would have helped me. I didn’t think so.
Once again, the clicks returned to the fireplace and the other side of the bed, then retraced their way to me again.
A third time the cycle repeated itself, as if whatever was making the noises was restless, undecided what it wanted to do.
I could well imagine a person of nervous temperament being driven to near-panic by the repetitive click, click, click of something unseen pacing around the room. I was close to it myself. I sent up a brief prayer addressed to Saint Francis, thinking he might be a good choice.
But then, I reminded myself, this wasn’t a wolf, or a lion, or some other ravening beast. It was a dog… man’s best friend. A seeing-eye dog, trained to help people.
A dog that had been unappreciated, unloved…
Strangely, as I thought that, my fear abated. And I detected something else in the restlessness.
Still half-raised – and surprising myself - I patted the bed. “Come here.”
The clicking stopped, and I wondered if I shouldn’t have spoken.
Then it resumed, once more heading around the foot of the bed.
I patted the sheets again. “Come here.”
The clicks continued to the other side of the bed.
A third time I patted, then said, “It’s all right.”
The bed shook as if a weight landed on it, bounced gently, then shook again as the weight flopped beside me.
The moon was bright. Something was indenting the sheets – something that I couldn’t see.
I lay back down, conscious of a heaviness on my left shoulder, as if a muzzle was lying on it. I fancied that I felt a touch of breath…
Mollie had lain against me like that.
But Mollie was dead – never to sleep beside me again – and oh, how I missed her…
I reached behind me with my free hand to pull down the shade.
The room descended into darkness.
I draped my arm over a body that wasn’t there.
And I fell asleep.
“Did you sleep well?” Janet Wells asked when I showed up in the breakfast room the next morning, having slept in late. A young couple was just departing, and so I had it to myself, except for an elderly man who sat in a nook by the bay window, absorbed in his newspaper. She sounded curious.
“Very well,” I replied. “Better than I have in a long time.” I was, in fact, feeling incredibly rested and content.
“Then you weren’t disturbed by the ghost?” she asked, pouring my coffee.
“Not at all,” I answered. “In fact we had a wonderful time together.”
She almost spilled the coffee, but made a valiant effort to avert disaster. “You did?” she squeaked.
“Most enjoyable. A delightful companion.”
“Are you serious?” She turned to observe her husband who had just entered carrying a rack of toast. I suppose I sounded as if I had suddenly gone mad.
“Perfectly,” I asserted.
“If you say so,” she said doubtfully, making an effort to pull herself together, as Frank set the toast down on the table.
“My route will be bringing me near Stockton Bridge quite frequently,” I said. “If I give you the dates, will you reserve that particular room for me?”
Her smile didn’t seem quite natural – almost sickly. “That won’t be a problem.”
“Good,” I said, spreading mixed fruit jam on a piece of toast.
Followed by Frank, she headed back to the kitchen.
“How very strange,” I heard her say, just before the door closed.
And his reply: “You and your stupid ghost stories. It’s a wonder we ever make any money on that room.”
This story originally appeared in Thema, In Death Survive.