The Ghost of Quarantine Present
A new story for Halloween.
Last year, I shared a story called “The Stair Sweeper” with my newsletter readers for a special Halloween treat. This year, I’ve written a new one, “The Ghost of Quarantine Present.” Perhaps we’ll make it a tradition.
It was all very auspicious at first! I could scarcely have asked for a better set-up: two people living every moment in mortal terror, the outside world holding nothing but certain death. One could hardly hope for such gothic tension in a dilapidated mid-century bungalow situated next to a Taco Cabana, but I dared not look the gift horse of this fickle universe in its infinite mouth.
I have to confess: the masks threw me off back when they first showed up. I don’t keep up with the “news” (humans’ temporal dramas absolutely bore me to tears), and when these two absolute squares started displaying an affinity for what I could only assume were daylight masquerades at the general store, I was truly miffed. Who throws a costume ball at 10 a.m. and sends their guests home a mere 90 minutes later with dozens of rolls of toilet tissue? I was no trend-setter back in my day, but party favors for the posterior seemed a bridge too far.
Eventually, things began to become a bit more clear. The man and the woman held hushed conversations about contracting “the thing” — what thing? — and spent many hours on the telephone making travel rearrangements, first using pleasant, then argumentative, and then pleading tones with those on the other end of the line. They seemed unduly concerned with preserving their “miles” — and yet never left our residence for even the barest perambulation that might help them acquire more of this coveted distance. The truth was finally revealed over a series of weeknight wine binges wherein the woman grew increasingly lax about turning off the television set, leaving me to put the pieces together with — and I say this with the full weight of my identity behind it — the genuinely terrifying cast of a morning broadcast program.
I began making plans, excited by the prospect of having my targets indefinitely housebound, primed with the creeping angst of pandemic claustrophobia. So too, the man and woman began to busy themselves with all manner of nonsense — needlework projects, a sourdough starter — and settled into precisely the kind of contented lull that can make a proper haunting so fruitful, so satisfying. At last, my time to really shine — or at least to glower menacingly out of dark corners — had come. It was the part I had literally died to play!
But who could have predicted the thrill-killing power of interminable ennui? As the months wore on, my companions became attuned to our home’s every shift and creak. In their desperate search for even the thinnest wisp of a moment’s joy, the man and the woman checked in on each other constantly. Already prone to the mindless, babbling shorthand-speak typical of cohabitating couples, they grew increasingly unintelligible to me in both speech and spirit. Dulled and depressed, ever more accustomed to the presence of disembodied voices carrying through their computational devices, they shrugged off my enthusiastic shrieks as just another “glitch” to be cured with an afternoon tipple away from the prying eyes of their workplace colleagues.
But today, my fortunes have finally shifted! The winds of change have blown in at last! The man seems finally to be leaving for an overnight excursion!
It has been what, eighteen months? I’ve somewhat lost the ability to mark the passage of time since the event of my demise, but the woman tracks this religiously, periodically announcing to anyone who will listen (no one listens) the duration of her confinement. Eighteen months! A year and a half trapped indoors with two miserable meatsacks who seem to have nothing to do but sit and stare and talk about what’s for dinner … again.
He’s taking the rolling suitcase! Oh, bless. Bless, bless, bless. Oh, happy day! And he’s stuffing all but one of the masks hanging on the hook by the door into his many and various pockets! This does indeed bode well.
I must compose myself. I must focus.
Hauntings are, of course, about all the usual things — a good thump on the wall, rolling a ball or toy down a seemingly empty hallway, having a bit of a holler and a rattle at the window — but none of it amounts to much if you haven’t adequately captured your audience.
For this reason, it is my vast preference to haunt an individual, rather than a group or especially a pair; interpersonal dynamics can significantly affect the flow of a quality spooking. Even the truest believer can be easily soothed by a really committed spoilsport with a brave face. Often, the simple act of one individual peering round a corner with something heavy in hand — generally a baseball bat, sometimes a lamp or trophy, all of it eminently useless against someone like me in the practical sense — can decimate a carefully constructed atmosphere of abject horror. It is a blow indeed to have some meathead with a rolling pin diffuse hours of hard work with a mere “I don’t see anything, babe.”
Ah, but watch! There goes the man! He’s taking the automobile! This rumbling junker has seen little action of late, much to the dismay of the anxious canine who joined our little party at Christmastime, spoiling many of my best scares over these long, slow months of isolation. If the man takes the dim-witted but maddeningly attentive beast along, I think we are all really in for a treat. And a trick! A trick and a treat!
Oh, I’m positively giddy. Where have I put my things? I must gather them! The last time I saw my little red ball, it had been relegated to the depths of the under-couch by that insufferable remote robotic vacuum cleaning apparatus. But I must have my things! I will not abide a half-assed haunting after all this time relying only on the most quotidian manifestations of existential dread to sustain my immortal thirst.
Please, wait here. I shall return shortly.
Thank you for your patience! There have been some important new developments which required my attention. I am delighted to report that the man did indeed decamp with the dog, leaving only the geriatric feline behind — an animal both half-blind and arthritic, wholly uninvested in the goings-on of both the temporal and eternal planes, concerned solely with indiscriminate urination and the foul glorp it receives twice daily. Bless its hateful little heart! Someday we shall make a formidable team.
To our current situation: the woman has informed her employer that she will be taking a “mental health day,” and hopes to return to work “refreshed after the weekend.” She has received a large delivery of vodka and several vintages of Yellowtail with which I assume she intends to “refresh” herself, though she has not yet embarked upon this project in earnest. Instead, for the past half-hour she has descended into a stupor in front of the television set, unable to decide between several competitive baking presentations that appear to be, at least to these untrained eyes, substantially similar if not functionally identical.
Very well. This gives me more opportunity to prepare. It has been quite some time since I acquainted myself with the contents of the cutlery drawer.
To use an apt and charming modern expression, it is best to avoid “blowing one’s load” too early in a haunting, and thus I have begun with a bit of light scene-setting. Moving chairs and end-tables just a few inches here and there, loosening a few lightbulbs, opening a couple of cabinet doors — the kind of low-investment, high-return trickery that can really set a disorienting stage without needing a great deal of babysitting. These sorts of minor alterations work especially well when they add up to just a little more noticeable change than one could comfortably blame on another member of the household. At first, the woman will wonder, How long has my beloved been putting up with this flickering closet light? and convince herself that He must have moved the recliner to be a little closer to the lamp. She’ll be mildly annoyed that the bathroom cabinets are ajar, but she’ll chalk that up to neither of them having gone looking for their toiletry bags in over a year. But she will really struggle to explain who opened the guest room drapes.
Oh! Did you feel that? Just a little surge of electric oomph in the ether, the trademark zap of a human starting to feel the first twinges of genuine disquiet? Here I am getting hung up on curtains while the real fun is just beginning! Let’s see what got her.
The back door! Of course! I actually can’t take credit for it — our house is in dire need of foundational repair, and the screen door regularly pops away from its latch. Fortuitous, however. I shall do a quick pass through the woman’s corporeal being to see what I can glean about the state she’s in. She’ll experience this as just the briefest chill — she did just open the door, after all — and will think nothing of it until much later tonight.
Well! Internally there’s quite a lot going on with this one! Relief continues to dominate her emotional temperament overall; it seems she’s finally enjoying some “me time.” Yet there are real concerns developing in the back of her mind, though I sense she’s apprehensive about human, rather than ghostly, intruders. I must do more to dissuade her from using the neighborhood computer forum. It is a scourge of fear-mongering NIMBYism, filled with fascist bootlickers hell-bent (if only!) on engendering suspicion for the living at the expense of us hard-working dead. But I digress.
Let us play pennies from hell! Oh, what fun! I’ll see what’s available here between the couch cushions while she ducks out to the kitchen to open the shiraz. Ah! As expected — three sticky, crumby coins. I think one on the arm rest should do just fine, and perhaps another here in the doorway. Yes, that’s lovely. We’ll deploy the third when the time is right.
Goodness gracious, she’s ordering a pizza. We are really cutting loose! We are making the best of “me time”! We can work with this. Yes indeed, we can certainly work with it.
The pennies are doing well. The woman didn’t notice the coin in the doorway at first, but the arm-rest penny made a really chilling little clatter to the floor when she returned to the couch with — and I am really not here to judge — what I consider a rather overfull glass of shiraz. In reaching down for the penny, her eyes landed on its counterpart in the doorway, coaxing a delightful little gasp out of her throat. I shall plunk the third into the bottom of her wine while she goes to investigate.
It is the god-forsaken cellular telephone, letting the woman know that her “dasher” is on the way with dinner. I long for the days when flashlights couldn’t call for help, but this loathsome thing may be useful yet. I shall be able to get in a couple of solid rappity-taps on the front door, and she’ll be sure to swing it open looking for her meal!
Well, why wait?
The woman is looking up from her cellular telephone. She is puzzled. Was I too quick?
She checks the timestamp on her textual message.
She is hungrier than she is concerned. Fine. Ah, yes — a big swig of shiraz before padding to the door in her stocking feet.
I think we’ll just let her have a look around. She’s putting on a mask, bless her heart, to step onto the front stoop. But only one of us will find sustenance on this turn! Muahaha — no, I mustn’t get carried away. I’ll just whip up a wee cobweb and blow a few leaves into her hair. If we’re lucky, she’ll —
Sneeze. Directly into her mask. Oh, they do hate that. They really do. And now she’s just distracted enough that she’ll be back inside, halfway to throwing the soiled mask in the laundry when —
She tosses the mask aside and turns back for the door.
It’s-a me! Not-a pizza!
She swings the door open.
I black out the porch light.
She slams the door shut, rushing back across the house to the comfort of the televised culinary competition, as if those be-caked clowns could possibly help her now.
She goes directly for the wine. She is just about to down the last of the glass when the third penny smacks her square in the tooth. She screams.
It feels so very good to be back.
I allowed the pizza to arrive without incident, and we’re both feeling a bit better now. The woman has wrapped herself in a cozy blanket with a slice of pepperoni, while I am savoring the tantalizing amuse-bouche of her mildly elevated heart rate.
But I am very hungry, and I think I may have a go at inhabiting the electronic remote vacuum. Generally I dislike possessing everyday objects, but I long to hear the robot’s sunny little activation tune dueted with the horrified wailing of the half-drunk! Can you blame me? You cannot.
Doot-toot-dah-doooot! Beep! Beep! Beep!
I really did not foresee that particular stunt having such a powerful effect on the cat.
The woman is properly keyed up now. She has gathered her silly little accoutrements — placed a full bottle of vodka on the coffee table, moved her pillow in from the bedroom, treated herself to a bowl of ice cream, ensured her phone charger is within easy reach. She wants to feel safe. She believes she will spend the night here, with her things.
But I have my things, too.
We shall look at them together!
My little red ball. I love the sound it makes when it tip-tap-bounces down our newly restored hardwood hallway! I love even more the sounds the woman makes when it tip-tap-bounces into her field of vision! I love even more than those sounds the sweet, strangled silence as my little red ball comes to rest — like a precious wee puppy — at the woman’s feet.
She moves quite quickly for a woman carrying a bottle of wine and two vodka shots in her belly! I can feel the blood draining from her face and hands as she struggles to free herself from cozy blanket turned cozy prison; she can’t seem to get a grip on her cellular telephone. She stumbles into the kitchen, banging on the light switches, not realizing she’s set me up with a beautiful palate of alternately flashing and black windows in which I may reflect my ghoulish visage. She sees me, and then she does not! What a comical game of peek-a-boo! It is just — well, scrumptious.
I had forgotten what it was to feast in this way. And yet I am only hungry for more.
What, I wonder, does she suppose locking herself in the bathroom will do? I have plenty of toys here, too. Shall I begin with a dripping faucet? Perhaps it is too predictable, or too easily explained away by the age of our home. No, we will go straight to the classic spectre-in-the-shower-curtain gag, it is a real scream! Ah ha! You see what I did there!
Here — I shall just give the curtain a bit of a push, only enough to catch her eye with my skeletal form, and I oop! disappear again, just as she raises her cellular telephone camera in an attempt to capture proof of our little interactions. To no avail! Let us drain the miserable device’s battery; I tire of the woman’s ability to take refuge among the little people she carries round in her pocket.
There now. That’s better. Without the mobile apparatus gumming up our energies, I can feel her running a few mental calculations. The distance to the bedroom, to her electronic tablet, to — aha! Just there, a rush of fullness wafts over me as she realizes that, even if she were in any condition to drive, the man has taken the car away. And where would she go? Yes, yes, she’s coming to grips with it now: she may not know who lurks within these walls, but she certainly knows who she will encounter anywhere else — and they are all huffing, breathing, sneezing, and coughing.
She is trapped, and I am tucking into her fear, eating my fill. I gorge myself on the woman’s surging adrenaline, starved as I have been lo these many months.
I think I will show her another one of my things.
I think it will be this little knife.
I think I will slide it under the door.
Oh my, that does taste good.
Well, she’s gotten out.
It was my own fault, really. I miscalculated just how poorly she’d react to my taking a little spin on her celebrity fitness bicycle. After all, she has subjected me to those cheery, vainglorious prigs day in and day out for what certainly feels like an eternity — I think I’m entitled to a little tit for tat!
Anyhoo, she won’t get very far; she’s already dilly-dallying on the driveway, pacing up and back, unable to decide if she should return inside to retrieve her personal protective equipment, struggling to recall whether the taco shop closed at midnight.
Let’s make it easy for her. I’ll add her mask to my little collection, keep it safe with my little red ball and my little silver knife and all the other little things we haven’t played with yet.
We’ll just put it away for now.
Yes, that’s it. Come inside, dear.
It’s not safe out there.