It’s that most wonderful day of the year (second only to tomorrow, when Target has its post-Halloween clearance sale!). To celebrate, and to thank everyone who supported Plaguewalker, especially through the media blitz and area readings of the last week, here’s a ghost story I penned. Enjoy.
This really happened.
Ghost tale tellers are like fishermen and lawyers, always swearing their whopper is for real. But I can guarantee this story is true because I was the one running down a night-black gravel road in my pajamas, too scared to look over my shoulder.
I had a summer job in college as a public health intern in northern Canada. Part of my job was to take the coastal ferry from one tiny fishing village to the next, delivering stacks of pamphlets and posters reminding the locals not to drink and snowmobile, or to get their children vaccinated.
One evening, I arrived in a town large enough to have its own hospital. The staff was surprised to see me—there’d been a mix-up and no one was expecting me until the following week.
A gruff caretaker threw my bag in the back of his pick-up and said he’d take me to temporary housing for the night.
We bumped over dirt and gravel roads cut into moorland and through dark pine forests for several minutes, leaving the sparse lights of the town some distance behind us.
I was about to ask where he was taking me when we passed a radio tower looming over a low building. The sign on its brick façade—Royal Canadian Mounted Police—was reassuring.
A thinner gravel track, little more than two wheel ruts through overgrown grass, led from the back of the station toward the forest. We turned onto it.
Perhaps a half mile down the road, I saw a lonely mailbox with the number “5.” Beyond sat a white house. The curtains were pulled. The lights were off.
“We put the visiting doctors and dentists out here,” volunteered my reluctant chauffeur. “You’ll stay in the basement apartment. Nobody lives in the house no more.”
He watched as I struggled to get my backpack out of his truck bed, then waited just long enough for me to open a door at the side of the house and switch on the lights. I heard the wheels of his truck grumble over stones and uncut grass as I stared at narrow wooden steps leading down.
The apartment was sterile as a hospital ward. Everything was painted white. The walls were bare. There was, however, a box mix of macaroni and cheese in the pantry, a pot and a spoon. Soon I had a warm meal that reminded me of home, or at least of places that were more welcoming.
I read a bit and then settled into a twin bed in the corner room. I turned off the light.
Heavy and shuffling, they walked from the bedroom door to a point above my head.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
The sound of something hard and blunt, wielded with force.
I turned on the light and sat up.
Pipes banging in an old house. The wind. A curious raccoon. Could be anything.
I held my breath, listening. Satisfied it was nothing more than my imagination, I turned off the light.
The footsteps crossed the space above again.
BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!
I switched on the light.
The noises stopped.
Surely I’d read too many scary books, seen too many slasher flicks. Alone in a remote location where I felt less than wanted, it was natural I would hear noises and assume the worst.
I would turn off the light, and I would hear nothing more than an old house settling for the night as wind smacked tree branches against its walls.
I turned off the light.
Silence shattered into footsteps, faster and angrier now it seemed. Then that dreadful banging.
Well, I had read a lot of scary books and seen a lot of slasher flicks and I realized at that moment I was the fool in the first act, the one who dismisses every portent of evil upstairs and ends up skewered, beheaded, boiled or shredded.
I turned on the light just to find my wallet and my boots.
The noise stopped, but terror already had consumed me. I bolted up the stairs, threw open the door, and ran.
I should tell you I am not much of a runner. I was the kid who dependably brought up the rear in gym class.
But that night, I ran.
I navigated the dark gravel road by the sound of my feet crunching on the crushed stone, imagining a thousand horrors advancing behind me.
I ran all the way to the Mounties and burst into the tiny reception area breathless and shaking.
A pair of them, seated at a shared desk, looked up with less surprise than one might expect when a wild-eyed woman in pajamas turns up after midnight.
I spilled the whole story. The footsteps. The banging.
The Mounties glanced at each other.
I expected them to cluck their tongues and dismiss me as a city girl scared by a raccoon.
“They shouldn’ta put you in Number Five,” one of them sighed. His calm sent a fresh chill through me, top to toes. “Everyone knows not to put a single woman there.”
“Come on, we’ll take you to the hospital so they can find another place for you.”
I asked why Number Five was no place for a single girl. They exchanged looks again.
“It’s just real remote,” one offered.
“Maybe it’s a raccoon. Maybe it’s trapped,” I suggested.
“Mmmm, we can check,” said the second Mountie.
I sat in the back of their patrol car as it crawled along the overgrown road. In its headlights, the house was bright white and dark-windowed. Dead as a skull.
“Come on, we’ll look for that raccoon,” said the first Mountie.
The door was closed but—as with most front doors for most houses in this part of the world—it was unlocked. The Mounties’ flashlights danced over one empty room after the next, the floor plan identical to the apartment below. The room above mine had been a bedroom too, once. Now it was nothing but peach walls and rust-colored shag carpeting.
“Nope, no raccoon,” said the second Mountie.
They escorted me to the basement, where I packed in seconds, and then drove me to the hospital.
“’Mornin’,” the first Mountie greeted the woman staffing emergency room reception. “Someone decided to put this young lady in Number Five for the night.”
She shook her head. “Well, it’s too late to move her. I’ll just find her a bed here.”
A few minutes later, I was alone again, in an empty room of the IC ward. When dawn came, I was up and dressed and ready to leave, but not before asking the receptionist why Number Five was off-limits for a woman traveling alone.
She replied that she’d arrange for someone to drive me to the coastal ferry, leaving in an hour.
I was embarrassing myself, I decided. It was my imagination after all, amplifying the dull thud of old plumbing and the rustle of wind. Running to the Mounties had been a moment of foolishness best forgotten.
So Number Five slid into the shadows of my memory. For a few weeks.
It was August. My internship was ending. The staff gathered for an extended coffee break to bid me farewell. Good-natured gossip blossomed into stories, and soon everyone was sharing a tale or two.
One nurse recalled a patient, a fisherman who mistook her exam room questions as amorous interest.
Most of us chuckled. My boss frowned.
“You never know where that sort of thing can go,” she said. “Remember that poor doctor up north.”
Staff who’d been around a few years nodded. Silence settled on our shoulders.
“What happened?” I asked.
“A very disturbed young man became obsessed with his psychiatrist,” my boss explained. “One night he broke into her house. Beat her to death in her own bed with a baseball bat.”
I was back in a hard twin bed, in the darkness, listening to angry footsteps above me and a terrible banging.
“They tried to put a couple nurses up in that house last year but they said ‘goodness, no!’” added our receptionist. She clucked her tongue.
I was running through darkness, my only guide the crunch of my own boots on gravel, running in my pajamas with my wallet in my hand and my heart in my throat.
“They should tear that place down,” added another nurse.
“What place?” I asked, though I already knew, the same way I’d known that night it was no raccoon, no pipes settling, no wind slapping branches against a house wall.
“House Number Five, of course,” said the receptionist. “Everyone knows.”
(Hey, this story, like everything else on this website, is my original work. To get specific, “Everyone Knows” is copyright 2012 Gemma Tarlach. So don’t be like the doofus who nicked my Antarctica photos and blog posts and tried to pass them off as his own. Write your own stories. Have your own adventures. Live your own life.)