I used to tell people that I saw a ghost once, but no one believes me. I could see it in their eyes when I recounted the story. It was always the same, a twinkle of doubt, a hint of amusement. At first, it used to bother me. I’d get upset and angry. I’d argue with whoever it was as if my pleading tone would make any difference. Then, I would rage that they had disrespected me. Scream at them at the top of my lungs. Occasionally I would rant and rave uncontrollably. Nowadays, I don’t bother to tell anyone about it. It’s better that way, but since you’ve asked, I’ll tell it this one last time.
As with all good stories, it starts a long time ago…
I used to live in a terraced house when I was a child. You know the type, a tall thin brick building with three floors. Ours was right in the very centre of the street. The proverbial sardine in the tin. It wasn’t quite what you would call a housing estate, but it was close. Those kinds of houses had been made even before estates existed in my hometown of Eastborough-on-Sea. That’s doesn’t mean it was a nice place to live, mind you. It was just row after row of terraced houses. Brick soldiers lined up like they were prepared for a battle that never happened. You get to know your neighbours in such close quarters I can tell you that much. It was the same for me.
I quickly became friends with another two boys that lived nearby. One on the same street, the other just one away. We did the same thing that all stupid boys did. We ran around like reprobates. Knock a door run, egging windows, pulling up plants, writing “clean me” on the windows of dirty cars. The usual nonsense. Little shits basically, but I will say this, it was bloody good fun.
Anyway, I digress. It was only a few streets away. A graveyard on an island surrounded by terraced houses. It had a high wall that spread around the whole thing with thick few iron gates for entrances. Of course, our parents told us not to go in. And of course, we thoroughly ignored them. As soon as we learnt about it, all three of us went straight there. As I have said, we were stupid kids, but in our defence, we mostly went during the day.
We usually just spent the time running around on the grass and under the trees. We were careful not to damage the gravestones, mind you. We were stupid, but we weren’t bad kids, not really. Just a little bored.
In the very centre of that island in the terraced ocean, there was an old church. It had been boarded up and closed down years ago for a reason unknown to us. As you can imagine this was like catnip to a feline. We desperately wanted to get inside that building, and I do mean desperately.
We spent months that summer speculating what might be inside that church. We were sure there must be ghosts. Or maybe ghouls. At the very least, a goblin. It made perfect sense to us. An old broken-down church in a graveyard? Where else would they be? We’d done a bit of ghost hunting around the place already and come up with nothing. We all agreed that this was the right place to look. So, we made our foolish plans.
Those plans were thrown off for the moment when the school year began. It all went to one side while we settled into a new academic year. We all went to the same school, so we still talked about it, but in the end, we were too tired to go through with them after the rigours of student life. By rigours, I mean endlessly playing football from dawn to dusk.
Finally, the opportunity arose with the arrival of the autumn half-term. Our plans had been laid down to the finest detail. We would all tell each other’s parents that we were going to stay at one of the others houses. This is back in the days before mobile phones, of course. Our parents being the trusting types, never gave it a moment’s thought. They were probably happy just to get an evening’s peace for once.
We packed our bags as usual but unbeknown to our parents we slipped in our sleeping bags and some food. Mostly sweets and snacks, but then we were young boys, after all. I left my relieved parents with a kiss on the cheek and departed with a cheerful wave of my hand.
We met at the entrance to the graveyard with darkness falling swiftly. Bill, the bravest of the three of us, and our leader, had borrowed his father’s torch. It was a big old thing, but the light it produced was undoubtedly powerful. We greeted each other excitedly and with juvenile high fives. Gleeful and giddy with our deception.
We entered the graveyard without any backward glances. Even in the dark, we knew every inch of the place, and with the torch, we had nothing to fear from the darkness. We stomped and whooped as we made our way to the centre. There, before us, was the old church. Despite the torch, or maybe because of it and its light, the church looked particularly sinister. The deep shadows around the turrets and windows were unusually menacing. We stopped dead and fell silent.
The gravity of the situation was maybe beginning to sink in, until Bill, ever the confident one, strode towards the chosen window. Jim quickly followed, and then I did as well. I didn’t want to be left out as I knew I would be unmercifully teased if I chickened out.
We arrived at the window, a small slit of a thing, which we had scouted to be looser than the others. Jim pulled out a screwdriver he had borrowed from the garage and popped open the wooden cover. The gap was only small, but we were smaller. Bill went first, of course, and then Jim, and then finally I did with only a momentary glance into the darkness behind me. I dropped inside to find Bill and Jim huddled together.
Bill was holding the torch upwards to maximise the amount of light it produced. It illuminated an empty and mostly derelict interior. A few dusty old pews, a chair or two, nothing too exciting, except, as you can imagine, it was fascinating to us. We crept around and looked in every nook and cranny determined to find signs of a ghost or ghoul or even that goblin. Obviously, we came up with nothing except pigeon feathers and bird shit.
We weren’t put off but our initial failure. We had only checked the central area of worship. There was another room at the furthest end that must have been where the priest went about his business before service, whatever that might be. This was only a small church. The priests must have lived nearby somewhere, although that’s something I thought about until later. At that moment, I didn’t care, and neither did my friends. We were ghost hunters.
Bill turned and shined the torch at us. “We need to go down there. That’s where they are.” He said, and to his credit, he sounded as certain of that than anything I’d heard him say before.
We readily agreed and began the short dusty journey to the other end. As we approached, I began to feel like this wasn’t such a good idea after all. The darkness at the furthest end seemed beyond absolute, but my fears were lifted slightly when Bill shone the torch inside. Suddenly, it was just another empty room with the same red and grey tiled cold floor that adorned the rest of the church. It stood to reason that if it looked the same, it would also harbour the same results.
We strode in with Bill, our chief, at the helm like conquering heroes. It turned out I was right because the interior was mostly the same. Just a few chairs and one pew. Of course, we made out that we were crestfallen. Secretly, I believe we were all relieved, I know I was, but we would have never said that. Bill, in his anger, kicked the pew. It fell backwards with a bang and a cloud of dust. Jim yelped at the echo to which Bill and I laughed. It was then that I noticed something behind that fallen pew.
I nervously pointed it out, and we went to investigate. Bill went first, followed by me and then Jim, who seemed to have lost his confidence a bit. We climbed over the collapsed pew, and Bill shone the light at the epicentre of our attention. I remember at first being confused, and then I felt sick. Bill fell silent, and Jim once again gasped.
It was a pigeon.
Someone or something had crucified the poor thing with some old rusty nails. It was pinned up against one of those old boards that were used to hold the hymn numbers. It must have been there some time because the front of the poor creature was bulging with maggots which were devouring its rotting flesh. They spilt out of its stomach even as we stood there and gawped. The smell was horrible. Sickly sweet.
I nearly throw up right there and then, I can tell you that for nothing. I just about held it together though, but I had decided enough was enough. All my bravado had disappeared. I was just about to tell the others that I was going home and damn the consequences, when I heard a noise from behind.
Slap, slap, slap.
I stopped dead. Frozen at this new sound. Jim whimpered as well, and even Bill was caught off guard as he dropped the torch on the ground with a heavy thud that echoed off the walls dully. Its light was now pointing against the wall uselessly and revealing the crucified pigeon in all its macabre glory.
The noise that had terrified us so much was a footstep. Not just one, but a great many. The unmistakable sound of footsteps walking up through the church. The very way we had just come and the only way out of the building. I remained frozen where I stood as I listened to each terrible step as it echoed dully off the walls. It sounded like a slap on the flesh. Something that we were very familiar with when we gave each other dead legs.
Bill must have leant forward and retrieved the torch as I could see it slowly and shakily rise as our leader quaked in fear. As he lifted the torch me and Jim leapt into action and scurried around the back of him as he held it like a gun, as if it would protect us. All thoughts of the poor crucified bird now long gone.
Bill aimed the torch directly back the way we had come. The beam bucked and wobbled as his hands tremored in fear. In some ways, this was worse for me. Seeing our confident leader reduced to a quivering mess. I watched as the shaking beam plunged through the darkness into the main part of the church.
I held my breath in terror, wondering what I was about to see. Was I about to see a ghost? The sole reason why we were there. Or some other beast of my adolescent imagination?
To my obvious confusion and relief, the church was empty. It was the same as before. A wreck of its former self. Seeing that it was empty was the spur we needed. Bill quickly began to walk in the direction of the beam, closely followed by Jim and then me. I dearly wanted to be the first out, but they reacted quicker than me.
We raced over the tiles kicking up more clouds of dust. I kept my vision on the area the beam was illuminating as best as I could, but I nearly tripped in shock when I once again heard the now-familiar slap of footsteps. This time they were coming from behind me.
Slap, slap, slap.
The others must have heard it as well because they immediately began to sprint towards the small exit. Bill arrived first being at the front and the quickest of the three. He placed the torch down so that the beam faced upwards, and jumped straight at the window and began to pull himself through headfirst. I could see his wiggling legs, which created almost a strobe-like effect with the torch beam. Jim was crying now as the footsteps seemed to be racing towards us. The echo of each solid step still haunts me to this day. That horrible slapping sound on the tiled floor emerging from the darkness.
Slap, slap, slap.
Bill was through, and much to my dismay, Jim had reacted quicker once again and had thrown himself through the gap. Bill must have pulled him through because he shot through it like he had been fired from a cannon.
I was ready to follow suit. My bladder was bursting with fear, and I was close to tears. I don’t know what I was saying or thinking. I just remember that everything was moving in slow motion. I launched myself at the gap and gripped the edges of the window. I began to haul myself through when I heard Bill.
“Grab the torch! Grab the torch! My dad will kill me!” He said.
I hesitated. I didn’t want to incur the wrath of my friend and leader, but also the footsteps were perilously close behind me now. I did not know what to do. A whimper left my mouth in my indecision. The noise of those footsteps filled my head. I could barely think.
Slap, slap, slap.
Suddenly, my body seemed to take over. My brain might have been mush, but my body still knew what to do. I quickly dropped back down to the ground and gathered up the torch in my hand. The beam of light was momentarily skywards.
For a fraction of a second, I looked back. I don’t know why I did it. As I said, I had no real control over my body at this point. It was just a reaction. Some kind of natural response to being chased maybe? I don’t know, but either way, I did it.
With the beam facing upwards the church was again bathed in artificial light. For that briefest second, before I was pulled bodily through the window by Bill, I saw something standing in that church. It is as clear to me now as if it was yesterday.
It was a man. Or at least it was in the shape of a man. He stood perfectly still in the middle of the church with nothing but dust motes swirling around him. He was naked as the day he was born, but I didn’t register that. The reason I failed to notice his nakedness was because of the pallor of his skin. It was almost grey; in some places, it even seemed painfully white, nearly transparent. That horrid skin hung strangely from his body. It sagged and slouched as if it was about to fall off at any moment.
His stomach was bloated and hung low, covering his genitals. Yellow liquid trickled down his thighs which I now believe was urine. His posture was slumped like the weight of the world was on his shoulders, and he couldn’t bear it. His arms hung down, ending with long, thick black fingernails. His body was completely hairless, except for jet black lank hair which spilled forward over his bowed head and covered his face. He glistened in the light; his body moist from who knows what.
Of course, I screamed. I was a child, but I believe that any sane adult would have done the same. This is when I felt Bill’s hands grab me roughly from behind and drag me through the window, painfully scraping the flesh of my exposed arms. The torch came with me, plunging the church back into darkness.
I landed with a thud on the ground. Bill pulled the torch out of my hand and began to run. Jim was already long gone. I scrabbled to my feet by now I was sobbing loudly. I had wet myself at some point in my terror. I dare not look inside, but I could hear him or it or whatever it was. He was laughing. Not just a gentle titter but an ear-splitting roar of delight. I didn’t wait to find out what was so funny. I ran.
So, there you have it. A ghost. I can see from the look in your eyes that you don’t believe me. No, no, it’s fine honestly. No one believes me. It doesn’t change the fact that it happened. I didn’t think you would be any different to the others, but you asked, so I told you. Anyway, I’m becoming tired, and we are fed at 5 pm daily so I must be going. Just knock on the door. The attendant will let you out.
Elliot Harper is the author of the dark science-fiction novella, “The City around the World,” published by Sinister Stoat Press, an imprint of Weasel Press. Elliot’s short fiction has appeared in FIVE:2:ONE Magazine’s #thesideshow web series, Maudlin House, Ghost City Review, Akashic Book’s #FriSciFi web series, Litro Magazine’s #StorySunday web series, and Riggwelter Journal.