Charlie’s Ghost by Ali LaForce
Charlie’s Ghost by Ali LaForce
Charlie got the ranch for such a good price on account of it being haunted. Five years ago, the rancher rode out one day and never came back. His wife said he was dead and then she killed herself not three years later. It was the widow woman’s ghost that haunted the place, raising hell any time someone came to the house. Nobody any place around would buy the ranch, so Charlie got a chance to move out to Colorado like he’d been thinking to for the past ten years or so. Charlie bought the property in February and moved out in March when the land was still chilly at night, with plenty of not yet melted snow whiting out the tops of the Rockies.
The lawyer in town met Charlie at the train, hired him a horse, and pointed him in the right direction, then made it clear that Charlie could expect to ride out alone.
“It’s no good business, going out to the house,” the balding man said. “Mrs. Wight did herself a bad turn, hanging herself in the barn like that…” The lawyer shook his head instead of finishing his thought. “The stock’s all sold, but everything else got left where it was. Nobody wants a sofa sat on by a ghost.”
“Well, sir, I suppose I’ll just have to make do with her ghost as best I can. I thank you for your help.” Charlie tipped his hat. Inside himself, he smiled just a little. His momma, God rest her, had the sight and told him about the spirits ever since before he came up to her knees. Unlike these folk, who only knew enough about ghosts to be scared by them, he’d had himself a proper education in the lives of the dead. “I’ll be seein’ you.”
The road out of town was pretty. Wide open on either side, the landscape kept on running and running until either it fuzzed into the sky or butted up into the mountains, depending on which side he was looking at. Everything was browns and grays for the time being. He tried to imagine what it’d look like once spring had really arrived.
Riding at an easy pace, which was usually the pace he rode at these days, ever since the arthritis had started in his hips, Charlie got to the house in late afternoon. It was pretty enough, though sun had faded the paint. Smallish and only one storey, but built well and none of its glass windows were broken. A couple of crosses out front, surrounded by a little fence, marked the family graves. Out of respect, Charlie tipped his hat when he passed.
Once inside, Charlie found things just as the lawyer had promised: untouched. The kitchen was sparse and clean with one solitary chair at the table. He found enough in the pantry to cobble together a hot dinner, and even a bit of coffee to wash it down with. He pumped water from the well and cleaned up the dishes. Then Charlie settled down to wait at the table with the light of a kerosene lamp and a newspaper he had picked up in town.
As he was starting the last page of the paper, the commotion started. His lamp blew out, leaving him in near-absolute darkness. The table began to shake. Dishes and pans rattled and clanged or smacked against the wall. A few flew up and shattered, raining ceramic shards down upon him.
Charlie folded the newspaper neatly and tucked it in his arm. His chair joined the table with its own spasms and jolts, so he stood up and walked to the wall and leaned against it. The stove doors swung open and shut, spilling out flashes of glowing orange light from the hot coals inside. Ash and embers spilled out, pushed as if by gusts of wind. Charlie ground the embers out under his boot.
A scream welled up in the air, louder and shriller than the accumulated other noises, and wailed in his ears. The scream didn’t especially sound like it came from a woman. Instead it reminded him of the sound of a train’s brakes as it pulled into the station. The sound had much more metal and heat inside of it than anything he had ever heard come out of a human throat. Charlie plugged his ears with his fingertips.
The newspaper was snatched from where he had it between his ribs and elbow. At this point Charlie got fed up. “Enough!” Charlie hollered. The clamor intensified, as if yelling back at him.
“Stop behaving like a toddler having a tantrum and just settle down already! Or, I swear I’ll burn this whole house to cinders!”
At the mention of fire, the activity in the kitchen came to a sudden halt. The kettle, chair and table banged down, but other than the sudden clang, there was no other sound.
“Alright,” Charlie said, brushing himself off. “That’s better.” He righted the chair, which had fallen over as it fell, and sat down. “Now, Mrs. Wight, I know you’ve had a hard go of it, but that’s no reason to be taking it out on innocent folk like me.” The kitchen remained quiet. “I’m hoping, Mrs. Wight, that we can find a way to get along.” He received no response except continued silence, so he opened the newspaper and finished reading it.
Over the next few weeks, Charlie went to work settling in at the ranch (he decided against taking the main bedroom, instead putting his clothes and gear in one of the others) and getting new livestock. He was fortunate to find most everything in good repair, but there was still enough to do, like mending bits of fence, that his days began early and ended late. Each night when he slept, he slept hard. All the while, he kept a lookout for the ghost. Mostly, he saw no sign of her. No sign, except a clamor in the kitchen every night, which he quickly got used to and almost forgot about even as he was holding tight to his plate so he could eat off of it without her grabbing it away and throwing it against the wall. From day to day, as he sweated from working in the cool spring mornings, Mrs. Wight’s ghost faded to the back of his mind and every now and again he almost forgot about her entirely.
Then, one morning after he had spent the day before cleaning out the stable, he walked into the kitchen to find the phantasm of a woman hunched over the table. Her head rested in her hands. Her shoulders shook daintily, in time with her sobs.
Charlie scratched his hip through his long underwear, contemplating the back of her head. Pretty hair, he thought, brown with just a hint of red. Pulled back in a braid, her hair reached down to her waist, making a pleasant contrast with the faded blue of the dress she wore. Charlie walked past the ghost to start his morning coffee on the stove.
“Good morning, Mrs. Wight,” he said once the coffee had brewed. Her crying stopped without trailing off at all. It was just that she was crying one instant and not the next. This confirmed Charlie’s hunch that she had only been crying to try for some sympathy.
“How dare you.” The ghost lifted her head to stare him full in the face. The anger on her face was easy to read, even with being able to see the wall through her.
“Sorry ma’am, but I don’t get your meaning. I can’t think of anything I’ve done wrong.”
The voice of Mrs. Wight’s ghost dropped a register and got meaner when she replied, “This is my house. You’ve got no right to be trespassing and calling it your own.”
“I beg your pardon, but this house belongs to the living, which I am and you aint. I bought it with honest cash, and when you put the two together, I’ve got every right to be here. It’s you who’s overstayed your welcome in this place.” He reached up to tip his hat, forgetting that he wasn’t wearing it yet. Finding air, his fingers fell back to his side. “No offense, ma’am.”
The kitchen table lifted in the air, getting ready to bang against the floor and cause a ruckus. “Mrs. Wight! Stop that nonsense right now!” The table dropped, hitting hard enough that Charlie could feel the vibrations in his toes. It lifted again, tipping from side to side, rising even higher in the air.
The storm he had experienced in the kitchen on that first night paled compared to what followed. A rain of dish shards poured down, followed by jars of canned goods, which created a thunder of breakage and forced Charlie to cover his eyes to protect them from sharp pieces flying through the air.
Once the ghost ran out of breakables, she started with the durable goods. Charlie didn’t duck quite fast enough and the cast iron frying pan caught him a glancing blow on the temple, flashing bright lights in front of his eyes and making him stagger. The frying pan rebounded off the wall, leaving a considerable dent, then circled around to have another go at him.
Before, the ghost had just been making noise, and Charlie had been content to let her get it out of her system. Now she was outright trying to bash his head in, and he was going to have nothing of that. Charlie ran into the parlor, which erupted like the kitchen as soon as he cleared the doorway. He yanked open the desk drawer and pulled out a bundle of sage he had tucked away there for just such a situation as this.
“I’m warning you, Mrs. Wight. You stop this right now.” He held up the sage to show her the danger she faced.
The ghost manifested herself so she could give him a condescending look. “What are you going to do to me with that? Sage is good with chicken, but I’m no chicken.” She crossed her arms over her chest, cocking out her hip just a little for emphasis. The heavy oak rocking chair rose in the air. An iron poker from the fireplace joined it.
Charlie struck a match from the box in his pocket and lit the sage. The ghost blew out the flame, but the sage had already caught enough that blowing it out just made the end glow and smoke. The effect was quick. The rocking chair and poker fell to the floor. Mrs. Wight doubled over, coughing. Sage smoke filled the room, crowding the ghost. Her coughing intensified. Charlie walked toward her calmly, sweeping his arms gently in front of him. The smoke whorled as he moved, circling and going out just a little in front of his hand each time he brought it around.
Each step he took forced Mrs. Wight back by one. He could see her trying to resist, but she couldn’t fight it. He walked her to the window. Once her back was up against it, her efforts doubled. She knew as well as he did that as soon as he forced her out through the glass, she’d be stuck on the other side. Charlie slowed his steps a little despite himself. The panic on her face made him feel a twinge of guilt.
“Please,” she said between coughs. Then again, more desperately, “I got no place to go.” Charlie took another step. The ghost’s back touched the glass. She looked even more translucent up against it, with the sun rising up behind and the light coming in through her. Charlie took another step. Her back began to fade as it started passing through. “Please,” she called out one more time. “I’ll stop.” Ghost tears ran down her face just as real tears would on a real woman.
Charlie’s resolve faded. “Promise you’ll behave.”
He stopped walking and lowered the sage. “You better not let me regret this.”
She shook her head. Her knuckles whitened against the window frame as her ghost fingers strained against the push of the smoke.
Charlie went to the door, opened it, and threw the sage out to the yard. He left the door open to let the smoke out. The ghost pulled herself all the way back into the parlor. Her knees trembled while she waited for the smoke to clear.
Not knowing what else to do then, Charlie went to the kitchen, picked the frying pan off the floor, and made himself some bacon and eggs for breakfast. Eventually, the ghost joined him. She put herself in the chair wordlessly, waiting. He sat the frying pan and a fork down on the table. All the plates were in pieces on the floor, so he ate right out of the pan. Since the ghost occupied the chair he’d been using, he had to pull another one in from the dining room before he could start eating.
“You’re holding your fork wrong,” the ghost said. Her voice was husky now. “Don’t hold it like it’s a shovel, you’ve got to hold it proper.” She leaned over and demonstrated, which was tricky to do without being able to actually hold onto the fork.
Charlie adjusted his grip. “Momma tried to give me manners, but it didn’t all take, I guess. Not much call for manners when you’re a bachelor your whole life.”
Mrs. Wight snorted. “Being a bachelor wasn’t your problem, I expect. I’ve never hardly met a man with manners, married or not. Even after I was married to Jim for ten years, he still forgot not to belch at the table.” She propped an elbow up on the table, (which Charlie remembered from his momma as being impolite, but he didn’t mention it), and made a loose fist to lean her chin against.
“I wish I could offer you some coffee, ma’am, as this new stuff I got on my last trip into town is awful good.”
“I wish I could drink it. I can still smell it, though, so I guess that’s something.” She watched him eat his breakfast, bite by bite. After being a bachelor for so long, with no one to even know when he was having his breakfast, much less watch him eat it, this made Charlie uneasy. He scooched his plate a little closer and leaned his head down so that his eating wouldn’t feel so exposed.
“I’m sorry I broke all the plates.”
Charlie shrugged. “Don’t much matter to me what I eat off of, so long as it holds food. Can’t say I’m looking forward to cleaning up the mess, though.” A glob of strawberry preserves chose that moment to fall off the wall and land on the floor with a splat. Mrs. Wight’s ghost blushed.
“I can help clean that up.”
“No, you can’t.” Charlie shook his head. “I seen a ghost once that had enough control to do that, but he was special. All the rest can only pitch things around when they’re mad. You aint mad anymore.”
Mrs. Wight rose from her chair. She walked over to the remains of a jar of green beans and did her best to prove Charlie wrong. When she couldn’t, she gave out a sigh and came back to the table. “I’m even more useless dead than I was alive.”
She looked so sad when she said it that Charlie wished he could put his arm around her. “You oughtn’t be so hard on yourself, ma’am. There are worse things than being a ghost. Trust me on that account.”
“I guess you might as well call me Lucy, now that we’re living together.”
“All right, Lucy. Though, I think calling it ‘living together’ might be a bit of a stretch, considering your state.”
She gave him a dirty look, the intensity of which was a bit ruined since he could see dents and a wet stain on the wall through her head.
They settled into a routine as the spring eased itself into early summer. Every morning they had breakfast together, Charlie eating, Lucy smelling. Then he’d be off to do the work that needed getting done, and they’d have dinner together at nights. They chatted like old friends, and sometimes Lucy would sing. Her momma and grandma had taught her old Irish ballads when she was growing up. She sang them in the evenings with a voice as pretty as a sunset with low clouds to bounce all the color off of. After a time, Charlie knew a few well enough to sing along. This, he thought, is what it would have been like to get married.
Folk in the town, once they realized Charlie wasn’t leaving, peppered him with questions about the ghost and what it was like living in a haunted house. He just shrugged, said, “I like the company,” and told the shopkeeper he was feeling like he ought to have an extra bit of coffee with his order this time.
Though he didn’t mention it in town, and especially not with Lucy, the question of her being a ghost stayed in his mind. Sometimes she seemed to like being in the house with him. Sometimes, especially times when she didn’t think he was paying attention, her smile faded, and he got a glimpse of just how sad she was. The first time or two, he had mentioned it to her. She threw off the question of what was holding her, most likely because she wasn’t ready to know the answer herself. Charlie knew these things could take time, so he didn’t push it. He just kept it in his mind and turned it over from time to time to see if anything had grown underneath that might give him an answer.
In June he rode out further than usual looking for a stray calf. He followed its tracks down along the river until he stopped beside an especially pretty bit of meadow to water his horse and eat lunch. Beside the water, half-buried in dirt, something round and white caught his eye. Charlie dug it out. He lifted it up and looked at it eye to eye-socket, realizing that he had just found the skull of Mr. Wight.
Along with the skull, Charlie found several other bones. He wrapped the skull with his kerchief. The other bones he could do little about just then, since he had nothing to put them in. He collected all he could find together, then covered the pile gently with stones and bits of wood to keep the critters off the bones until he could come back for them.
Finished with the bones, he rounded up the calf and brought it home. He hesitated a moment before going inside the house with Mr. Wight’s skull. He turned it in his hands, positioning the skull inside the kerchief so it rested upright, facing in the same direction as his own head.
Charlie walked inside. He found Lucy in the kitchen. Her eyes went immediately to Charlie’s hands. “What’s that?” Charlie set it down on the table. His fingers undid the knot at the top, letting the kerchief fall open. “I found your husband.”
She reacted differently than Charlie expected. No gasp, no recoil, no reaction barely at all, except she leaned closer to take a better look. “Oh, Jim. What happened to you?” She reached out a ghost hand, trying to touch, but it sank into the bone without the least resistance.
“How did you know your husband was dead? I mean, without the body, how could you be sure?”
“I just was. He rode out one day and then the horse came back without him and he never caught up. What else could he have been but dead?” She pulled her hand back.
Charlie rose, heading for the door.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to go back for the rest of the bones I saw. There’s still time to make the trip today.”
“Thank you,” Lucy said, turning back to look at her husband’s skull. “Now we can bury him proper.
Lucy began to spend almost all of her time in the kitchen where Charlie had Jim’s bones spread out on the table. As often as he could, without neglecting the stock, he went out to that spot to look for more. He worked in a wider and wider circle, spreading out from where the skull had been to account for scavenging.
With each bone he brought back, Lucy grew a little quieter. Charlie feared she was slipping into a melancholy. He picked flowers to bring home for her every day. She hardly noticed.
For the next few days, Charlie made excuses not to go back to the river. Plenty of them were legitimate chores he had to get done, and he made marvelous progress on repairs and maintenance. Still, when he got right down to it, he had to admit that they were still excuses. He told himself his intentions were honorable. He was only trying to spare Lucy pain. He repeated it like a mantra throughout the day, the rhythm of the words matching the rhythm of his sweat.
After four days, Lucy confronted him. “I want you to go back out,” she said as Charlie drank his morning coffee.
“I will if I finish early.”
She looked at him hard. “All of a sudden you’re too busy to go looking for my husband. Here I thought you were a good man.” Lucy turned away from him, crossing her arms over her chest.
“It’s not the way you think,” he said.
She didn’t move.
Charlie touched the bones on the table, straightening them out even though they didn’t need it. “It hurts you, seeing this. I don’t want to be the one responsible for that hurt, is all.” He stared at the table, not wanting to see if she had turned back around or not.
“Oh, Charlie. You’re damn thick-headed.” Caught off guard, he dared look up. “It’s just that it’s easier to forget, when his bones aren’t right here in front of me.”
“That I’m not with him.” Her eyes got a hollow, far-away look. “I just wanted to be with him again. That’s all I ever wanted.” Her hand went to her throat, resting against the place where the rope had tightened against it out in the barn. Remembering that, and looking at her hand against her neck, Charlie thought he could see faint red and purple marks on her skin from the hanging.
She noticed his gaze and dropped her hand. Her voice came out with a hint of crying in it, “It’s got nothing at all to do with you, Charlie. Except, you’re the one who can bring what’s left of him back to me.”
Understanding grew inside of Charlie. All ghosts had a reason for being ghosts. He had assumed the suicide was hers, but he was wrong. These bones were Lucy’s reason. Once he brought her husband home in this world. she could join him in the next. This was the best turn he could ever do for her.
Charlie downed the last of his coffee. “I’ll go out today as soon as I get all the stock fed. I promise.”
The hollowness in Lucy’s eyes filled in. “Good.”
Charlie returned to his search with new energy. This was how he was going to do right by Lucy. This was how he was going to live up to what his momma, God rest her, had taught him.
The collection of bones in the kitchen grew and grew. Neither Charlie nor Lucy had a clear idea of how many bones there ought to be, but eventually Charlie just plain couldn’t find any more.
In the kitchen, Charlie and Lucy conferred.
“Does that look right to you?” Lucy asked.
“I ‘spose so.”
“You’re sure you couldn’t find any more?”
Lucy nodded, satisfied.
She had him wrap Jim’s bones in a bit of cloth he had bought her before he died. Light blue, with little flowers on it. The cloth was pretty and soft. Charlie wrapped the bones, then dug a grave. The grave was a small one, on account of the bones not taking up much room, and for the first time since Lucy had turned spirit, she left the house.
Charlie lowered the bundle of bones into the grave. All together and wrapped up, they looked amazingly small against the dirt.
Lucy sung a hymn, raising her voice so it carried over the sound of the wind. Charlie read a passage out of Lucy’s Bible. Then, Lucy gave him a nod to fill in the hole.
“I think I can go now, Charlie.”
“I think so too.”
He heard her say, “Goodbye,” but when he looked up from filling the grave, she was gone.
“Goodbye Lucy,” he said to the space where she had been.
Charlie kept picking flowers for the kitchen the whole summer through, and he made sure to hold his fork proper when he ate, even though there was no one to see it.
Copyright Ali LaForce 2021