I was studying theater and the program wasn't quite as rigorous as I had hoped. Also I had no friends. Seriously. No friends. It takes me awhile to get comfortable with new people, something I've made peace with at this point, but back then I hadn't and it just made me uncomfortable and standoffish, which pushed people even further away. I was far from home for the first time in my life, unhappy and isolated.
Who knows, maybe that even played into what happened that night.
The picture above is of Lincoln House. It was torn down in 2006 to make way for a shiny new state of the art theater center, but back then it was the theater department's costume shop. Like most theater departments, JMU took a multidisciplinary approach to theater and that Fall it was my time to do a tour of duty on the costume crew.
That night, we were at the theater integrating costumes into a show for the first time. We were kind of overstaffed so I was standing around backstage with not much to do until the costume designer threw me a set of keys and asked if I would take the van over to the shop and pick up a load of costumes someone had forgotten in the drier.
If you've ever been involved in college or high school theater you know what it's like back stage leading up to a performance. The place is packed with the high energy collisions of attractive and creative young people. There's flirting to do, cigarettes to be smoked, parties to plan. An astonishing amount of backrubs. Faced with that sort of thing at a painfully introverted time in my life I was more than happy to leave.
It was early evening when I climbed into the van and started it up. The street between the theater and the costume shop was empty, lined with the shadows of trees. A rapidly fading sunset was on the horizon, all orange and yellow. It was short trip to the shop, not more than a few minutes. When I got to Lincoln House I pulled the van around to the back and walked up the drive to the front door.
That's when I remembered that the costume shop was haunted.
I don't remember who was supposed to be haunting it, or why, only that it was. No big surprise though, is it? I mean, look at the place. Of course there are stories that it's haunted. It would be more shocking if there weren't.
By the time I climbed the small hill out of the parking lot the sun was gone and it was fully night. Still and empty all around. If you look at the picture above, I would have been walking from the bottom left corner up and around to the front of the house. You can also see in the picture that on the left side of the house, a gable sits peaked at the roofline with its one window looking into the house's attic.
I knew the building was empty, the entire crew had left together and locked the place up, but as I walked up that drive I became convinced that if I were to look up at that gable on the roof I would see an old woman standing silently in the window, watching me as I made my way to the front door.
Even as a deep dread settled in my stomach, I dismissed the idea as a product of my over active imagination, and refused to look up and feed into it. I'd get this over with and get back to the theatre. I took the stairs, fishing for the keys. My hand shook a little as I unlocked the door and felt blindly inside for the light switch.
The light settled into what would have been a parlor back when the place was built. Old ladies would have gathered there in the afternoons to drink tea and play bridge, but now it was crowded with dress forms and piles of fabric. Racks of hats and lines of shoes. Directly ahead of me was a narrow corridor that led back to what would have been the kitchen, but was now the room where they dyed fabrics. Beyond that lay the laundry room.
To my right a large mahogany staircase wound up into the darkness of the second floor and, beyond that, to the attic. I stood there for a moment looking at. The heavily polished wood shone. The bannister curved like a collarbone, graceful and smooth.What would happen if I followed it up, I wondered. Part of me wanted to, felt drawn to it and whatever I'd find at the top.
I pushed that aside and made my way through the debris in the parlor and into the corridor. It was cramped inside, not much wider than my shoulders and on either wall were corkboards covered with a forest of index cards, sketches and scraps of fabric, each one secured at the top with a pushpin.
I reached into the kitchen, fumbling until I hit the light switch. There was nothing inside but an old table covered in spatters of paint and dye. Piles of fabric. Two windows sat above the stained sink, closed and painted shut. I crossed the kitchen in two big steps and made it to the laundry room. I didn't even bother to turn on the light. I darted in, threw the squat drier open and grabbed the warm pile that lay inside.
As I stepped back into the kitchen something cold brushed against the skin of my arm.
I stopped dead in my tracks. The house was quiet. Still. My skin prickled. I felt it again, like a cold wind blowing from the laundry room out towards the parlor. I turned and looked up. There were two windows, both high up on the wall of the laundry room. Each one was shut tight and locked. There was no door. No gap in the wall or crack in the ceiling.
Was I imaging it? Where was this coming from?
The wind blew again, lightly, and then I had it. I had left the front door open and it was simply drawing air out of the house, creating what seemed to be wind. I nearly laughed at myself, relieved, and then turned to go, fixing my eyes through the corridor and on to the front door.
It was closed. There was a big window just to the right of it and it too was closed tight. Pinpricks of fear tingled along my arms and back.
The wind kicked up again, stronger this time, crashing into my back and over my shoulders.Who cared where it was coming from? I just wanted out. I blundered past the Ritt stained fabrics and into the corridor. As I did a sound, like playing cards being shuffled, was at my back. It grew louder, like it was gaining on me. I was halfway through the corridor when the it overtook me and I watched, horrified, as the loose corners of those hundreds of scraps of paper rose in the wind and began slapping fitfully against the corkboard. Convulsing. For a split second I saw them not as notecards but as a flock of birds pinned to the walls, all of them thrashing their bloody wings, desperate to escape.
The wind was howling through the whole house now. Beyond the front door were streetlights, headlights, the lights of the school. All I had to do was make it through that corridor and this whole stupid thing would be over. I would be backstage again, surrounded in tile and linoleum and people.
But I had become convinced that I'd make it through the corridor, but just as I stepped into the parlor I'd see the old woman from the attic descending that mahogany staircase just out of the corner of my eye, moving slow and dreamy, but in the twisted physical logic of dreams, still fast enough that she would catch me at the bottom before I could escape.
I surged forward and my hand found the doorknob. I threw the door open and stumbled down the stairs and along the driveway to the van. The black rectangles of the house's windows rushed past out of the corner of my eye. I had to fight the desire to turn and look. It was like I was standing at the edge of cliff and there was a tiny part of me that wanted to lean forward just a hair too much, that wondered what it would be like to go tumbling down into the darkness and never come back.
I don't remember getting into the van or starting it up. I just remember pulling out of the driveway and onto the road, heading back to the lights of the campus and that theater full of people, all of them dancing on the tips of their toes as they prepared to throw themselves as one into the stage lights.
I thought of them and I thought of how I would go to bed that night, and likely move through the entirety of the next day, without saying a word about what had happened to anyone. After all, who would I say it to? I was surrounded by people, but I had managed to make myself as fleeting and transparent in their eyes as a sudden breath of wind. A ghost.
So that's my story. 100% true! How about you guys? I know one or two of you must have a good ghost story to share. Let's hear 'em in the comments! Happy Halloween!
The Long Walk Home
Coming from Scholastic, Fall 2011
Find me at jeff-hirsch.com and @jeff_hirsch