Fantasy Horror Literary Fiction Love

Eight Words

By James Van Pelt
2,721 words · 10-minute reading time


From the author: Because I’ve written ghost stories, I'm often asked during panels at conventions if I've ever seen a ghost. At first I said that I didn't believe, but inevitably that meant that someone would wait in the hall to earnestly tell me of their encounters with ghosts. Now, I say I don't believe in flying saucers, but I want to see one. To see a flying saucer, an alien spaceship, would open the universe to possibilities that don't seem to exist. Seeing a ghost would do the same thing. JVP


The lock resisted at first, then clicked with a rusty thud.  The door hung freely on its hinges and drifted open a black inch.  Deep in the orchard the cicadas droned.

"Are you afraid of ghosts?" he said.

"Who believes in ghosts?"  She pushed the door back.

He had insisted on the "traditional" tools, so, when they shut the door behind them, they fumbled for candles and matches, and, after a dark moment, unsure light illuminated a bare room.

He held his candle close to the wall, and a faded gilt pattern shone back at him in intricate, complicated whorls, like the heart of a rose.  He looked towards her and saw a candle and her hand floating in the middle of the room, and a reminder of her face drifting above them--eyes black and deep.

"The ghost won't be here," he said.  "Not in the living room."

Her hand and candle swooped to a banister, and her flame showed the first steps of a flight up, warped paneling of the wainscot, an empty place where a wall switch had been, her arm, her shoulder, her hair a sudden corona around the eclipse of her head.

"It's not like you to be ironic," she said.

"I practice in the mirror."

"So where should we be?"  She looked at him; the candle shadowed her face.  A drip of wax flowed onto his hand; it seared for a second, then solidified.

"If not the living room, where?."

She thought for a second.  "The dead room?"  He touched his ear.  She said, "Oh!  Sounds like.  The bedroom."

"Where it began..."  He lowered his voice.  "...and ended."

She laughed and some metal cabinet in an unseen kitchen reverberated.  "So melodramatic."  She climbed the steep, narrow stairs in front of him.  He looked at her back, the pockets on her jeans, the seam, then his own hand scraping along the wall.

"A ghost doesn't like to be ignored," he said.  "It's personal.  Ignoring it doesn't make it go away."

"Ghosts are in your mind.  If you dwell on them they hang around, otherwise they're vacuum." 

She laughed again.  "People see ghosts who can't let go of the dead."

They held their candles in front of them and stepped into the bedroom doorway.  A water soaked section of sheetrock bowed from the ceiling, and from it some wires, red and black, dangled from a porcelain light fixture.  Along the walls, the yellow lights flickered on a stained dresser, a pile of newspaper, ripped cloth hanging from a bent curtain rod, a boarded window, and a china cabinet on its back, its glass fronted doors shattered so jagged remains lined the empty spaces in the middle.

She cleared a spot off the floor with her foot, sat down, leaned against the wall and put her candle on the floor between her knees, which cast huge, twitching shadows.  He sat on the edge of the dresser facing her and scrunched back so that his calves rested against the edges of the drawers.  He watched the shadows on her face.  The candle light gave her skin a wheat-gold glow and he had a sudden memory of her in a similar light looking across a dinner table at Carbone's when he had said "I love you." 

He shut his eyes and pressed the back of his head to the wallpaper which crackled.  He listened to a branch scratching the side of the house.

"Tell me a joke," she said.

"Why a joke?"

"Who needs a reason for a joke?  This is a dreary place.  You used to joke a lot.  Tell me one now."

"A ghost joke?"

"I don't care.  You choose."

"How many ghosts does it take to change a light bulb?"

"I hate that kind.  That's not a real joke."  She shrugged her shoulders together and shivered.  "Does it seem cold to you?"  

"Cold spots are a sure sign of hauntings."  He brought his feet up to the dresser top and rested his chin on his knees.

She sighed.  "Cut it out.  I don't believe in them."

"You don't have to.  No Tinkerbells here.  A strong ghost will get a disbeliever too."

"Have you ever seen one?"  She rubbed her arms briskly.  He said nothing, but cocked his head to listen to wood beams and old nails creaking.  Something skittered in the wall behind him, and he jumped.

"They're around me all the time.  Not just in this old house, but it's a good place.  Some people need this setting.  Some people need to see a ghost."

"You mean me?  You don't know what I need."  She straightened her legs out, which raised a pall of dust when they flopped onto the floor.  She coughed into her hand.  "O.K.  I give up.  How many ghosts does it take to change a light bulb?"

He leaned to the side and blew out his candle.  Now her candle provided the sole light.  He could see her better.  "None.  Ghosts aren't afraid of the dark."

"That's stupid.  That's as stupid as this one.  Knock, knock."

"Who's there?"

"Boo who."

"Boo who who?"

"Don't be sad, I'll tell you in a minute."

Below them, in the kitchen or the living room, something moaned softly.  He tried to inhale, but his lungs seemed paralyzed. 

She looked towards the door.  "I love the wind in a old house," she said.

He listened and the moan began again.  Maybe a window in back was broken, a whistle gap for moving air.  He rolled a pebble beneath his finger, around and around, tiny motions so that one revolution was the circumference of his finger tip.   "Are you ready?" he said.

"Yeah."  She put the candle on the edge of the china cabinet.  "Go ahead and tell me the story."

"You have to be in a believing mood."  He picked up the pebble and held it up to the light across the room.  It was a mouse dropping.  He tossed it.  "You've got to forget who's telling the story."

"Tell it good, and I will."

"No.  It's important.  Shut your eyes."  She did.  She leaned her head back, like his.  The light distorted the proportions of the room.  The ceiling seemed twice as broad as the floor, like they were at the bottom of a square funnel.  They seemed so small, tiny legs, baby-doll arms, fingers too short to touch each other.  "You feel the wall behind you?"

"Yes."

"It's dry wood, no varnish, rough kind of?"

"Yes."

"Rub your hand on the floor."

"Why?"

"Mood."

"O.K."

"The floor's gritty, isn't it?"  he said.

"Yes."

"Do you feel your clothes on your skin?"

"Yes."

"Do you feel the air on your face?"

She turned her head side to side, eyes closed.  "Yes."

"Take a deep breath with your mouth open."

She opened her mouth, a black hole, and inhaled.  Her chest filled, he could see it rise.  "Do it again." She did.  

He said, "Say, 'I am here.'"

"I am here."

"Say, 'The time is now.'"

"The time is now."

"There is no other," he said.

"There is no other."

The wind noise stopped.  The branch that rattled back and forth across the side of the house stopped.  Slowly he breathed out all his air, pushed his diaphragm tight against the bottom of his lungs.  

A stair creaked, distinctly. 

She twitched her chin to one side, canted her head, kept her eyes closed.

He said, "It could be something on the stairs.  It could be nothing."

She nodded.

He said, "Say, 'All times are now, all times are here, we are in the here and now.'"

She did.

"This is the place it started.  This is the place it happened.  It is happening now, again, as I speak.  It is always happening.  All parts of it."  

Another stair creaked.  

He said, "Are you ready?"

"Yes."

The air between us, he thought, all that separates us is the air.  Almost nothing.

"If you truly are, then maybe the ghost will come."  He spoke the lines the way he'd rehearsed.  "This is the story I've been told about the ghost that haunts this house.  Others have seen it.  I'm not the only one.  This is what they say: in the time of the story, when this house was lived in, there was a beautiful man, a Greek god of a man.  His name was Theodore and he threw discus in college.  But it wouldn't matter if he were plain and unathletic.  He could've been any man.  He wasn't, though.  He was Theodore the beautiful, and everyone loved him except himself.  He strode to class, blind to the eyes that followed.  His voice was clear and strong.  When he spoke, the air quieted around him.  Professors paused, not because of his brilliance, but only to bathe in that voice.  People who barely knew him stopped to ask him how he was, just to hear him speak.  And the music in his voice only hinted at the wonders of his laugh.  But when boys and girls hung on him, he shrugged them away, and they loved him even more for his disdain.  Like any man, he only knew himself from the inside.  He saw nothing special.

"There was one woman, though.  Her name was Katherine and she sat beside him in a mythology seminar.  She, too, was moved by his beauty.  Everyday others tried to sit in her seat, to sit next to Theodore, but she got there earlier than all of them.  When the janitors opened the building, she was on the step, her books tight against her chest, her hair combed a thousand strokes, her face scrubbed and powdered, her clothes agonized over, and she sat in her seat, next to the one he always took and waited."

Two more stairs groaned under a weight ascending, some soft, slow movement upwards.

"The class met in a lecture hall, hundreds of seats bolted side by side, with swing-up desks for writing.  Katherine rested her arm on the edge of his desk hoping he might accidentally brush her; so she could say, 'Excuse me,' and they would talk.  He never did.  She could not even look at him.  Day after day he came to class, and she sat next to him in miserable ecstasy.  Then, one time, she glanced over at his notes and saw that he was doodling.  Around his notes of Daedalus and Icarus and the intrigue in the court of King Minos, Theodore had drawn tiny rocket ships balancing on long lines of exhaust.  He was busy sketching in an armada of missiles behind the word Perdix, which Katherine had written in her notes too, but couldn't remember what it had to do with Daedalus.  His paper was covered with ships and asteroids and cratered moons."

He listened to her breathing.  The house was so silent, he thought he heard her heart.  But more important, he heard, or sensed, or just knew, that a thing stood on the stairs, not breathing.  He heard it not breathing.

"She thought, then, that she had seen the Theodore that no one else knew: the little boy inside, not a cold, stiff, unfeeling marble man.  She relaxed.  For the first time in weeks sitting beside him, she slouched in her chair.  Katherine reached over with her pencil and drew on his page a flying saucer.  He froze for a moment, then drew behind it, as a backdrop, a ringed planet.  She placed a sun high on the sheet, and he added a single spacecraft orbiting.

"Because she saw his spaceships and played his game, he thought she was perceptive, intuitive, that they had touched on some higher level.  She was not like the others.  She knew the real him.  They left class together, and he took her to his favorite spot, through a door shut with a broken lock and onto the roof of the tallest building on campus.  There they met, day after day, and talked of inconsequential things, as men will to women and women will to men, though they never spoke of the spaceships or the ringed planet or the orbited sun."

In the hallway at the top of the stairs, he heard the quiet press of a foot onto the floor, the hiss of cloth scraping cloth.

"And, after a time, they became lovers, in this house, which his parents owned, in this very room.  And as they were lying in bed, after their first time, he said, 'I don't trust myself to say I will be here for you forever.'  And she said, 'We are modern.  Nothing is forever.'  They met many times in this room, and when he became frightened that she wanted things from him that weren't his to give, she reminded him that nothing is forever, and he was comforted.

"But as they walked together on campus, he saw that no one followed him anymore.  The attention he never noticed when it was there, he missed when it was gone.  And it seemed the professors were less interested in what he had to say.  He laughed and no one looked his way.  So it came to him, in a devious kind of logic, that Katherine had changed him, that she had wanted him to be different all along and was subtly working a woman's magic on him.  She wanted him to be hers forever.  Katherine had told Theodore that he was special, and he believed her, and he believed that she was preventing others from seeing it."

He felt a movement to his left, in the hallway beyond the door.  A ghastly half-speed dropping of a sheet.  A stir of air.

"So he told her here, after they had made love, 'I am leaving.  You have diminished me,' and he left.  Katherine didn't beg him, she didn't cry out after him, she didn't weep when she was alone, but she was empty.  She thought about his little-boy rocket ships, and their private place on top of the building.  She thought about that nothing is forever.  After a while, she slid her feet out of the bed, wrapped the sheet around herself, wrote a note, just eight words, and left it on the dresser.  She knelt, opened the bottom drawer, took out a safety razor and sliced her wrist.  She died on her knees, her forehead pressed against the floor."

The candle caught a gust of air and almost went out as a shape glided through the door and into the room.

She said, "I'm freezing."

He said, "It's here."

She opened her eyes.  "What?"

"The ghost.  Katherine's ghost."

The misty shape drifted in between them.  The girl smiled.  "There are no ghosts."

He had been afraid she would say that, that she wouldn't see the ghost, but he had to try.

"You are not in the here and now, or you would."

"It's cold. Let's go."

The shape coalesced on the floor beneath him.  Its back bowed, the form of its head against the hard wood.

"No, I can't.  You go ahead and I'll be along."

She stood, carried her candle over to him, walking through the ghost.

"I'm frozen!  There'll be snow tomorrow."  She lit his candle.  He looked at her impenetrable eyes.  He remembered her again in a similar light.  She said, "Come with me."

"I can't.  I'll meet you in the car.  Give me a minute."

He thought for a second that she was going to touch him, but instead she said, "Being just friends isn't going to work out for you, is it?"  She left.

He and the ghost stayed motionless.  Only the shadows moved.  He thought about Katherine alone in this room.  He thought about her writing the note, the eight words.  Then the ghost raised its head from the floor.  It looked up.  Hair fell down in front of its face, but there was no face behind, just emptiness.  He wasn't frightened.  He leaned over the dresser.  He thought about the girl who was sitting out in the car now; he thought about the eight words. 

Then the ghost spoke.

"It's not my fault I fell in love."  

The voice was only an echo.  He heard it more in his head than in his ears.  But he knew the ghost was real.

He said, "I know."

This story originally appeared in Pulphouse.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."

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