My great-grandmother had always told her daughter that when she died, she’d come back as a ghost, and she’d haunt their home.
“But in a good way,” she’d said, “like a house sitter.”
By the time I was born, my great-grandmother had already passed away but she had, by my grandmother’s account, found her way back into the house. Whenever my grandma couldn’t find her keys, she blamed her mother. When the windows were open when she got home from the store – her mother’s doing. When people were walking their dogs outside her house, and the barked, they could see something not any human couldn’t: her mother.
She also said she could see ghosts, which is why she knew the key snatcher was her mother.
“I seen her with my own eyes, as sure as I can see you there now,” she told me.
That’s what she told me, anyway, and I believed every word she said.
My father didn’t believe anything grandma said, but then again, she was his mother-in-law and from what I had gathered from old comic books, mothers-in-law usually didn’t get along with their sons-in-law so I didn’t think that mattered much. I mean, I knew my father knew a lot of things but I figured that maybe he just disagreed with grandma, out of principle.
Or, maybe he just didn’t believe in ghosts. But he didn’t believe in much else, either. In fact, “unbelievable!” was almost like his motto. Maybe that’s why he left us.
Now, Grandma was a believer, and she had no time to be embarrassed about it, either. She regularly read the future of herself and her loved ones in the cards, and it wasn’t uncommon to see her sit next to the garbage can, staring at coffee grounds to see what the future might hold. When she saw a black cat, she threw salt over her left shoulder and spat three times over right her right shoulder just for good measure, she never walked under a ladder, and when her ears were ringing, she always knew who was thinking of her, and whether it was good or bad.
She also told me I had the gift, too.
I think everybody’s got a friend like Pete. The kind of guy – or a girl – who always knows stuff. Stuff you haven’t even thought about ever. I’ve often thought about Pete and wondered what ever became of him, and whether he really knew everything about everything, or whether he just always dominated the conversation so that we never talked about things I knew anything about. Maybe that’s why we never talked about books. Books were boring, Pete said, once when I suggested we try to get around our town in 8 hours, obviously inspired by Jules Verne’s “Around the world in 80 days” and just as obviously, setting the bar low.
Anyway, Pete didn’t want to, because he said he could do it in eight minutes.
“Besides, if there’s a book about it, then somebody else must have done it – and I ain’t interested in doing what some other cat has already done,” he told me. (I only remember it because he really used the word “cat”.)
“Isn’t there anything special you can do?” he then added.
It isn’t always easy to know what’s so special about yourself because … well, you’re you and you know what you can do, and most of us look at the world thinking everybody else sees it the same way. But when Pete challenged me, the word “special” triggered something in me. It reminded me of Grandma and how she always told me that I was a special boy.
“You have the gift. You can see things. You’re special,” she said.
So I told Pete that. That I was special, and that I had the gift.
“The what now?”
His voice was sarcastic, but I could tell he was intrigued. Not as much about what my gift was as he was worried that I could do something he couldn’t.
“I can see things others can’t see,” I said, matter-of-factly.
“No, not like Superman. I can see ghosts.”
Pete stared at me for what seemed like minutes, examining me. I was sure he was going to burst out laughing and I was just about to tell him that I had been kidding and that maybe we should just go hang out at the park and see if any other kids were there when he opened his mouth and said just one word.
I swallowed hard because Pete’s perfects had gotten us into a little bit of trouble before. He had told me the roof of our apartment building was “the perfect place” to look for possible fires on a hot summer’s day, and that mooning principal Arte would be the “perfect” art installation which “a man with a name like surely would appreciate.” Pete always managed to camouflage his pranks as acts of kindness to the humankind.
“We’ll talk to the ghost of Utra,” he said then.
I swallowed hard again.
That August, the ghost of Utra was on everybody’s lips at school. The way I heard it was that about twenty years earlier, a young lady had died in a motorcycle accident and hit her head on a tombstone at the Utra graveyard, Utra being a piece of land just outside town, and not more than the beginnings of a village. She had been trying to run away from her father who had been chasing her with an axe. He was a crazy man, I was told, as if chasing your own daughter with an axe in your hand wasn’t proof enough. However, when she hit her head on the tombstone, her father noticed that it had his name on it, got a fit and ran into the river.
In Pete’s version, the young lady had been decapitated and she was walking along the road, trying to hitch a ride with her black motorcycle helmet under her arm – with her head inside the helmet – and she had been the cousin of a friend of a friend, but mostly, our stories checked out.
“Dude, if you can see ghosts, we definitely have to go talk to the ghost of Utra, and get to the bottom of things,” Pete said.
“What do you suggest?” I asked him, trying to play for time.
“We go to the graveyard, of course. Tonight!” he said. “And then you can tell me is she’s there, and if she is, talk to her.”
“Tonight? I’m not sure if…” I started to say, but when I saw the look on Pete’s face, I simply continued, “… she’ll come out, I’ll have to check the moon cycle.”
“Ghosts love the full moon, so there’s a bigger chance for us seeing it then.”
“I don’t care, let’s do it tonight. You can see ghosts anyway,” Pete said, and that was that. He started to gather things he wanted to take with him to the ghost hunt. Or ghost interview as he called it.
“We’re not going to capture it,” he added.
He made a pile of things on his bed. There was a camera, binoculars, a tape recorder, ear phones, and potato flour – “to get footprints”.
“I’m stoked about this! I have some work to do so you need to go home now, but meet me here at 11 pm, ghost whisperer,” he said, and pushed me out of his room, towards their front door. He closed the door, and the last thing I heard was Pete yelling “stoked!” inside his room.
I’d be lying if I said I was as stoked as Pete. No, I was confused, and concerned. I didn’t exactly know what I had just got myself into, and I was worried that I was going to end up in trouble. I was 14, and my bedtime was 10 pm on school nights, which it was. It was going to be difficult for me to get out at 11 and go talk to ghosts.
It was dark at 11.
Funny, though, that I wasn’t concerned with my ability to see ghosts at all even though I had never seen one. But Grandma had told me I had the gift, and just because I hadn’t seen any ghosts, yet, didn’t mean I couldn’t see one when I bumped into it. As much as you can bump into ghosts. At least I knew there was going to be a ghost, and surely that was going to make it easier for me to see it, too.
“You’ll know when the time is right,” Grandma had told me.
I went home and started to plan my getaway. I knew it was going to be hard to leave my room without Mom noticing but it wasn’t impossible. She often fell asleep in front of the TV after I’d gone to bed, and if I got up quietly, there was a chance she wouldn’t wake up when I left, and hopefully not when I got back home, either.
When I got home, I packed a notepad and two pens – you can never be too careful – into a backpack, which I threw in our hall, against the wall. I put a show on top of it so Mom wouldn’t think there was anything special about it. I got my bike and left it leaning against a street light outside our apartment building, ready to go.
And then I practiced seeing ghosts a little bit. I thought I saw something in my Mom’s bedroom.
I went to bed at 10 pm, as usual, and Mom went to the living room to watch TV, as usual. I could hear her laugh in sync with the laugh rack of the sitcom she was watching, and it made me smile. The laughs – Mom’s, not the laugh track’s – got to be farther apart which made me think that Mom had fallen asleep.
I tiptoed out of my bed fully clothed – I had had my own detective agency the year before – and when I saw Mom lying on the couch asleep, I kept on walking towards the front door. I grabbed my backpack, and opened the door as slowly and quietly as I could. I looked back to see if I had woken up Mom, but when I didn’t see her move, I got out, closed the door very gently, walked down the stairs, and stepped out to the cool August night air.
It was dark but not pitch black and I could have found my way to Pete’s place blindfolded anyway. When I got to his house, he was already waiting for me on his bike, and he just motioned for me to keep on riding towards the graveyard.
He turned on a flashlight he had taped onto his helmet and I realized I had forgotten mine. It was too perfect that I’d hit my head on a tombstone the one time I was not wearing a helmet and was on my way to talk to a female ghost who had lost her life that way.
It was only a ten-minute ride to the graveyard, and we didn’t talk at all. When we got to the gate, the only entrance, Pete signaled for me to stop, so I did.
“Good man,” Pete said as we parked our bikes against the stone fence. “Let’s get to work.”
And he got to work. He poured the potato flour around the entrance, making a whitish potato flour path from the gate to the street.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked him.
“Nothing. Just stay put, and tell me when you see something.”
In a way, it was very comforting that Pete seemed to have complete faith in my ability. He hadn’t laughed once, he had just sprung into action. Even if I doubted myself, Pete never had. Not this time, anyway.
He set up his camera on the stone wall. Then he put on a welder’s mask and turned to me. His voice was muffled so it was hard for me to understand what he was saying.
“All we have to do now is wait for the ghost,” he said. “You haven’t seen anything yet, right?”
“Good, I would have hated it if I’d missed her.”
“Why are you wearing the mask?”
“I read somewhere that ghosts are pure energy, and I figured that might be hard on the eyes,” he said, and added, “for someone who doesn’t have the gift, I mean.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, I’ve never felt that I’d need any protection.”
After that, we were quiet for a while.
“Hey. Maybe you should call it,” Pete said suddenly. “Get in there.”
“I’m not so sure that’s a great idea. I mean, didn’t you tell me she was trying to hitch a ride … so, wouldn’t she be standing by the side of the road instead,” I said.
“Good point. Is there a way to call ghosts, though?”
“Not that I know of. But Grandma told me you feel their presence. It gets a little chilly, she said.”
“I think it’s chilly now.”
“It gets even colder, I guess.”
Then: silence again. For at least ten minutes.
And then, I felt a breeze of cool air on my arm and then on my back, and then inside me. Then I felt cold sweat on my brow. I shook Pete’s arm.
“She’s here,” I whispered.
Pete grabbed his camera.
“Right there,” I said because she was right there. She was right there, in front of us, smiling at us, or maybe just me.
Pete put his camera down.
She wasn’t wearing a motorcycle helmet. Her head was on her shoulders, and not under her arm, and she wasn’t a teenage girl. It was a she, though.
“Are you the ghost of Utra,” I asked her, muttering, “because I don’t think that’s possible.”
“No, silly boy, I am not the ghost of Utra. How could I be? She’s been here for decades, and I didn’t become a ghost until a few hours ago.”
“I didn’t know that, Grandma. I didn’t know you were a ghost at all.”
“I know. It’s OK. Nobody knows yet.”
“Mom’s going to be sad.”
“That’s why I wanted to tell you first. She doesn’t have the gift, so you’ll have to help her. She won’t believe you, she sure never believed me, but you’ll find a way to make her see, and comfort her. And you’ll know I’ll be here for you.”
She was quiet for a while.
“Why is your friend wearing a welder’s mask? He doesn’t seem too bright.”
“Oh, Pete’s OK. It was his idea to come here tonight. He wanted to talk to the ghost of Utra. But I guess he can’t record any of this, no sound, no photos?”
“I’m afraid not. But if you want, I can do something to prove to him that I was here.”
And with that, Grandma was gone. The next thing I knew, I heard the air coming out of Pete’s tires.
“What the hell!” Pete yelled and ran to his bike.
“Tell him that was the ghost’s doing,” Grandma said. “And hurry home before your mother wakes up. I will catch you later. Be good.”
The one thing Pete didn’t have in his backpack was a bicycle pump, so he had to walk his bike home. It was a short walk so I kept him company.
“So the ghost did this?” Pete asked me. “Did you see her?”
“I saw her.”
“Did you see her do this?”
“No, I missed that, she was too fast.”
“Why did she do it?”
“Maybe she was jealous of your bike. I mean, she lost her life on a motorcycle.”
“Did you tell her to do it?”
“No, I swear.”
We were silent for a while. I was thinking about Grandma, and Mom.
“Can’t wait to see if I caught her on film. I’ll let you know tomorrow,” Pete said and turned home. I walked another 300 meters to our apartment, and snuck in. Mom was still on the couch.
In the morning, Mom woke me up. She looked stressed and sad.
“I have some bad news, baby,” she said. “I’m afraid Grandma died last night.”
She gave me a hug and told me to eat some cereal and get to school because she would have to go to the hospital before going to work and she was already running late.
“But I can’t find my keys,” she yelled. “I’m sure I hung them on the hook last night.”
“Maybe Grandma took them,” I said.
“Baby, let’s not … let’s just not,” Mom said. She looked at me with a sad smile on her face.
“Fine,” she said then, “Where would she have put them?”
We looked for them everywhere. Everywhere. We looked for the keys for at least a half an hour until Mom finally found them in her shoe. Before she dashed off, we wrote a thank you note to Grandma and put it in the shoe.
At school, Pete tried to convince me that he had caught the ghost in a photo and yes, there was something white in one of the photos. I thought it was his thumb, but we agreed that it was the Ghost of Utra. Pete considered sending it to a popular TV show on paranormal things in the hopes of winning their cash prize.
After school, the first thing I did when I got home was check the shoe for the note. It was no longer there.
If you’re seeing things
Running through your head
Who can you call
Ray Parker Jr. – Ghostbusters (1984)
This is a part of an ongoing series of stories, mostly flash fiction, inspired by 80s pop songs. You can find them all here.