Christmas traditions are one of the reasons why I love this time of year, they keep the past alive and build memories for years to come. Inspired by the Victorians, a holiday tradition on my blog is the telling of a Christmas ghost story. This one is an overhaul of a short story I wrote way back in 2006. It is based on an experience a close friend relayed to me, enjoy!
Lori’s 2015 New Year’s resolution was to clean out Dan’s things. In a few days, the calendar would roll to 2016, and she hadn’t even touched his attic office yet. It had taken almost a year to clean out his clothes from their closet and his boxes in the basement. It had taken so long because every shirt, tie, book, and scrap of paper brought memories crashing down on her. The memories brought waves of sobbing which led to pounding headaches, which then led to medicinal whiskey, and finally a dreamless sleep.
The last of his personal things were in the attic office; it was one of the reasons they bought the fully renovated Victorian. Lori had fallen in love with the wrap-around porch and updated chef’s kitchen. Dan was smitten with the greenhouse and large yard, but the attic had been the thing he loved most about the house.
Dan spent the first few weeks in the new house working in there to make it just right. He worked late into the evening to put up new drywall and paint. They spent many hours in town shopping for the right lamps, the perfect rug, and the had-to-have accessories.
When it was finished, it was gorgeous. The deep green-gray walls complimented the dark wood floor, the black and green Chinese rug and mahogany furniture came together to create the perfect writing retreat.
That had been Dan’s dream, to leave the newspaper and write adventure novels in the vein of Jack London. For the next three months, everything was wonderful. Dan was writing, and they had never been happier. Then Dan began to change.
It was subtle at first; he became more withdrawn and quiet. Lori gave little notice to it, he always got that way when he was writing. Then he stopped working in the yard and greenhouse. The bushes and lawn became unruly and tender seedlings in the greenhouse neglected to their dry, lonely deaths. Dan spent all of his time shut up in the attic. He came down to bed long after Lori was asleep and didn’t appear to get up until after she had gone to work. Lori comforted herself with the idea it was rational to associate all of these behaviors to the writing, she couldn’t have known otherwise. Could she?
The evening it happened, she knew something was wrong before she walked into the house. The carefully chosen lamp was not burning behind the attic window as it had since the day they bought it. The Christmas lights she hung on the front porch were dark, giving the place a deserted look. When she entered the darkened house, silence, and a deep-rooted dread greeted her.
The dark feelings intensified as she made her way up the attic stairs. The heavy door at the top of the stairs grew larger in her sight as she neared it. She lay a trembling hand on the cold wood and pushed it open. Hinges whined in complaint, or was it a warning?
“Dan?” she whispered into the darkness.
It took several seconds for her eyes to adjust and several more for the sight to sink into her understanding.
The wan moonlight coming in from the window illuminated a bulky dark shape hanging from the rafter. A brown gardening shoe lay beneath the figure on the bare wood floor. The desolate creak of rope against the dry wood of the beam.
Lori had no memory of the call to 9-1-1, but the next clear memory is of uniforms surrounding her. Questions shot at her in a blur of grief and disbelief.
She had not been up to the attic since, until now. Perhaps the two glasses of wine and the letter from the bank declaring intentions of foreclosure had given her courage. She argued with herself that Christmas Eve wasn’t an ideal time to do this, but what else did she have to do?
The burden of the same dark feelings from that night pressed down on her as she climbed the stairs to the closed door. Lori gathered all of her courage, took a deep swallow from her wine glass, and pushed the door open. It yawned on its hinges, and a cold, stale odor greeted her.
It hadn’t registered with her on that night that the room was a mess. That’s why the uniforms were so concerned. The beautiful rug was rolled up and leaned in the corner; all the lampshades had been removed and crushed leaving bare bulbs in every light fixture. The cushions from the couch were torn open and white fluffy stuffing was strewn around. Books and papers stacked to form haphazard towers all over the room. Physical manifestations of his deteriorating mental state.
She righted the naked floor lamp and clicked it on. The room lit with a harsh amber light. A ringing buzzed deep in her ears. Where in the world should she start? The large desk drew her attention.
She sat down in Dan’s leather chair and breathed the scent deeply into her lungs. She coughed. The rich leather scent she normally loved and associated with Dan was spoiled now. Lori took the stack of papers closest to her and shuffled through them. Real estate papers from the purchase of the house. She might need them when the house sold and that needed to be soon.
She’d make a ‘to keep’ stack on the floor. A yellowed piece of paper slipped from the stack as she moved it to the floor. The paper felt like an autumn leaf between her fingers. She recognized the photo of her home under the headline: Local Recluse Kills Self, Family. A man who had once lived in her home killed his four small children and his pregnant wife with an ax. He then hung himself in the attic.
Her heart skipped a beat, but she read on.
He was the town store owner and built the house especially for his wife and growing family. They had not lived there long before he stopped opening his store and rarely came out of the house. A neighbor discovered the bodies when the children didn’t show up at school for several days.
Did Dan know about this when they bought the house? Why wouldn’t he tell her this? She recalled Dan telling her something about True Crime paying better than adventure stories. This was his book. This is why they bought the house. Another selfish act leading to the biggest selfish act of all. And now what? No book, no husband, and soon no house.
Her skin flushed, and the ringing in her ears became a roar. She ripped the news clipping into tiny shards and threw them on the desk. Swiping both arms across the desk, she forced the items to the floor in an avalanche. Breathing hard, she shoved over the tallest book tower and threw the naked floor lamp to the ground. The shattering of the bulb drained the storm from her and left the room in the gloom of the gathering night.
Her head pounded. She realized she broke the string of pearls she was wearing, the tiny moons scattered across the wood floor for cover. This had not been a good idea.
She turned to leave the room, but a photo-finishing envelope uncovered by her rampage caught her eye. The envelope was dated two weeks after they moved in. With shaking hands she sifted through the photos. The first few were exterior shots of the house, the yard, the greenhouse. Then, various interior shots. There was a selfie they had taken at the bottom of the attic steps, each holding a paint brush.
A photo created with the timer on his cell phone and an impromptu stand of books of them in the attic pretending to paint each other. Smoke appeared to be swirling around their smiling faces, odd neither smoked. In the next photo of Dan by himself the milky substance was there, but not in the one of Lori alone.
For the last three photos, Dan must have used the same technique with the books and timer. They were of him alone in the office. Dan, grinning at the camera from behind his desk, his image partially obstructed by the same anomaly. Lori could hardly believe her eyes when she looked at the last two photos. Dan was standing next to his desk, and the thick substance began to take shape. In the last photo, it appeared to have the face of a man and arms that ended in repulsive claws wrapped around Dan’s chest from behind in a bizarre bear hug. Grim pinched lips replaced Dan’s grin as if he sensed the presence.
“What is that?” she asked the empty room.
The heavy door roared shut in answer.
He still couldn’t believe their luck. They had tens of thousands of dollars in equity the moment they signed the papers. He was sure the inspection of the Victorian beauty would reveal foundation or serious plumbing issues, but the house got a clean bill of health.
“Oh, honey! I love it!” the wife squealed.
“Here let’s take a photo,” the husband said.
He put his arm around her slender waist and pulled her in close. He held his cell phone out with his free hand.
“Say cheese!” the flash clicked in the gloomy attic space.
The wife kissed his cheek, “I can’t believe they left this desk behind. It’s perfect for me!”
The husband opened the photo to post it to the internet. He frowned.
“Hey, honey! We have to take another one. I think the lens was dirty or something.”
Merry Christmas everyone, or should I say Scary Christmas!