Other People’s Ghosts
~ Louis Evans
Tommy Franks was the first one to see a ghost. He went out one night for a hot dog and soda with Julia, and then afterwards he drove the Franks’ new Volkswagen up to the hill round back of the school. The sun was getting low in the sky and the shadows were getting long. Tommy had gotten his arm around Julia and she was snuggled into his side, and that’s when they heard the rustling in the bushes.
“What was that?” Julia asked.
Tommy said “I’m sure it’s nothing, kitten,” and he leaned in to kiss her. The rustling came again, louder, and Julia started and turned her head away.
“I think there’s someone in the woods,” she said.
“Probably just a fox,” Tommy replied, rubbing her shoulders. Julia pulled her sweater tighter around her neck.
“I’m scared,” she said, “would you take a look? For me?”
“Aw, Julia,” said Tommy, and he tried to lean in one more time, but she dodged him.
“Please?” she said. Though I wasn’t there, I know just the tone she most likely used. Half pleading, half flattery; it always worked on Tommy when she did that.
Tommy shrugged, and he slipped his school jacket back on, and got out of the car. He stood around for a moment, the last few rays of sun slipping over the distant hills. The drivers-side door hung ajar. And then the rustling came again from behind the car.
Tommy walked over, nice and slow, trying not to startle what he assumed was just a meddlesome critter. When he reached the edge of the grass, he bent down, and parted the bushes.
The ghost leapt out at Tommy, and Tommy screamed.
“No I didn’t!” he said, petulantly, the next day in the cafeteria. “I did not scream!”
“Julia said you did,” Joe prodded.
“Oh yeah? And just what were you talking to Julia for?”
Joe looked smug, which was how his fights with Tommy always started, and so I took it upon myself to intervene.
“C’mon, Tommy. She was telling everyone,” I said. “She’s all worked up about it.”
“Well, I didn’t scream,” Tommy repeated.
“She didn’t say you screamed, exactly” I told him, which was a lie, but a white one. “She just said you made a lot of noise.”
“I mean I shouted, sure,” Tommy said, shrugging. “You’d be surprised too, if you saw a ghost leap out of a bush.”
“Well, I’d—” Joe began, but I cut him off with a gesture. Joe’s almost as brave as he says, but I never cared much to hear him spin tall tales of his courage. All that counts in a man are his actions. That’s what my father always said.
“What did it look like, Tommy?” I asked.
“It was so thin,” he said. “Practically a skeleton. I could see every rib.” Tommy’s voice grew quiet and cold.
“Maybe it was just a hobo,” Joe said. “A live one, not a spooooky ghost one.”
“It floated just above the ground,” Tommy said, ignoring Joe’s tone. “And I could see through it.”
Tommy wasn’t the kind to fib, and we were all young men of honor. None of us entertained the possibility that Tommy was making it all up. We came up with a handful of theories. Was it a murder victim? One of the old Natives? Maybe some sort of projection or trick by Red China spies? Tommy loved those silly science fiction magazines, and Joe was always a bit paranoid about Communists in the cupboard. In the end, however, we decided the matter was supernatural, the cause unknown, and honestly forgot about it.
Joe was the next one of us to see a ghost, a week later. Joe was on the football team, and he always liked to do a half-dozen laps around the field after the rest of the team had gone home. Afterwards he walked around to the front of the high school. The school was an ugly old building, blocky concrete from a public works project back before the war. The last place you’d expect to find anything supernatural. Joe came around to the front and started down the gravel path leading to the main road, and was about halfway down toward the road when he heard a rustling in the bushes.
Joe froze. He put up his fists. The bush rustled again. Moving like a boxer, he took a step or two forward.
The ghost rose out of the bushes, skeleton-thin and glowing faintly.
To his credit, Joe didn’t scream. And he knew better than to try to punch a ghost. His jaw dropped. He sputtered. The ghost’s mouth opened, and shut, like it was speaking, but no sound came out. Joe shook his head, back and forth, dumbfounded. The ghost raised a finger accusingly, and it floated towards him. Joe stumbled backward. The ghost kept coming. Joe tripped on a rock and tumbled, his arms windmilling, landing on his back, and the ghost sailed over him, still pointing towards the school.
By the time he stood up, the ghost had vanished.
“So,” said Joe, when he finished telling us the story.
“So,” I said.
“So, what should we do?” Tommy asked.
“Do? I don’t know that there’s anything to do about ghosts,” Joe said.
“Aren’t you supposed to exorcise them?” Tommy’s grandma was Catholic, which almost nobody in town was. Father always warned me to be careful with Catholics, but he agreed that Tommy was alright—even with those funny notions he had picked up. Joe rolled his eyes.
“You said it was pointing, Joe?” I said, as we cleared our trays.
“It definitely was,” he said.
“I wonder at what.”
Over the next few weeks, the reports of ghosts began to trickle in from all over the school. And it was certainly ghosts, plural. The apparitions were tall and short, men and women. They were seen, as far as we knew, exclusively by teenagers. Adults said nothing of it, but continued in their ordinary paths, as reliable as the trains.
Because Tommy was the first to see a ghost, we became a sort of clearinghouse for the town’s supernatural crisis. And a crisis it was—slow at first, but gathering steam. There were two sightings one week, four sightings the next. Boys and girls began to travel together in large groups, even during broad daylight. Wilhelm Peters saw a ghost outside his window and had an attack of nerves so serious he was not seen in school for two days—though like a good soldier, he divulged nothing to his parents.
Unlike so many of the boys and girls my age, I did not see any ghosts, not even a single spectral finger. It was as if they were avoiding me.
Deprived of any useful course of action, I began to keep a record of all the incidents in the back half of my mathematics notebook. And without consulting the other boys, I decided to speak to my father.
I was very proud of my father, though it wasn’t the sort of thing one could say to one’s schoolmates. He was tall, strong, and sensible-looking, with his sweater vests and small round spectacles. He wore a respectable moustache. He had served with distinction during the war—there was, in the study, a glass case containing medals that I understood to be very impressive indeed—and nowadays he was a factory foreman at the auto plant just outside town. Manly work, the sort a son could aspire to. Furthermore, it paid well enough to keep his family in a home where every room was the size of the small farmhouse in which he and his four brothers had grown up, as he liked to remind me.
Saturday afternoons my father held court in our living room, and now that the days were getting shorter, there was a small fire crackling in the hearth. My father sat in the big chair—his feet up, his slippers beside him, the paper open in his lap.
I sat in the smaller chair to his right, and waited a few minutes for him to finish up the article in question; that was part of the ritual of the thing.
“Yes, Paul?” said my father.
“I have a bit of a strange question, sir,” I said. In our house, my father was always “sir”.
“Go on, then.” He folded the paper, set it down on his knee, and turned to look at me. His spectacles glinted in the firelight.
“What do you know about, well, ghosts?” I said.
“Ghosts?” he said, and rubbed his mustache. “Nothing at all. Silly superstition.” He took the paper back in his hands but didn’t unfold it just yet.
“A few of the other boys—they’ve been seeing some peculiar things—”
“Telling tall tales, I have no doubt.”
“And so I wondered, if perhaps, during the war, you’d seen—or even heard of—”
During the war. My father spoke of it seldom, and I had learned not to ask. What little he said could send mom into hysterics. But I always wanted to hear more.
My father, I knew, was a hero. Courageous and strong. A defender of the weak and innocent, a protector of our nation and all that it stood for. When Tommy and Joe and I played war games, I would always reenact those few tales he’d sketched out for me: the time my father had captured the trench, the time he’d outrun a tank, the time he saved his lieutenant. Any new story I could pry from him was precious.
“Ah,” said my father, “you know your mother doesn’t like when I tell stories like that in the house.” His eyes twinkled a little behind his glasses, the way they did when he’d caught on to one of my tricks.
“Aw, please, father, I wasn’t being a sneak! I really was wondering if you knew anything about ghosts, and I—”
“Of course you were, son. Now run along.” My father lifted his newspaper. The audience was at an end. I’d have to look for answers elsewhere.
It was Tommy’s idea to make the map. He bought a map of town with his paper route money, and then in careful pencil marks we began to note down where each and every ghost sighting had taken place. At first it was no great revelation: the sightings formed a rough circle centered on the school. We’d already known that. But then I had the brainwave.
“Say, Joe, didn’t yours point?”
“Uh huh. Sure did.”
I went and got a ruler and pointed out Joe’s dot. Joe got the idea. He took the ruler and drew a line from that encounter, through the high school, to the sports grounds beyond, into the fields and forests, and finally off the edge of the map.
All that day and the next we carried the map surreptitiously from class to class, student to student. By the end of the second day, we had the pointing ghosts mapped out. I took out the map, unfolded it on the library table, and smoothed it carefully.
“Is that—” said Tommy.
“Yup,” said Joe.
I just stared.
On the map laid out before us, seven lines, drawn by seven different people, met at a single point: an empty field, back behind the school.
We had grown up on a healthy diet of adventure stories in pulp magazines, and so we knew what to do when a mysterious vision leads you to an open field: you dig for buried treasure. And these ghosts were telling us where to go.
Here was our plan. It was Friday, which was our customary evening to head down to the park with the other boys, and so we didn’t have to evade parental supervision. After school, we would go to my house, collect any necessary supplies—a flashlight, my father’s army shovel—and travel to the ghost’s destination. And once we were there, we would do what needed to be done.
“What needed to be done”—we loved that phrase. Our fathers had done what needed to be done. That was the story of the war, the whole story of our lives and our families. Now, it was our turn.
After class we made our way back to my house. Mom made a couple of franks on her stovetop grill and we sat out in the kitchen eating them, until she went upstairs. My father was out of the house; every Friday he would go out to the beer garden with his colleagues from the auto plant. There was no one to stop us. We crossed the living room and filed, one by one, into my father’s study.
My father was an orderly man and his study was no exception. His files were neatly sorted and kept locked in a single upright filing cabinet. His desk was bare of any wayward scraps of paper. On the left wall were personal memorabilia. One photo was of my father and his brothers as children. Another showed my parents and me on our vacation to Paris, the three of us framed by the Arc de Triomphe, beneath our victoriously hanging flag.
On the right side of the room he kept his souvenirs of army life. His rifle rested on two wooden brackets beside his uniform, which stood, neatly pressed, in a glass case. The shovel, along with various other army equipment, was in a small closet past the rifle, and Tommy and Joe made their way over at once. I paused in front of the case, and looked the uniform up and down, feeling, as I often did, a surge of proprietary pride. The grey jacket, the shining buttons, the peaked black cap with eagle and swastika: my father had worn them with honor. They were his, and through them, so was our nation.
This was the uniform of the men who had freed Eastern Europe from the yoke of Communism, and Western Europe from the conniving grasp of the Jew and their puppets, Churchill and De Gaulle. These men had dared everything for the brighter future of the German people—and had won it.
The town we lived in was one my father had helped liberate from the Soviets during the war. Afterwards in the resettling, he had moved here, with his young wife and infant son—me. He didn’t often mention it—mother hated to imagine him fighting in the streets she walked every day—but there’s something strong and pure about growing up in a place you know your father fought for.
“Paul,” Joe said.
“What?” I asked.
“Let’s go,” he said. Tommy was holding the shovel. Joe was holding my father’s rifle.
“You can’t take that,” I hissed.
“For protection! I know how to use it.”
“Put it back!”
Joe stalked out of the study, and Tommy shrugged and followed him. I really did not want Joe to take that rifle—that, I could get in trouble for—but without a better option than to call my mother and blab about the whole thing, I decided simply to follow.
We left through the back door, and began our walk over to the school.
Sometimes I wondered what the village had looked like before the war, the sort of people who had lived here before resettlement. But not often. They had been poor and greedy and filthy and Communists, and it gave me an unpleasant squirming feeling to imagine them walking up and down the wide, clean streets of my town, such a short time before. I sure was glad that they had all moved far away—we needed the living room.
By the time we reached the school, the sun had gone down and with it the flag; the bare metal pole looked severe and imposing without the vibrant, joyous swastika.
I could see the tension in Joe’s shoulders as we passed the bushes where he saw his ghost, the nervous glances he cast from side to side. Once again I wished he hadn’t taken the rifle, but then again, he was holding it carefully, properly.
We wrapped around the school and struck out into the forest. It was dark, now, and Tommy switched on the flashlight. Joe looked at him angrily.
“Shut that thing off. What if someone’s watching?” he said.
“Don’t be absurd,” I replied, and our gazes locked for a moment. Then, with a toss of his head, Joe stepped to the side and kept walking, his hand on the butt of my father’s rifle. I knew why he was worried: Joe’s dad was always telling him to watch out for Communists. But my father told me that there hadn’t been partisans in these woods since a few years after we dropped the Bomb on Moscow, back in ’48, and I trusted him.
It took longer than we planned to reach the meadow, but we made it there. Tommy really knew what he was doing. The clearing at night felt empty and peculiar. The edge of the forest all around melted into a single undifferentiated mass of darkness. Tommy switched off the flashlight, and the shard of moon hung above us like a Gestapo helicopter searchlight, suddenly bright and stark. We stood, silent.
No ghosts appeared.
“Well,” I said. “Let’s start digging.”
Father’s shovel was a clever little thing that folded up for easy carrying. I unfolded it and drove it into the ground. The first load of earth came up covered in grass. The second was pure black loam.
We settled into a neat little rhythm, digging by turns. The pit grew and grew, from a pothole into a crater. Joe’s shoulders were barely visible above the rim as he worked, flinging soil out. Without words I went to him, leaned over into the pit.
“Joe,” I said. No reply. “Hey, Joe.”
He looked up, confused. “Oh, right.”
I helped him climb out, then lowered myself back in and took up the shovel once more. And this time, as I began to dig, a sort of fugue overtook me. I moved load after load of earth, senseless to the burning in my arms, and with every load I shifted I became more and more convinced that the next one was it, was the shovelful, that I was about to hit on the secret, the reason for the ghosts, and each empty shovelful of nothing but sod somehow only reinforced my certainty, and my hands burned and I didn’t notice, and my father’s shovel moved as if driven by a machine, as if I were using it to smash a vast wall, unseen and unacknowledged, that ringed my entire life, that if I kept going shovel after shovelful I would break through that wall and on the other side find—
The shovel struck something, deep in the earth. I raised the shovel one more time—
And it stuck. I pulled, but it was as if it had been bolted in place. I looked up.
My father crouched above me, in the rim of the pit, holding the shovel with both hands. His muscles stood out on his forearms like thick cords. His expression was invisible in the darkness.
“Paul,” he said, his voice like iron.
Behind him I heard the sound of running feet, Tommy and Joe rushing to my rescue, and there they were, Tommy with fists up, Joe pointing the rifle at my father and shouting, “Hey, you, hands up!”
“Joe,” I shouted, “it’s my father!”
And then my father had the shovel in his hands and he was turning, rolling, and he smashed the rifle out of Joe’s hands and I heard Joe scream as the shovel slashed his cheek, and then yelp again, with recognition, as he realized who had struck him.
Joe’s hand rose to the gash along his cheekbone. His fingers shone black with blood in the moonlight as he held them in front of his face. Tommy’s fists dropped to his side.
“Paul,” my father said, not moving, not turning, “get out of that pit.”
I scrambled back up, my fingers slipping on sliding dirt, and I came around front to stand with Tommy and Joe.
My father stood before me as I had never seen him before, looming from the darkness, more terrible than any ghost. He was holding the shovel like a battle-axe and a thin line of blood covered its edge. His face was completely blank; his eyes were flat and staring. Sweat beaded across his forehead. He looked at us and I felt in that moment that he was holding my life in the balance, choosing, quite dispassionately, whether I would live or die.
But maybe that was simply how he’d always looked in the war.
Then, slowly, he breathed out. And my father, the one I knew, respected, and loved, even, was standing there instead. Just a man in a sweater vest and jacket, with a bristly moustache, who sat by the fire on weekends, reading the paper.
“Go home, boys,” he said, tired but calm. “There’s nothing for you here.”
“But sir,” I said. “The ghosts—we were digging—”
“Do as I say,” said my father, and though the man of iron was gone, my father still had not lost his tone of command.
“Yes, sir,” I said. He picked up the rifle from where he’d knocked it and leaned it against the nearby stump, and took up the shovel once more, holding it like a tool instead of a weapon. I gave a wave to Joe and Tommy, and we turned to go.
We trooped away from the clearing, heads down, hands in our pockets. I knew, then, that this was the end of it. I would never see a ghost. I would never unearth the secrets at the bottom of the pit. There was nothing I could do.
But something was still bothering me. How had my father found us? How had he known exactly where the ghosts wanted us to dig? I turned it over in my mind a few times—and then I turned back.
There was my father, sleeves rolled up, head down, shovel in hand, rifle leaning against the stump, muscles rippling in his shoulders as he turned another load of soil into the pit. Alone in the woods. And then, like double vision coming clear, he was surrounded by ghosts.
They looked so ordinary, really. No glowing specters or unworldly shapes or monsters. Just three dozen men and women and children, standing in the woods, watching my father move the earth. The women wore peasant skirts and the men had prayer shawls and skullcaps on. Just the way my mother’s grandfather wore his, in the ragged, sepia photograph she believes I have never seen.
One or two of the babies were crying, soundlessly, the way ghosts do, but all the rest just stood there, watching my father dig with cold, sad eyes. And I could see, just barely, the holes at the base of their necks. Exactly the size of the bullets my father’s rifle carried.
The wind shifted. The ghosts vanished. It was just my father, alone in the woods, turning another heap of earth onto the grave.
Louis Evans is a Jewish writer living and working in New York City, on land once inhabited by the Munsee Lenape. It was good land: fertile slash-and-burn fields, fish and shellfish in the river. Lots of beaver, which was popular in Europe . . . you know what happened next.