R.W. Van Sant
Group was my second published short story. Victory News Press published it in a quarterly publication in the summer of 2008. Group is a horror story concerning the temporal nature of ghosts. Are they are bound to the same linear nature of time that binds the living? If not then what does that say for the idea of causality?
“Oh, No! No! I’m sorry—I can’t.” Miss Casey grabbed her purse and fled the classroom. The group could hear the sound of her footsteps echoing down the hallway of the run-down community center.
“The bloody hand. Pointing. Accusing.” Miss Garwood cried into her hands. She didn’t dare look up. She didn’t want to see the sketch on the blackboard ever again.
“It’s just a picture.” Mr. Silek put a shaking hand on the teenager’s shoulder. “It can’t hurt anyone.”
“Killer! That’s what he calls me. I never killed no one. I was just a kid for Christ’s sake.” Mr. Pannatoni cried.
“No, no.” Mr. Wisenkopf, a large, strong looking man, sobbed in defeat. He slumped back into his small metal folding chair, withdrawing into himself.
Mrs. Ynez sat in quiet resolution while her fingers worked over the beads of an over-worn rosary.
“What’s your game?” Mr. Silek turned his angst on the man who had brought them there.
Matthew Ellis observed the disruption that unveiling of the picture had caused. The information he gathered from these sessions would help him complete his research and earn his degree. Each person was there by invitation—his. He had studied thousands of cases and chosen these people because of the intensity and similarity of their experiences. It was gratifying that all but one had chosen to come.
Perhaps the unveiling had been too abrupt. Sudden pain, like the removal of a long stuck Band-Aid, to reveal the wound; this would break the lifelong walls these long haunted individuals had built and let them know they were not alone. It would then be easier for them to open up to him and each other.
He pulled down the projection screen, covering the offending piece of art. The damage was done, it was time to pick up the pieces and attempt to heal the wound.
“Mr. Silek, could you please keep an eye on things here for a moment? I must check on our lost comrade.” Mr. Silek nodded his consent. He and Mrs. Ynez seemed the least emotionally distressed by the sketch. Ynez, however, appeared to be too inner-directed (or heavenly directed) to be an effective class monitor. “Good man.”
Miss Casey was a chain smoker; her file indicated that her primary stress response was to light up. She would head for the nearest available place. Ellis followed his nose to the front of the building. He found her pacing, cigarette in hand, in and out of the hazy cloud of nicotine.
“They told me this was a voluntary session. I can leave if I want.” She lit another cigarette from the embers of the first. The old cigarette dropped casually to the pavement and was defiantly smashed into the sidewalk with the toe of her shoe.
“You can.” Ellis leaned against the wall. “I think you might find it helpful to stay a while longer. What can you lose?”
“How about my mind? I don’t see how any of this will help.”
“Did you see the others? You’re not alone in this, everyone in that room knows exactly what you’re going through.”
“Okay, a little while longer.” She smashed her cigarette into the wall and stepped back into the rundown recreation center.
“Misery loves company.” He followed her back inside, ‘tsking’ at the appearance of the building. He would have loved to hold the meeting in a more official looking place, but the university wouldn’t let him have a room on campus. The board of regents at his university did not consider parapsychology a legitimate pursuit. Such facilities didn’t add to his credibility.
“That’s him!” the sound of Mr. Rich’s voice rang down the hall. “It doesn’t just look like the ghost. It’s exact. How could it be that accurate?”
“He’s a scientist, isn’t he? He’s read all our files. It’s a composite drawing, like a police sketch. Look, the skull is split open, just as I told the doctors a hundred times.” Mr. Silek said. “He combined elements of all our ghosts. That’s why it looks familiar to each of us.”
“No,” Miss Garwood cried. “He’s the one.”
“Impossible! How can we all be haunted by the same ghost?” Mr. Pannatoni asked.
“That is what I brought you here to learn.” The scientist and Miss Casey re-entered the room. “Please take your seats. Could someone please open the window? It’s a bit stuffy.”
“How did you manage the picture, Doc?” Mr. Pannatoni asked.
“From memory.” Mr. Ellis replied. “And I’m not a doctor, not yet.”
The room quieted. He had finally gotten their attention.
“You too?” Mr. Wisenkopf asked.
“How’d you end up so normal?” Mr. Silek asked.
“I’d hardly call myself normal. In fact, I’m the anomaly.” The researcher faced the group. “I wasn’t exposed to the system. I was home schooled. My parents are free thinkers, out of the box types.”
“Hippies you mean.” Mrs. Ynez said.
“If you prefer.” The scientist continued. “The point is when the apparition appeared, oozing blood from his head, pointing that mangled finger and calling a terrified child … me… a killer, my parents believed me. Instead of sending me to a psychiatrist, we went to a library. When I cried out in terror in the dead of night, they did not drug me up or lock me away. They held and protected me from the thing only I could see. Eventually, I came to terms with my unusual problem. That’s when I started studying the apparition.”
“Apparition! Now there’s a safe-sounding name.” Mr. Wisenkopf said.
“A spiteful, hell-born demon is what I’d call it.” Miss Garfield added.
“Yes!” Mrs. Ynez said. “It’s a demon sent from hell. The Lord is our only defense, not psychobabble.”
“Has your Lord stopped him from entering your room at night?” Miss Casey asked. “No, if he did you wouldn’t be here either.”
“He taught me to accept.” Mrs. Ynez said. “I came to help save you.”
“I’ve tried your brand of help. The ‘apparition’ came back.” Miss Casey said. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“Calling something by its scientific designation will make it easier to talk about. I say this from experience.” Mr. Ellis was ambivalent; he wanted to stop the argument, but sometimes angry people say things they otherwise would keep to themselves. “To finish my story, it was my search for answers that led me to each of you. Of all the case files I read in my studies, I discovered several accounts, similar to my own case, yours. It can’t be a coincidence. For some unknown reason a group of complete strangers, us, have each been haunted since birth by the same ghost. That’s why I invited you here, to find out why.”
“Maybe we had a common ancestor. Maybe he wronged the gh—apparition.” Mr. Silek said.
“That was my first thought. No, I’ve thoroughly investigated all our genealogies. I have found no single common ancestors. Besides, if it were haunting descendants, then why were our parents spared?” Mr. Ellis asked. “There must be something we have in common which caused the apparition to focus on us. I hope together we can find out.”
“The only thing we seem to have in common was that we were stupid enough to come here.” Mr. Wisenkopf response elicited several forced chuckles.
“When we find it then what? A séance?” asked Miss Garfield. “We just ask it to leave us alone?”
“An exorcism.” Mr. Pannatoni said.
“Yeah, we confront it and send it back to hell.” Mr. Silek slapped his hand on his leg.
“One step at a time. First, we find out why it haunts us. We don’t even know if two of us could see it at the same time. Maybe he’s only visible to the one he’s come to haunt.” Mr. Ellis said.
“He torments us for our sins.” Mrs. Ynez said. “The nuns were clear on that matter.”
“What a horrible thing to tell a child—it’s bullshit. What could a baby possibly do to deserve that?” Miss Casey said.
“The sins of the father…” Mrs. Ynez started to say.
“Didn’t you hear the doc?” Mr. Pannatoni cut her off. “We have no common father. Let’s cut the religious shit. I want to know why I had to spend my whole life on meds; I want to know. You can’t tell me it’s because my great-great-whatever grandpa killed a guy. The spook’s clothes are not old fashioned.”
“I need to know too.” Miss Garwood said.
“I won’t be a party to blasphemy.” Mrs. Ynez clutched her rosary to her chest.
“I have no plans other than to talk. I want everyone to speak freely.” Mr. Ellis grabbed some folders from the table. “Whatever it is isn’t in these files.”
“When we find the answer?” asked Mr. Wisenkopf.
“Yeah doc, what then? Can we stop it?” Mr. Pannatoni asked.
“Honestly, I don’t know.” He set the files back on the table. “If we know why, we can at least try.”
“Then what good does it do us, being here?” Miss Casey lit another cigarette and moved her chair closer to the window. Her expression an unspoken challenge: try to stop me. “I didn’t come to join a big pity party.”
“Group therapy sessions have been used successfully in similar cases.” Mr. Ellis let the violation of the smoking ordinance go uncommented. What’s a deposit between friends?
“Which cases?” Mr. Rich asked.
“Cases where people were ridiculed for coming forth with experiences that deviated significantly from the norm. Knowing the people around you believe, really believe helps. Alien abduction groups have found some measure of peace—” Mr. Ellis said.
“Alien abduction? That’s it. I’m leaving.” Mr. Silek stood up.
“That’s great! You believe in ghosts but not aliens.” Miss Garwood said.
“There are no such things as aliens. These ‘abductees’ are a bunch of drugged out weirdoes, too messed up with acid flashbacks to accept reality.” Mrs. Ynez added.
“But you believe in demons.” Miss Casey said.
“With the whole world calling us freaks, you two have to attack each other?” Miss Garwood looked to Mr. Ellis for support.
“The people in this room are the only ones who can truly understand what you’ve been through. That is precisely the purpose of group therapy.” Mr. Ellis said. “Only among these people can you find understanding.”
“Alright then– let’s talk.” Mr. Silek said. “How many of us knew in gory detail what a human brain looked like in kindergarten?”
“Must we be so graphic?” Mr. Wisenkopf asked. Mr. Silek took his seat, his hand raised. Several hands joined Silek’s; Ellis’ was among them.
“My parents spent more time in the principal’s office than I did. They never could explain my drawings.” Miss Garwood. “I think the teachers thought they were serial killers or something.”
“My parents had to put me in the institution. It was out of self-defense. Protective services hounded them terribly.” Mr. Pannatoni said.
“The nuns took away my crayons and helped pray for my soul.” Mrs. Ynez crossed herself.
“Mrs. Ynez, May I ask you a question? I’m not trying to be rude, but you are older than the rest of us.” Mr. Ellis asked.
He prefaced the question carefully so that the others would understand the importance of her answer. “You’ve been haunted the longest, seventy-six years I believe. You were raised in a convent, isolated from the rest of the world. I believe your perspectives may be untainted by cultural bias.”
“Yes, I believe they are.” She replied.
“Has the apparition always looked the same?” He asked.
“Yes, the ‘apparition’ has always been the same. The bloody hand pointing, eyes blazing. Just like your hideous rendering. Right down to the spit skull and, yes, the exposed brain.” The old woman explained. “Always the same. Spewing bile and spite. Asking why. Calling me ‘killer.’ Always the same.”
“What about his clothing?” Mr. Ellis asked.
“Never changed. The same blood-soaked blue shirt ripped blue jeans. Always clutching that damned cigarette case.”
“Cigarette case?” Miss Garwood said. “No, it was a calculator. I hate math.”
“Sorry child, we didn’t have calculators when I was young.” said Mrs. Ynez.
“See Mr. Ellis, you were wrong. It’s not the same ghost. They just look alike. If it is the same ghost, then explain the shoes?” Mr. Pannatoni asked.
“What do you mean?” Miss Casey asked.
“He’s wearing modern tennis shoes.” Mr. Wisenkopf said.
“Impossible. I’ve been haunted for decades. A long time before ‘Air Jordans.’” Mr. Silek said.
“Is there any objection to taking another look at my picture?” When he was ten years old, Mr. Ellis’s parents had given him a camera, but the apparition had proven uncatchable on film. Only vague, unexplained mists or lights ever appeared. So, he learned to draw. He took years of art classes, as he had little talent. For years, he forced himself to study every detail of the venomous apparition. ‘Luckily,’ he had a model willing to make constant appearances. Now his art faced the only critics that mattered.
Ellis had long ago noted the check mark logo on the side of the modern tennis shoes the apparition wore. It was not a cigarette case, nor a calculator, that occupied the good hand. What it held was an impossibility that the group would have to discover for themselves. He raised the screen, once again exposing them to the image of their tormentor.
“All of us have this image seared in our memories. If I made a mistake, even a small one, please say so. A human mind can be fragile, even mine. I could have made a mistake.” The scientist felt his pocket to verify the presence of the object he concealed there. His proof.
“It’s a horrible picture.” Miss Casey said. “But it looks right.”
“I’m not the only one who thought he was wearing tennis shoes.” Mr. Wisenkopf said.
“It is the spitting image, Doc. Right down to the little box in his good hand.” Mr. Pannatoni agreed.
“Frozen like that on the wall, not moving or screaming, the box doesn’t look much like a calculator.” Miss Garwood said.
“Does everyone agree that I draw the box accurately?” Ghosts don’t appear with crystal clarity, but they all conceded that it was a good representation.
“You know what it is, don’t you, Mr. Ellis?” Miss Casey asked.
“I didn’t, not till recently.” Ellis touched the loathsome object in his pocket, skin crawling as his fingers brushed the hard plastic case. “I was walking through the mall when a sales clerk in one of those center aisle kiosks tried to sell me one. I ran out of the store, the sight of it gave me the shakes. I later realized why, went back, and bought it.” He grabbed the abhorrent device and held it boldly out for all to see.
“It can’t be!” Mr. Silek cried. Mr. Ellis nodded and set the small, plastic box on the table motioning with his arms for all to come forward and inspect.
“Oh my god! That’s it.” Miss Garwood whispered.
“No way. A cell phone?” Mr. Wisenkopf slumped heavily into his chair. “A cell phone.”
“This isn’t His work. It’s the Demon’s trickery. I will be a part of this no longer.” Mrs. Inez wrapped her coat around her. “Please, for the sake of your souls don’t listen to him. He’s been deceived. He’s a tool.” She was the first to leave.
“Sorry, Doc. This is just too weird.” Mr. Pannatoni followed.
“I’ll be here next week the same time if you change your minds!” Ellis called out. Miss Casey and Mr. Silek rose from their chairs. “If you change your minds or want to talk, you have my number.”
“Yeah, right. Like my life isn’t strange enough without this.” Miss Casey walked out, Mr. Silek close behind.
“Is it over?” Mr. Wisenkopf asked. “Can’t they see? It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“May I stay a while longer?” Miss Garwood asked. “We learned something, didn’t we?”
“I’ll stay as long as you need me, both of you. Yes, we learned a little today and maybe—” A woman’s shriek echoed through the hall. Miss Casey!
“You!” Mr. Pannatoni cried.
The remaining three darted into the hallway to investigate.
Ellis reached the outer door, Mrs. Ynez stood before him, her rosary held out as if to ward off some horrific monster. “Stay away! Jesus save me! Stay away!” The old woman swayed and then her legs gave way beneath her. She slumped to the ground, still clutching the necklace.
Miss Garwood pushed him aside and ran to the old woman. She knelt down and started to perform the basic lifesaving techniques she learned in high school.
Mr. Wisenkopf, immobile, stared at the unfolding scene before him.
The group was converging on a familiar looking man. Ellis could see the ‘NIKE’ check on his tennis shoes and fear and confusion on his face. The group moved toward him like a pack of wild dogs moving in for the kill, slowly and cautiously.
“Call 911!” The man yelled into his cell phone. Ellis looked down on the face of his lifelong tormentor. The world spun and shifted around him. It couldn’t be happening. His mind struggled with possibilities.
“Get away from me. You’re all crazy!” He was alive.
“What do you want with us?” Mr. Wisenkopf ran past the stunned scientist and joined the ‘pack.’
“The police are coming, they’re on their way. Go away!”
“I’m not a killer!” Mr. Pannatoni cried.
“What? Look. Here, please, take my money.” He grabbed his wallet from his rear pocket and threw it at the mob. It fell to the ground unheeded. The man gaped as he stumbled into the gutter. “What do you want?”
“She’s dead! “ Miss Garfield cried. “He killed her.”
“I didn’t do anything! She just fell over. She yelled at me and fell over.”
“Stop!” Understanding burst through his terror-fogged mind like a lightning stroke. He ran toward the group, he had to stop it. “It’s now, don’t you see? We kill him now!”
“Please no. I have a baby!” Their victim turned and ran. He didn’t see the car that sped around the corner.
The driver was running late for a therapy session. A Mr. Ellis had promised to help her deal with her lifelong problem, to end the fear that had plagued her entire life. Leave it to her to be late for such an important meeting. Her shrink was right; she was self-destructive. If she hurried, she could still catch them. If there were even a small chance the scientist could help her, she’d take it.
She turned the corner and cursed at the noise her tires made. Great, she was probably going to get another ticket. A crowd of people swarmed into the street in front of her. She swerved her car, barely missing the people, but couldn’t miss the man in the blue flannel who ran in front of her car. She stomped on the breaks with all the force her legs could muster. The squealing breaks locked. The woman’s limbs froze. She tried to scream, but no sound came. Unable to move, the driver watched her car collide with the ghost who had always haunted her. The car came to a stop with two sickening thumps that provided ample proof it was no ghost hit.
Mr. Ellis approached the unfortunate man. His shoes stuck to the blood that filled the street with a sickly sucking sound, like walking through mud.
“Why?” he asked, a hand, now twisted and mangled, reached outward for help. “Killer!”
“I’m sorry.” Ellis wanted to vomit. He wanted to faint. What had he caused? It was his fault. All his fault. “Someone call an ambulance!”
There was nothing to he could do. Nothing anyone could do. No one survived such head wounds. The man’s shattered skull could no longer contain his exposed brain. Ellis backed away, his body shaking with revulsion as he watched the man die. How could I have known? How could he even have conceived it?
It was unfair. There was no reason for the attack, he hadn’t done anything to them, they were crazy. For the first time in his life, he had been happy. He had a loving wife and a beautiful baby daughter. They took it all away. How could they! Why?
He deserved justice! The path to peaceful rest lay before him, but his anger wouldn’t allow him to ascend as the old woman had. It was her fault. She caused the attack. Should she be allowed escape his justice? No! They must all face their deed. If the old woman had escaped her crime, then he would haunt her in the past.
Time and space spread before him. The apparition bent his will, rage, and sorrow on one task and threw his spirit backward, into the eternity that was. The apparition would seek them in the past, and he’d make them pay.