“I don’t suppose there’s any such thing as an ordinary haunting.”
It had taken Brown a minute to begin speaking, and now he paused again.
The seven of us, five men and two women, were seated around the table in our customary back room at the Toll House in Boise. It was early January, and some logs were blazing in a fireplace at the far end of the room. A waitress had cleared away the dishes and set up bottles and glasses and then closed the door. Now and then a strong gust of wind blew down the chimney, and I remember thinking how well the aroma of the smoke complemented the flavor of the Scotch.
“I think I’ve mentioned that some of my ancestors lived in Silver City, and that’s how I came by the story and eventually got around to investigating it.”
Brown shook his head slightly. “Sorry—investigated is too pretentious a term. I guess I’ve looked into it. I’ve looked into the stories I’d heard off and on since childhood. There was never anything overt, but I picked up hints now and then, saw the looks the adults exchanged when that branch of the family was mentioned. And heard the whispers.
“Well, those looks and whispers were part of the texture of things for me, and I didn’t give them much thought until we put the Club together.”
That produced a collective smile. You could say we were a group of ghost enthusiasts—ghost enthusiasts, lake monster enthusiasts, you name it. After playing around with several names, including the Irrational Society (of all things!), we finally settled on the Club; it was wise to be circumspect in Boise in those days. We let it be known that we talked about investments, and since one of us was a broker, we actually made some good ones.
“The house is two stories and built up against a hillside,” Brown continued. “It must have been pretty grand for that place and time—a mining community a century ago. Of course Silver City went broke a few years later, but for a time it had its own newspaper. Plenty of churches, plenty of saloons. Anyway …”
The wind hooted down the chimney at that particular moment, swirling the flames and setting the shadows dancing.
“Anyway, it’s haunted, and the haunters are supposed to be a woman and a young girl who follows her on her rounds. They’ve always been seen in that configuration—a woman followed by a girl. People called them the Companions.
“The house belonged to a great aunt and uncle of mine, and before that to one of his aunts. She was one of two sisters, the other of whom had died as a child. The surviving sister died in her late forties, and left it to my great aunt and uncle. They never had children, so eventually the house passed to my grandfather and eventually to my parents. I know they visited it once, left me at home with a babysitter, but when they came back the place was never mentioned in front of me again. There were those whispers—children always notice those things, don’t they?—but that was it.
“The ghosts are those two sisters, of course.”
Here Brown refreshed his drink, and the rest of us did the same before he continued.
“Well, I finally decided I’d take a look myself. This was at the time of the full moon last September, when the road was still open—Silver City gets snowed in early, you know. I took a sleeping bag and a couple of days’ worth of cheese and candy bars and water, and a pint of this”—he held up his glass. “Plus some equipment—a flashlight, a kerosene lantern, a tool box, pens and paper, and a walking stick that supposedly had belonged to my great uncle. Carnacki would have brought some elaborate piece of apparatus, but in real life you go with what you’ve got.” That brought some chuckles, Carnacki being an occult detective created by an English writer decades ago. Reading the stories had been de rigueur for us, along with those featuring Dr. Hesselius and John Silence.
“Like all the buildings in Silver City, the house is badly weathered, but it’s still basically sound. The windows were boarded up, and someone has put hasps and locks on the doors. I had expected as much, but the locks were rusted, of course, so I got to work prying the boards off one of the back windows. Most of the panes were gone, so I had no trouble climbing in.
“I set off exploring the house first thing, but there was absolutely nothing of interest. Nothing. In addition to that front room, which I’m guessing had been the parlor, there were a kitchen and a dining room and a storeroom and—up a really steep flight of stairs—four bedrooms. Every piece of furniture had been removed, and every flat surface was covered in dust. And for what it’s worth, the only footprints in the dust were the ones I left myself.
“It had taken several hours to get to Silver City, and it started to get dark about two hours after I arrived, so I unrolled my bag in a corner of the parlor. That suited me fine, as I was sure I’d be happier if I were close to some natural light, even if it were moonlight.
“I had no idea whether my expedition would pay off, and the first night absolutely nothing happened. No, that’s not right—I heard some coyotes howling somewhere. But aside from that, it was cold and dusty, and my back ached in the morning from sleeping on the floor. I was tempted to pack up, but I hung around the next day poking around what was left of the town. The next night, though, I saw them. I’d eaten the rest of my food and was sitting against the wall when I realized that they were there. I put it that way because there weren’t any preliminaries. These two pale figures—one tall, one short—were suddenly there, on the far side of the room, moving out the door ever so slowly.
“They took about ten seconds to disappear, and when they did, I made a note of what I’d seen and when. My heart was beating hard, but all I could do was sit and try not to panic. They reappeared, at the same door, nearly forty minutes later, moving just as slowly. The tall figure was still in the lead, and they moved as if they were going to make a circuit of the room. I watched them approach the window I had uncovered, which was opposite me, and the upper parts of their bodies disappeared as they passed before it. That was ghastly, but there was more.
“I had shrunk back into my corner as a far as I could, but the short figure sensed my presence. I say ‘sensed,’ not saw or heard—it was more subtle than that. It stopped and turned in my direction. Then it took slow little steps toward me and came right up to me—I could make out its little features dimly—and stretched out its hand, the way you would if you were trying to touch something you couldn’t quite see in the dark. I pulled my head to the side, and the little hand stretched into the wall.
“At that moment I realized that I had been playing with something that shouldn’t be played with. Until then my ghost-hunting had been a hobby, something to share with you folks over a pleasant meal once a month …
“Well, to make a long story short, the figure pulled its hand back and paused. If it had turned slightly to look me in the eye, I think I would have died. But thank God it was looking past me.
“Now the most important thing is this: Its face—her face—was twisted into a rictus of hate—literally twisted out of shape. It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”
Brown paused. We were normally a talkative group, but the tone of Brown’s story had pretty much discouraged comment.
“Thank God she turned away then. Her companion had never stopped and was about to disappear up the stairs. The girl hurried after her, but it was as if she were hurrying through deep water. I sensed the strain, her need to catch up. Everything took place in slow motion—the woman slowly ascending the stairs, and the girl a few yards behind her.
“After that, the routine reasserted itself, except that it took three circuits for the girl to catch up. I know how long because of course I wasn’t able to go back to sleep. But catch up she finally did.
“Needless to say, I left that morning as soon as it started to get light. The pair had passed out of the room about five minutes earlier, so I stuffed my equipment and supplies into my sleeping bag and jumped out the window. It was all I could do not to run, but I stopped to nail the boards back in place.
“Now here’s where my real investigation began. I certainly never wanted to see any more ghosts, but I wanted to know more about what I had seen. There had to be a story, and although I don’t have it all, I think I have its outline.
“My experiences in Silver City got me thinking along lines I hadn’t considered before. I’d never had the heart to sort through all my parents’ papers, but after my visit it occurred to me that I might find some clues at home. So I picked a weekend that my wife was visiting her sister in Portland and got to work in the attic. By the time they died, my parents had sold most of their properties, but my father had kept files on them. And sure enough, in one of his boxes, there was a thin file on the Silver City house.
“It had precisely six pages of paper in it—the deed to the property plus five typed sheets of paper identified as having been copied from the local paper there, the Owyhee Avalanche—and a thin ledger. The typescripts were all death notices, and the one with the earliest date, 1859, was for Julie—that was the younger sister—simply announcing that she had died at age five at home from a fall. Then there was one for Alma, the older sister. She died at home as well. She had been 42, and although there was no cause of death listed, there was a neatly written note added in ink, in what I’m sure was my father’s handwriting. It said—‘Hanged herself.’ The words had been underlined twice, which I should mention was very unlike my father, who was as undemonstrative a man as I’ve ever known. Anyway, I guess that as a member of the family, he would have known more about the situation than the paper would have mentioned.
“The other three pages were clipped together by date. The first was a death notice for a young man named Horace Watson, who had died at age eighteen in 1865. My father had added the note, ‘Thrown from his horse in front of the house.’ I think we can guess which house that was. The second notice was dated four years later, and concerned a man of twenty-five. There was a note on it too: ‘Food poisoning.’ No location this time, but you’re seeing the pattern now, of course, and the final notice pretty much confirms it. It was dated a decade later, and was for a man in his early forties. The note on this one said, ‘Widower; wealthy; died of a heart attack in the parlor.’ That was the very room where I’d spent my two nights.
“Here’s how I’ve reconstructed the events. Julie dies of a fall in 1859, and I’d be willing to bet it was on those steep stairs. But did she really fall, or was she pushed? Was Alma jealous of her new sister, of all the attention she was getting? Was anyone suspicious? Had there been other ‘accidents’? I can only guess.
“In any case, Alma would have been nine years old then, and six years later, when she’s fifteen and of a marriageable age, a young man dies in front of her family’s house. Four years later another, older man dies, and although we can’t be sure where, we can guess. Quite a while after that, when Alma’s undoubtedly showing her age, a rich widower dies of a heart attack in her parlor. She’d been courted three times, and in all three cases the men have died.
“What’s left is Alma’s journal, which is filled with notes about the weather but very short on almost everything else, including names. But at three widely spaced intervals—you can guess the dates—there are long, almost excited series of exclamation points. And each one ends with a blackened cross. Alma bore down so hard on the last one that the paper is torn away. After that there are no more entries of any kind. No more exclamation points. Surely by then Alma would have acquired a kind of gruesome reputation, for bad luck if for nothing else. She died thirteen years later. I think those were thirteen years of—nothing.
“Now you have all the facts, but what you can’t know—what I don’t think I’m capable of conveying—is the look of utter hatred I saw that night on Julie’s face. The ghosts that haunt that house aren’t companions. They’re enemies, one in pursuit of the other. I’m sure the pursuit began when Horace Watson began courting Alma—and it’s never ended.”
Brown added some water to his glass, and the rest of us refilled our drinks. The fire was smoldering fitfully by then.
“At this point I have a plan,” he resumed after we sat down, “although it’s not much of one. I’ll drive down to Silver City again as soon as the weather permits. We can make a group excursion, if you wish, but I won’t be going inside this time, and neither will you.
“I’ve bought extra locks for the doors, and I’m going to screw down the boards over the windows that are big enough to climb through. I’ll hammer down the heads so they can’t be unscrewed. Then I’ll leave Julie and Alma to themselves.
“Sooner or later the house will collapse—like so many others there—and then … God knows.”
We all sat there silently for several minutes. I’d heard that phrase all my life—“God knows.” Used it myself countless times, although it’s not as if I’m a believer. But it was only on that cold January night, hearing the words on Brown’s lips, that I realized what they really implied.
Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure (Scarecrow Press, 2002), and Assistant Editor of Laguna Beach Art Patron Magazine, Palm Springs Art Patron Magazine, and Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal. In addition he has published short fiction in Lacuna, Bewildering Stories, Mulberry Fork Review, Two Words For, Eternal Haunted Summer, and Phantasmacore.