Ghost-dog by Gregory E. Lucas
Ghost-dog by Gregory E. Lucas
Ellen Stahl’s frantic shouts for Edward — her son and caregiver — were as loud as the wind’s shrieks during a mid-October night on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Her frail eighty-three-year-old body shook after waking from a nightmare. Her heart thumped wildly. She grasped the inhaler for her asthma on the bedside table, took a puff, and called again for Edward. Nightmarish images of herself walking alone, lost in a labyrinth of deserted dark city streets, superimposed themselves on her bedroom walls.
Every night, for years, the same nightmare with variations had disturbed her sleep. Sometimes she was lost in a labyrinth of trails in the midst of wilderness hiding gruesome creatures whose eyes glinted among the rustling trees; other times her nightmares placed her on beaches with deafening surf, under starless and moonless skies where she wandered until she collapsed. Always lost. Always alone. Alone — that was the worst part, worse even than being lost.
She shuffled across the bedroom floor, favoring the leg that wasn’t quite as stiff as the leg that an inept doctor had made almost useless by a botched knee replacement ten years back.
“Where are you, Edward? Edward, why don’t you answer?”
She leaned against his bedroom doorway, flipped the light switch. Empty — the covers thrown to the bed’s side. The devil-red numbers of a digital clock glowed — 2:03 AM. She tried to call for Edward again with her voice weakened by heart palpitations that took her breath away. She hobbled from room to room, searching for him. Treetops swooshed. Branches by the side of the house screeched.
As she headed from the foyer toward the living room, the front door opened. A chilly gust slammed it shut. She turned toward the entrance clutching her chest, wheezing. She reached into a pocket of her blue terrycloth robe, pulled out her inhaler and took a puff. Through her cataracts, she stared at her son.
Waist high, he held the small wooden box that contained his recently euthanized white German Shepherd’s ashes. He’d been carrying the box with him, in a morose dream-like state of mind, from room to room for three weeks. His facial expression of intermingled peace and happiness was strikingly different from the sadness he’d wallowed in since the dog had died.
“What’s with that look on your face? Never mind. How dare you leave me alone! I’m trembling. I’ve been calling and calling, looking for you.”
“Rocky’s face — I saw it on the moon, right after a few clouds glided by.”
“You’ve lost your mind.”
“His ghost is near. Soon, soon, he’ll be with us again.”
Windswept acorns and twigs scuttled across the roof. She glanced up, then kept her cloudy eyes fixed on his green eyes. Otherworldly images — refracted murky images, like those of sunken things barely visible below the surface of a sea – tinted them.
“I understood at first why you carried the ashes around. I know what it means to grieve. Even though it’s been about five years since your father died, I still reach out my hand to the other side of the bed and tell myself that he should be there.”
She gazed at the floor.
“Don’t look so sad; you ought to be happy, like me. Rocky’s ghost — his ghost is near, coming closer. I can tell, I can sense –“
“Enough. There’s no such thing as ghosts. Don’t you even think about me anymore?”
He put his arms around her, patted her back that had hunched little by little as she’d aged.
“This was the first time I wasn’t there for you. I was pulled from my bed, out of my sleep, pulled outside by a force that I couldn’t resist.”
“You must’ve been gone for an hour.”
“Just a few minutes.”
“I know the difference between a few minutes and an hour. You’re trying to make me think I’m losing my mind, but you’re the one who’s talking about ghosts.”
He kept an arm around her shoulders as they walked to her bedroom. He helped her get onto the bed, then adjusted the covers.
“Promise me, never mention ghosts, nothing that has to do with death.”
Without answering her, he went to the kitchen and got her a cold glass of water. He set it by her bedside table where a small digital clock was shining. It was 2:17 and she fell asleep while leaves and twigs clattered like claws on the roof.
She woke soon after sunrise. It took her a moment to realize that the wind had died down, that clattering on the roof she heard imaginary. She sensed some weird presence hovering over the house.
How could he have left me? she asked herself, thinking not just about Edward and how he’d gone out during the middle of the night, but also about that terrible winter night, around five years ago, when she’d driven to the hospital, alone, and a cardiologist told her with sham empathy that her husband had died nearly four hours ago.
Not even a phone call from anyone at the hospital to let me know before I’d left the house. She recalled the terrible sounds of the cardiologist’s footsteps in the hall as he walked away, leaving her alone and trembling underneath the ghastly fluorescent lights that cast an unnatural gleam on the white tiles.
She winced from backpain as she sat up in bed, winced again from pain in her hip that no amount of rest ever alleviated thanks to the botched knee replacement that had left one leg a bit longer than the other and caused her to always tilt awkwardly to one side. After straining her bowels, brushing her dyed red hair, and changing into beige slacks to compliment a new leaf-print blouse, she hobbled to the kitchen.
Edward went about his usual morning routine of setting on the glass-topped table her prune juice, blueberries, yogurt, water, and hot instant oatmeal. She breathed quickly and heavily, like she always did during her morning anxiety attacks that began more than twenty years back. She gaged on the first few spoonfuls of oatmeal, until she calmed down a little.
Seeing Edward at his routine helped to settle her nerves. No talk of ghosts. He seems normal, she thought, as Edward made his hot cereal and chatted about the nice weather that was expected that day, but in an instant every shred of normality vanished.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“Rocky must be hungry and thirsty after his trip from the land of the dead.”
She hadn’t noticed, until now, the small bag of kibble on the kitchen counter and the dog’s old bowl on the floor. Edward half-filled it. “Good thing I never threw out the last bag of kibble,” he said.
He filled the dog’s old water bowl from a pitcher and set it down by the food while she put her hand over her heart in a useless attempt to steady her heart palpitations.
“Soon as I woke at sunrise, I knew his ghost was in the house. Did you?”
“Ghosts don’t eat or drink,” she said, surprised that she had sufficient breath to talk.
“You’re probably right, but it’s a nice way to let Rocky-dog know we’re glad to have him back.”
She took a sip of water, barely able to swallow it.
“My nerves. I can’t take this.” She put aside her oatmeal, clutched her head, and cried. “If this doesn’t stop, I’ll –”
Silence prevailed a minute. Edward broke the silence. “I thought that you’d sensed his ghost — thought that you were glad he’d come back.”
Despite sipping more water, her throat felt almost too dry to talk.
“I feel like I’m lost in a nightmare,” she said. “Are you trying to enact a plot from one of those stories of the supernatural you’re always reading? A plot to destroy an old rich woman so you can get the inheritance as soon you can?”
“I’d never –”
She lifted her face, stared at his eyes, and tried to rationalize his bizarre behavior.
“I think I understand why you’re acting so strange. It’s grief. Just like I can’t believe Dad’s gone, you can’t believe that . . .” Her voice had softened so much that she couldn’t even hear herself speak.
He took ahold of her hand. “But it’s not grief I feel. If you’d calm down, you’d know, like I do that Rocky’s –”
She interrupted him with soft words: “If I have to suffer through your breakdown over the dog, I’ll try –”
“Mom, the ghost is real.”
“There’s no such thing as ghosts, Edward.”
She didn’t quite know how she did it, but she resumed eating. The two of them finished their meal while they watched their usual morning news program.
Four nights later — an especially humid night for the last week of October — as a brief spat of rain died away, Ellen lay in bed watching, but not following well, a political townhall debate. Typically, she would be engrossed by such a heated debate, but her nerves were too shot to concentrate on anything.
The telephone conversation between Edward and his wife, who was, for the time being, in her and Edward’s Delaware home, had upset her. She knew it had been wrong to linger out of sight yet close enough to overhear his side of the telephone conversation, but she couldn’t resist eavesdropping.
Is the whole reason behind Edward’s continuous bizarre behavior due to his wife and the problems within the household there? Ellen wondered. Ever since Edward’s good-for-nothing stepson had moved back into their home over a year ago, bringing with him a pregnant wife and a little girl from the woman’s previous relationship, there’d been a lot of yelling in that house, a lot of tension, and even though Edward wasn’t there anymore, he couldn’t escape all the problems.
Yes, that’s it, she supposed. The stress of family problems, the stressful decision he’d had to make about euthanizing his dog, the stress of taking care of all her needs — that’s why he’s so strange nowadays. But no, no, she told herself as her eyes kept wandering from the television to the large open closet where the dog used to sleep. He wasn’t upset on the phone. He’d seemed cheerful, telling his wife what a big surprise she’d find here, as soon as she came to Hilton Head Island in a few weeks.
The closet — she couldn’t keep herself from looking again and again in its direction. She also couldn’t keep at bay the feeling that she wasn’t alone in the room. Ellen tried to guess what the surprise could be that Edward had mentioned to his wife while her attention was irresistibly pulled toward the closet.
Someone’s in it, she thought. Ridiculous — no one’s there. The dog? The ghost?
She muted the TV and crept from the bed to the closet. She turned on the closet-light and stepped in. Nothing there except her wardrobe, vacuum cleaner, boxes, and the other usual things, yet she sensed an invisible presence nearby.
Look what he’s done to you, she thought. He’s upset you so much with his talk about ghosts that he’s driving you nuts. He’ll cause you a total breakdown or a stroke if you don’t do something soon,she said to herself. “Frank would know what to do,” she said, thinking aloud. She turned off the closet light and glanced toward the side of the bed where her husband used to sleep.
She picked up the TV remote control from the bed. Instead of turning the sound back on, she left it off, and without really understanding why she was doing it, she opened the sliding-glass-backdoor.
Her bedroom was dark, except for the dim flickering of the TV. Weird dense shadows shifted in the woods that bordered the lagoon right behind her house. The almost-full-moon’s light seeped eerily through the small spaces between the swooshing trees. A cacophony of screeches — feral cats fighting? — of creaking branches, frogs croaking, wings thrumming, insects chanting, and a distant dog’s bark worked on her fraught nerves.
She breathed rapidly, loudly.
A distant dog’s bark bothered her. Rocky’s bark? She immediately rejected the thought. No such thing as ghosts, and even if there were, how could a ghost be two places at once — the closet and out there?
Alligators often crept out of the lagoon, onto the bank by her yard. Tonight, she sensed the nearness of something more monstrous than an alligator. She turned on the porchlight. Paw prints. They could’ve come from any dog in the neighborhood that had run free, she supposed. But she was convinced that the muddy stains on the white tiles were put there by something supernatural. She berated herself for such a thought, yet couldn’t free her mind of it.
At least there were no alligators that she could see. She turned off the porchlight and closed the sliding-glass-door. She pulled the blinds across the full width of the door to keep herself from looking at scenery that normally looked beautiful to her, but now appeared horrid.
While the flickering TV cast everchanging tints on the otherwise unlit room, she felt like the terrified lost wanderer in her dreams.
Stop shaking, she told herself.
A split second after she’d called, she wished she hadn’t. It’s his fault I’m so afraid.
The psychedelic light shone on Edward’s face as he stood in the doorway.
“Anything you need?” he said.
He waited for an answer.
“Want a glass of water? A snack?” he said.
He took a few steps closer. Silence lingered.
“Your father — would he want me to bear it?
“What do you mean?”
His face was now in shadows, but she could imagine the puzzled expression that must have formed on it. She turned the TV off.
“Never mind,” she said.
In the dark her trembling hands steadied as she arranged the bedcovers and pillows for herself. She pretended to fall quickly asleep while she listened to Edward partly closing her door and leaving the room.
“Edward, our show’s coming on,” Ellen shouted. It was 10:00 PM, Friday night, time for The Bill Maher Show, the comedy and political program that they never missed watching together each week in her bedroom. Where is he? she asked herself, but she was pretty certain where: walking the ghost-dog around the neighborhood.
Although Edward, for the past week or so, had said very little about the ghost-dog, his behavior had become even more disturbing. Beginning a week ago, at all the usual times that he used to take the dog out for walks when the dog was alive — as soon as he got up around sunrise, before he went to bed, and every two or three hours in between — he was walking around the neighborhood with a coiled leash in his hand. What do the neighbors think? she wondered, but she supposed that since the leash was never unraveled and kept inconspicuously in his hand, they might not have noticed anything strange.
Other routines from the days when the dog was alive had started up again, too. He’d begun frying two eggs every morning, not for her, like she would have greatly appreciated, but for the dog because that had become Rocky’s favorite food when he’d gotten old. Despite the kibble and water never being eaten or drunk from the bowls, every morning and evening he emptied them and refilled them. He even came home from the grocery store the other day with a new bag of kibble. He conceded to her that ghosts don’t eat, but he believed that the ghost wanted the fresh food and water set out every day anyway, as a sign of attention and welcome.
The host of the TV show was five minutes into his ten-minute comical monologue and Edward still hadn’t come to watch the program. She called for him several more times and then hobbled with her cane to the foyer.
I’ve had enough of Edward’s weirdness, she told herself. She was convinced that it was time for the plan of action she’d formed during the course of the day.
She opened the front door and saw Edward walking up the driveway toward her, leash in hand.
“You’re missing our show,” she said.
“Rocky wouldn’t stop sniffing.”
She almost asked him how he could tell if an invisible dog was sniffing or not, but she had a more pressing question: “When is all this going to stop?”
“Let’s go watch the show.”
“I want an answer.”
He entered the house and stood next to her. He didn’t answer her question, just looked at her with a happy and peaceful expression.
“If you can’t find a sensible way of coping with your grief about the dog, you’ll have to go back to your home in Delaware. I’ve called a nursing home and two assisted living facilities. As much as I hate the thought of losing this home, it looks like I have to consider –“
“I’ve started searching the classified ads for caregivers looking for work.”
“I’ll give you another day or two. If you haven’t changed by then, you’ll have to go. I hate to give you an ultimatum like this.”
“But tomorrow’s Halloween night — Rocky’s birthday!”
She shook with frustration.
“Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said?”
“Something really big is going to happen to you, to us, tomorrow night. I don’t know what’ll be. But it’ll be awesome.”
“I mean it, Edward. You’ll have to go back to all that yelling, that good-for-nothing stepson, those noisy kids. Within a day or two, if things don’t change.”
“Within a day or two you’ll have nothing more to worry about.”
His attempt to reassure her failed. She felt more unsettled than ever. The happy and dreamy look on his face hadn’t changed since he’d entered the house. Her ultimatum, she concluded, hadn’t fazed him in the least.
She mulled over his last few words. You’ll have nothing more to worry about. Despite the dreamy and peaceful look on him, she shuddered and suspected that he’d implied something sinister. But he would never physically harm her, she told herself. Or would he? He’s so different nowadays.
“Let’s go watch what’s left of the show,” he said.
He put the leash into the basket by the door, where he’d always kept it, and he put his arm around her while they walked toward her bedroom. She was too puzzled, too disturbed, by the things he’d said to follow the serious political points made on the show or to laugh at the comedian’s jokes. She’d hardly realized that the show they’d been watching had come to an end and that he’d left the room; her mind brimmed with dark speculations about what was going to happen on Halloween night.
Around 9:15 on Halloween night Ellen lay in bed imaging that the costumed ghosts, goblins, witches, and zombies that had come to her house as real ghastly beings walking on her neighborhood’s streets through the mist. She longed for dreamless sleep, but she knew that wouldn’t happen tonight.
She knew that if she went to sleep, she’d get trapped in another one of her nightmares — lost, wandering, panic-stricken in a remote location, alone, calling out for someone, anyone to help her. There’d be no answer from anyone, just the nerve-wracking reverberations of her fantastical surroundings: tree branches that instead of creaking, screamed during gusts; breaking waves that hissed like snakes by her feet; sustained car-horns blaring on empty city streets where there wasn’t a single vehicle to be seen.
Just the anticipation of her nightmares made her tremble. She reminded herself that whatever happened in her nightmares wasn’t real, but the tremors continued in her fingers and along her spine. Despite every attempt to convince herself that the costumed children hadn’t been transformed into ghoulish creatures, she couldn’t persuade herself that the creatures were merely imaginary.
She swung her stiff legs off the bed and stood by the sliding-glass-backdoor.
Faint wisps thickened and swirled over the lagoon. They took on a more defined shape. The mist metamorphosized into a white German Shepherd that hovered above the lagoon. No bigger or smaller than a real German Shepherd, it glided, lowered itself, and sniffed the water on which it stood, as if the water were grass.
It’s not real. Mist takes on all kinds of weird shapes, she thought. She slid the door open all the way. A white canine sprinted toward her.
She stepped back and fell onto the bed. The ghost-dog leaped into the room. Her heart raced while a hot tongue licked her hands, face, and throat. She tried to scream, but was too frightened to utter a sound while the dog stayed above her, legs splayed to each side of her. She tried to fend off the slathering tongue, but couldn’t.
It would bite her throat, unless she acted quickly. She tried to strike its ribs, but the ghost pinned her arms. Then it lay still, by her side, its head on her stomach. Her intuition told her with utmost certainty that Rocky’s ghost was as friendly as the real dog had been when alive. The ghost vanished.
Her heartbeat slowed down to a normal rhythm. Her fingers stopped trembling. Her breaths were slower, deeper, and she realized that all along there’d really been nothing to fear. Edward — he’d never become mentally unhinged. Her son had no sinister intentions or hidden motives when he had tried to convince her that the ghost-dog was in their presence. The ghost had been among them ever since that night Edward had seen its face on the moon.
But something still made no sense to her: she’d felt — felt — the dog’s tongue on her. She’d always thought that ghosts were wispy or invisible things that made noises or somehow moved objects but they couldn’t become palpable. Or could they? Once maybe? Briefly? Just long enough to convince someone of their reality?
She called for Edward. Whether he was sleeping or not she wasn’t about to wait until the morning to tell him what had happened.
The weather was unusually warm and pleasant for a mid-November morning. Ellen, Edward, and the ghost-dog walked together, to the mailbox at the end of the driveway. They continued onto the cul-de-sac, stopping now and then so that the ghost had a chance to sniff the ground and so that Ellen could rest.
Edward held the coiled leash in one hand, and Ellen held his arm to prevent one of her unexpected falls. The wonderful weather and the harmony she felt from the three of them walking together, like in days past, when she used to join Edward and the dog on their shorter walks, did much to alleviate the aches in her body and kept at bay her anxieties.
“Rocky’s ghost hasn’t materialized again since Halloween night, but every night since then, I’ve sensed him sleeping in my closet, just like he used to,” she said.
“I don’t think that he actually ever materialized.”
She stopped walking. “But I saw him. I felt him.”
“You sensed his whereabouts so strongly that it seemed as if you saw him. You felt the energy field of his spiritual presence, and it was so profound that it seemed palpable.”
She shook her head and tugged his arm, ready to resume their walk, but Rocky’s invisible nose was stubbornly fixed on a nice smelling spot; they had to wait before they could proceed.
She was in no mood to argue with him. “You’ve read too many ghost stories, too many theories on ghosts to accept my notions of ghosts — but whatever you say, Edward.”
“He’s done sniffing now, I think.”
Her legs felt better than they had in a long time. They did an extra two laps around the cul-de-sac.
“I wish that Dad was still here to walk with us,” she said. “It’s so nice to have Rocky with us again, even if it’s just as a ghost, but I still miss your father. Why do some deceased come back as ghosts — friendly, evil, tormented, or otherwise — and others don’t?” she said.
“Even though I’ve read hundreds of books about the supernatural, I’ve yet to come across a satisfactory answer to that question.”
“Well, anyway, although I still miss him, I’m not as sad as I used to be because I’ve had proof that there’s an afterlife, a spirit-world where he and I might be reunited,” she said.
Autumnal breeze stirred fallen leaves near them. They said that they couldn’t remember ever having seen so much gold, red, and yellow mixed with the green in the trees.
“Colors like these,” Ellen said, “keep appearing more often in my dreams.”
“I don’t hear you waking up in the middle of the night, scared out of your wits, yelling anymore.”
“My dreams are still vivid, but not awful. I sometimes feel as if I’m about to get lost in a desolate place, but suddenly, everything changes. I don’t know exactly where I am, but I don’t feel lost or afraid. Sometimes there’s a burst of sunshine and colorful trees, like these.”
The stiffness in her legs lessened, but they were weakening. She leaned more of her weight on him.
He held her steady. “Colors,” he said, “are a sign of happiness and feeling content.”
“It was my long-held-disbelief of the supernatural and my skepticism of the spirit world that kept me from feeling happiness and contentment sooner. Happy as I am now though, I’m still puzzled by one thing. What’s the big surprise waiting here for your wife when she comes?”
She gripped his arm tighter She felt her legs weakening more.
“It was supposed to be the ghost-dog.”
“Now it’s not?” she said.
“As it turns out, when I talked with Mae on the phone last night, she had an even bigger surprise for me than I thought I’d have for her.”
“What was that?”
“She told me, hesitantly, as if she didn’t think that I would believe her, that on Halloween night, around 9:15, after she’d given out candy, that she heard loud scratching at the front door and –”
Edward waited a few seconds before he continued. “– and when she opened the door, Rocky’s ghost stood there. That’s impossible I told her. The ghost-dog was here at that exact time and ghosts can’t be two places hundreds of miles apart at exactly same time. But she still doesn’t doubt what she saw. The ghost was there five minutes at least, she insisted, before it disappeared.”
Ellen looked toward the lagoon. She remembered that on Halloween night she’d heard the dog barking far behind the lagoon, at the same time that she’d sensed the dog in her bedroom closet.
“Two places at once?” she said.
“Not even a ghost can –”
“I’ve got proof otherwise.”
She winced and held her hip.
“My knees are going, my back and hip too. Better head back inside for a rest.”
“Tell me though, what proof?”
“Some other time I’ll tell you.” She leaned almost all of her frail body’s weight on him. “I’m too tired to explain. I’ll leave you in suspense.”
Ellen, weary, holding onto Edward’s arm, walked back to the house, where she lived content and happily with her son and the ghost-dog for many more years than she’d ever dreamed possible.
Copyright Gregory E. Lucas 2019