The shock of solitude had finally begun to sink in. Earlier I had looked upon my furniture with no thoughts but "we often sat and talked at that table," or "that was her favorite chair," as though in some way she still lingered in this house, though she had taken her leave of it, and of me. For a time I could not even sleep in my bedroom, knowing my wife and I had lain there, full of joy, and what I'd thought was love. As my mind settled, I moved back in to my room, but a different thought plagued me- "this bed is unutterably empty." At first there was a feeling of haunting togetherness, now, an almost palpable separation. My house was a vacuum, a void, and utterly still, save for the motion I forced myself to bring to it.
Despair seemed the most natural reaction, but I by no means let myself indulge in it, though it crept in through every defense I left unwatched. Often a ray of sun would shimmer through my windows, revealing that I had forgotten my house was dark, and immediately I would rush to the light switch. I had and have now no desire to be a Romeo, sitting in the dark and weeping. I crave light, I crave laughter, and I am resolved to move on. Though despair is a nearly irresistible seductress, and though as a poet I would revel in it, I denied myself that rapturous self-pity, and will always.
Do not think me too mature, however. Though I have not allowed myself the indulgence of melancholy, I cannot keep envy at bay. I have at times fought and at times encouraged a profound hatred of him: the man who took my place, who took my bride, who took movement and laughter from my house perhaps forever. I will not act on this hatred, but it runs deep and furious. I envy him in all ways but one: in the depths of his heart, he knows himself to be an adulterer, knows his happiness to be ill-gained; and in the bitterest way I am glad that his conscience is tortured while mine is inflated by self-righteousness.
Reflections on these things filled my mind, crowding my thoughts as I sat with pen and paper in my study and strove to put them in some more constructive form. My dim lamp made a pallid island of light against the darkness, and a faint electrical hum that futilely fought the silence. Outside my haven, the void all around stared into me. I was too intent upon my writing to feel that blank gaze consciously, but there was a restlessness about the air that I could not shake. Occasionally, by some instinct, my eyes rose from the paper and glanced about the featureless dark, but saw nothing and returned to my desk. An hour passed like this before I heard a faint tapping sound somewhere in the unlit half of the room. It passed quickly, and I would have thought little of it had it not returned a minute later. This house is old, I thought. It will make its share of noise. Nonetheless I now regretted how poorly I had lit my study. The tapping continued, going away for minutes at a time only to return irregularly. Tap. Tap. It was as though something was inside my walls, lightly drumming to feel its way out. I entertained the absurd thought that it might be mice, and shivered as I rejected it.
The darkness seemed almost sentient, alive with quiet malice. My lamp was precious now, my last defense- and it began to flicker and dim at intervals, as though it could not hold back the weight of the inky black outside its glow. The tapping came again, weak but frantic, and I fought in vain to ignore it. The floor creaked under some unseen foot in the far corner of the room. This house is old, I told myself again, and let out a nervous chuckle. The floor creaked again, inches closer. And again, closer yet. The footfalls were drowned by my own as I bolted from the study and down the hall to my bedroom, locking the door as though that would keep out whatever I'd encountered in my study. I lay awake for hours with the light on, my ears perked for the slightest hint of a creak in my floor or a tap in my wall, and fell into an uneasy sleep from sheer exhaustion well after midnight had passed.
I woke before dawn to the sound of my door rattling softly. Outside my window the sky was black and desolate, and inside, the bulb on my ceiling fan gave the room an artificial bath of light. That glow filled me with the same meager assurance of a child who hopes his nightlight will keep the monsters under his bed. As the door rattled again, the bulb flickered as my lamp had, and my hope flickered with it. It rattled a third time before the floor creaked, and the groaning steps crossed the threshold of my doorway and strode with ominous slowness into my room, under the light which had failed to protect me. Then they ceased and all became silent.
I sat up in bed, every nerve on edge. My eyes searched every corner of the room for any sign of motion, but nothing moved. Still I could feel a presence, feel some sort of energy in the air, though there was no outward sign of it. I waited for entire minutes in silence before I forced myself to croak out these words: "Who or what is in here?" The air seemed to absorb my voice, and in response came a thin whimper, as though from an infant too tired and weak to cry. The voice whimpered a second time, slightly louder, then worked up the strength to speak, its frail voice shaking.
"I... Iam... I am..."And then it hushed.
Everything in me wanted to run, but I was paralyzed with shock and fear. I was not afraid of what the spirit could do to me, for it seemed harmless- I was afraid simply because of what it was. Its childlike whimpering unnerved me in a way with which my mind could not cope.
Unable to make any sudden movements, I stood quietly and crept out of the room, never turning my back toward where I perceived the entity to be. I stepped lightly down the stairs and into the kitchen to make some attempt at starting my day. Earlier, working from home had been wonderful, but now home was a strange and terrifying place. No sooner than I had opened the refrigerator, the creaking returned again, sluggishly descending the stairs. It followed my steps exactly, ending inches from my face, and the creature resumed speaking, its glassy falsetto chilling my blood: "Iam... I am here. I am... Luc... Lucius." It, or he, paused, waiting for a reply. I had no idea how to respond. Should I reveal my identity to a ghost? Or if I did not, would lying to it be even more dangerous? Facing some risk that I imagined, I told him the truth.
"I am Alex." The spirit stopped for a minute as though thinking, and murmured,
"I am... I am happy to meet you, A...Alex." Then the feeling of electricity vanished from the air, and the spirit was gone.
I spent the remainder of the week in quiet fear. Lucius left me alone, which bothered me even more than his speaking to me. What was he? He did not seem malevolent, as I had first thought, but the mystery that surrounded him worried me. I sensed him often in the house, but he did not make a sound. Fear of the unknown that wandered my halls at least distracted my mind from my failed marriage, but I was not certain I would have chosen that trade. The emptiness of my house would have been almost welcome compared to this eerie cohabitation.
My third encounter with Lucius was entirely unlike the first two. It was midday, and I was reading in my living room. A pale orb of light drifted cautiously into my presence; I eyed it curiously, but it did not frighten me as I had expected. There was a calm beauty there that nearly erased my memory of the invisible being that had terrified me. It hovered still for a moment before speaking. "Forgive me for earlier," he began, and I was shocked. His voice had lost its disturbing childishness. In its place was a somber and serene tenor. "I felt the need to show myself, but I see now it was unwise to do that in such a weakened state. I must have appeared a common haunt, intent only on causing fear."
Could this truly be the same entity that I had met in my study? This was not a demon that made noise in the night but a near angel, gentle and eloquent. I could ignore my fear of what he was simply because his very nature forbade fear. I could not keep my question inside: "What are you?" The spirit looked thoughtfully into my eyes, and answered
"I have asked myself that question for a century now. As I have already told you, I am Lucius. I was once a living man, or rather am, for I feel as though I never died even though I cannot deny that I did." There was a subtle note of regret in his voice. "Other than the fact that I am still Lucius Ambrose, I can only guess at what I am. I know that I have until these past few weeks been only a whisper of a spirit, unable to touch the physical world at all; but there has been something about you recently that gives me strength. I do not understand it, but the longer I am near you, the more substantial I grow." I was unsure how to react to this knowledge. I felt an undeniable urge to help this benevolent spirit, while at the same time there was something very disquieting about it. Before I could respond, Lucius took his leave. "For now, I must go. I will return perhaps tomorrow."
The next few weeks were some of the strangest in my life. Lucius visited daily, and we quickly became friends, bizarre as it was. I was glad for the fact that I lived alone and worked from my house- it spared me the embarrassment of explaining that my closest companion was a ghost. We talked about his life before and after dying, but he avoided speaking of how and when he died. I learned that he had been a simple farmer who had hoped to make a name for himself as a writer. By day he tended his fields and animals, and by night he would write and read by candlelight. This gave us much to discuss and was at first the basis of our friendship. I showed him my poetry, and he gave praise or criticism where either was due. I asked to see some of what he had written; he told me that he had half-finished a novel but by now it was lost. There was an air of distant sadness about him always, but especially when he spoke of his past life. I once asked him if he had been married, and he avoided this subject more vehemently than any other, telling me outright that he did not wish to bring it up. More often we talked about my own marriage and its ultimate failure. Lucius sympathized me, understanding my pain and drawing consolation out of his own enigmatic sorrow. All the while he grew stronger and stronger, his starlike form glowing brighter and his voice growing louder. Lucius became part of my daily life, and soon we were inseparable, the only barrier between us being the subjects he blatantly avoided. Everything changed when he tore down that wall.
"Katherine was the daughter of the farmer nearest to me," Lucius began, his voice shaking as though the words tortured him. "We had been friends throughout our childhood, but there was always a vague assumption that we would be married someday. In those days, there were no houses for miles but my father's house-that is, this house-and hers, and so I knew few girls besides her, and was close to none at all. Marriages were arranged younger then, as lives ended sooner. When I was seventeen it was revealed that Katherine and I would be married by the end of that year, and I was overjoyed. Every day brought me closer to the happiness that seemed all but assured. I paused work on my novel and delved into poetry as a means of expressing my naive joy. It climaxed on the eve of my wedding, and died altogether that same night.
"I sat at my desk with a candle, not unlike the way I found you. I had been writing a love poem that I intended to give to Katherine as a wedding gift the next day. Outside my window came a howl, a common occurrence, and I assumed that a coyote had come for the chickens. I took up my candle and a poker from the fireplace to drive it off, and left in the direction of the chicken coop. The dusky sky was foreboding and the air chilled with autumn; I held my candle close and my poker ready, frightened by the depth of the night. The walk from my house to the chicken coop seemed unusually long that evening. As I approached it, a low growl carried from inside, and I tightened my grip on the poker as I reluctantly opened the door.
"A dark shape crouched over a hen in the back of the coop. Foolishly I stepped closer, holding the candle aloft to see it. The form snarled as I moved toward it, and in that instant I knew it was no coyote. A wolf, gray and grim as a storm cloud, hunched in the corner- hen's blood shone crimson on its fangs in the dancing candlelight, and an insane yellow gleam flashed in its eye. I backed away feverishly, but too late- the wolf leapt with a roar, and my panicked hand flew up just in time to catch its jaw. I yelped in pain and dropped the poker and candle, wrenching my wrist from its teeth. I kicked at it desperately, barely holding it back as I fumbled on the floor for my makeshift weapon. I remember with horror the light by which I found it: a hay bale blazed with fire from my candle, and the flames were spreading with terrible speed across the cluttered floor. The wolf barked with fury, backing away, and I jabbed at it futilely. The hens began to cluck madly as the flames surrounded them, and I realized too late that the fire was more dangerous than the wolf. Heat like I had never known danced across my skin, and as I turned to flee a burning beam toppled upon my back, fracturing it and knocking me to the blazing floor. The wolf bounded over me and escaped with only its fur singed, and I watched helplessly as the inferno drew in upon me. I knew myself beyond saving when my father rushed in a minute later, uselessly dragging me from the pyre. I passed my last minutes on the floor of this very living room, moaning in torment and burned beyond recognition until mercy freed my soul from its broken shell.
"I cannot recall any experience stranger than my own death. I closed my eyes, expecting to wake into bright light and glory- instead I opened them to see the ceiling, though I could no longer feel my burns, or the floor beneath me. I sat up and my body did not follow. I saw my ruined form, saw the tears streaming down my father's hardened face, and knew in that instant that I had been left. I felt no rage at the time, only severe shock- shock that I had really died, and then that I had been left behind, and then shock that I could feel emotion at all. I wandered the house restlessly all that night, finding sleep impossible as a spirit, and when the shock finally wore off, I wept bitterly.
"The next morning, Katherine came in the front door, alarmed and asking about the fire she had seen. My father looked her gravely in the eye and told her what had happened, handing her the unfinished poem I had left on my desk. She left the house in a hurry, fighting tears, and in all of my decades after death I have not seen her since that morning. I cursed my death, cursed my misfortune, cursed my very existence; I screamed aloud, but was too weak a spirit to be heard in the physical realm. I screamed repeatedly, uttering no words but unleashing an expression of pure rage and agony.
"I still do not understand why I am bound to this world. Some say that spirits are trapped on the physical plane by leaving earthly business unfinished; that may be what holds me. My life was certainly not completed. It tortures me day and night, Alex, that I do not know what became of my beloved. Her full name was Katherine Bryant- I beg you, find some way of discovering her fate. I am trapped in these halls, and cannot leave to seek out this information myself." Warm tears of pity and love ran down my cheeks, and I assured Lucius I would do everything in my power to bring him closure.
I drove off early the next morning for the courthouse, seeking out records that bore Katherine's name. I returned hours later, ecstatic with good news. "Lucius!" I called, "Come out! I have learned the fate of your fiancée!" He materialized slowly and reluctantly in the air before me, and I gasped at what I saw. The ball of light he had been yesterday had doubled in size, and was glazed with an oily tint. The gloom that surrounded him was nearly suffocating.
"Tell me, Alex, I beg you. I beg you..." Anxiousness and worry strained his tone. I gave him a reassuring smile, and he seemed to glow a bit brighter.
"She lived a quiet and happy life. She married a businessman and spent the rest of her life in contentment. She died of natural causes late in life." Lucius' glow diminished visibly. "What is wrong?" I petitioned. I had been sure this news would bring him comfort.
"I am happy in some way, I suppose. But I do not feel complete. I know my envy to be unjustified in the highest degree, but I am jealous nonetheless. I would not have had Katherine die alone, but I cannot overcome my regret that I was not at her side." His words moved me even as I knew them to be foolish.
"I understand your pain, Lucius. I know envy as well as the next man, perhaps more. But your situation is much different. You loved her while you lived, and she loved you- did you not love her enough to be glad she found happiness? We have both read In Memoriam: 'I hold it true, whate'er befall; I feel it, when I sorrow most; 'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.'
"I sorrow, Alex, but I do not feel that. Forgive me. You are a true friend, and I am grateful for how you have tried to comfort me. But I have not found solace. I must be alone." Lucius vanished into thin air, and did not return the rest of the day. I felt a deep and pained sympathy, and frustration that I could do nothing to help him.
In the middle of that night, an unfamiliar hand shook me awake. A blackened face stared into mine, burned and distorted into an image of horror. There were no eyes in its sockets. "Alex!" it called in a hoarse voice. "Alex!"
I shrieked and shoved it from me. It stepped back but never removed its terrifying gaze.
"WHAT ARE YOU?" I screamed. "WHAT ARE YOU, HOW DID YOU FIND ME?" It laughed coarsely, and answered in a voice both offended and proud.
"It is I, Alex! I, Lucius! I grow stronger daily! I have found the strength to resume my bodily form. Alex, I inhabit the physical world! I am as you!"
"You are not as me!" I shouted. "You are the living dead! Quit this form, it is horrible! Lucius, what are you?"
He let out a laugh, a horrible choking sound, and the charred and twisted body disintegrated, revealing a blazing sphere of light that nearly filled the room. Taint and grime oozed across its surface, and it pulsed and shuddered.
"What am I? I know now! I am the undead! I am a dread poltergeist, leeching emotion as I grow mightier and more terrible! Your tears for your wife nourished me to strength, and your tears for me elevated me to power! Your pity and affection serve only to bulk my form! Alex, Alex, I am a beast of Hades!" He swelled to fill every corner of the room, burning with energy, before shrinking to the dim bulb of luminescence I had first known him as. "Alex, I am terrified. I am terrified of what I am." He whispered meekly. "I have truly discovered my identity, it came almost as an epiphany- I am truly a poltergeist. My power comes from your emotion- your fear, your love, your sympathy. I feed on it unknowingly. As I grow stronger, I lose myself. I, this small form, am Lucius Ambrose. The rest of my size is a swollen and distorted extension of myself, and it does not know reason. In it my sorrow is escalated to madness. And how much sorrow I have! I am trapped in this house, Alex! These walls of wood are as a steel cage! I have watched for over a century. I saw my own family grow old and die, one by one. I watched as three generations came and went and changed the house almost completely. The walls were torn apart and electricity installed, piping was run through the ceilings and floors. The kitchen has been entirely replaced. The house is not the same, and yet I remain bound to it! How have I earned this sentence?" I opened my mouth to speak, but I could think of no reply. Lucius recognized this and left quietly. I lay awake for hours, unable to return to sleep.
Around two in the morning a wisp of lavender haze crept into my room. I sat up intently watching it; it crawled ominously across my floor, curling as though it were a finger beckoning, and snaked into my wall through the electrical socket. It trailed out into the hallway in the direction of the living room. Startled, I lurched from my bed and dashed to the hall. I could not believe what I saw downstairs.
Tendrils of the violet fog swirled and churned around a massive black sphere that pulsated like a grotesque heart. They writhed into every room of the house, and their roots congregated in a sinister cloud that surrounded the shape."Alex, do not fear me!" it called. I knew even before it spoke that it was Lucius, but my heart was frozen in disbelief. Whatever was happening was beyond my comprehension, but it bothered me in some way.
"What is this about?" I could not ask anything else, overwhelmed by curiosity and a helpless unease.
"Do not fear me!" he repeated. "The black is not corruption- see, I still give off light. I wear it of my own choice. I wear it in mourning." His words deeply disturbed me.
"What are you talking about? What do you mourn?"
"I mourn Lucius Ambrose!" His voice was heavy and full of grim decisiveness.
"You are talking nonsense, Lucius! What do you mean?"
"It is unnatural for I, a spirit, to dwell in the unspiritual world. I have lingered too long, Alex, I must leave!" The tendrils of fog grew wider.
"You cannot leave! You told me not three hours ago you were trapped in this house!" He laughed boomingly.
"I believe I have found a way. I will miss you, friend, but I must go. I must quit this world. I have found a way out and I will take it." I stood silent for a moment, weighing his words, and the blood drained from my face when I discovered what he meant.
"This is insane! Lucius, you cannot-"
"It is indeed insane!" He laughed again. "I quiver and quake with power and madness! And madness has shown me the way, and power has given me the means to follow it. I am no longer a helpless animal in a cage."
"Lucius, stop this... I'm begging you." My pulse raced. "This is not the way." I no longer had any doubt of what he planned.
"Forgive me, my friend! You have borne your losses more nobly than I have, and have not despaired. But despair has been my portion for decades now! Forgive me, forgive me, I am a coward. But I see no other way, and you cannot persuade me. I know not whether I depart into oblivion or eternity, but I must depart." He paused for a minute, and the tendrils grew stronger yet. Suddenly his words became urgent. "Flee! Flee now, Alex! I cannot hold it back any longer. Fly, exit this place!"
"Lucius, no!" I screamed desperately. "Stop this!"
"I cannot stop! Run! Run! R-" Before he could finish the word, a pulse of light raced along each line of fog, filling every electrical socket- and simultaneously every wire in the house exploded. I bolted down the stairs as fire dashed along the wood and they collapsed into ash behind me, not once looking back on the raging orange fireball that my room had become. The entire building was engulfed in flames, and heat like the sun penetrated every nerve of my body, seared and blistered my flesh, forcing me away. I plowed through the burning front door moments before the living room began to disintegrate.
I watched in horrified awe from the field as the farmhouse was lost under the advance of the flames. Only the framework of the house now remained, and it had the grisly appearance of a cage, silhouetted black against the immense funeral pyre. My blood curdled as an unearthly shriek filled the pre-dawn sky and all that was left of the house collapsed in the second fiery death of Lucius Ambrose.