Head warning, this story is a lot longer than my regular posts... sorry, I’m long and windy today.
The Man in Black
The glare from the streetlights skittered across his tobacco misted windshield, as Scott veered past the quiet parked cars and careened to a stop at the usual place, three houses from my mom’s. There were two gnarled old trees between us and the front window, and even with the crisp fall wind doing its damage on the leaves, they were still a great cover for long goodnight gropings.
I watched his hands trail across the steering wheel, putting the car in park and moving over to my left knee as if in one fluid motion... he couldn’t dance worth hell, but he was graceful as anything when his mind was on things best reserved for places not near where my parents actually lived. I could feel the half smirk lifting the corner of my mouth as I looked up at him, intent on telling him to stop without really meaning it, when it caught me out of the corner of my eye.
Right there in the small window behind the driver’s side seat, the same man I’d been seeing for days stood watching. My chest tightened and I jumped full around, my jean’s pocket snagging on the warn leather upholstery as I backed up against the passenger door. There was no one there. No man. No shadow. No nothing. I’d seen him at the gas station the night before, standing just behind the pump as I got out of my car. When I turned to look at him, there was no one there. The same thing happened days before, walking to the mailbox right down the block.
I turned my attention back to Scott, trying to regain my breath and act like nothing had happened, except it was too late.
“What?!!!” he shouted, whipping his head around and then glaring back at me, a vivid panic twisting his cheeks.
That little gleam in his eye that I liked to think was from me, but just as likely had to do with the amount of drinking we’d been doing that night, well, that playful look was gone. Instead, his light brown eyes darted back and forth before settling on mine, and his hand was less a caress than a vice grip on my leg before I cracked him with my knuckles.
“Nothing,” I said, shrugging my shoulders and trying to resurrect that half smile thing that usually worked so well.
“Seriously, what? What did you see?” he turned back to look behind him again before focusing on me in earnest. “What? It wasn’t nothing, what did you see?”
I was going to try arguing with him, but his voice was a little too manic and I didn’t think he’d believe me. Then again, I really didn’t want to tell him I’d been seeing some shadow man with a fedora hat who looked like he came straight out of an old forties movie.
“Nothing... really,” I huffed a bit to accentuate my frustration but as none of my usual tricks seemed to be working, I settled on the truth... or an approximation of it, anyway.
“I thought I saw someone... it wasn’t anything, probably a leaf floating past or something,” I explained, waving my hand toward the back of the car, “See? Nothing there.”
He shook his head, with his lips all puckered up as if he’d just sucked down a fistful of lemon drops. This was going nowhere. The mood was gone anyway and I had a paper due in the next day.
Just as I was about to say goodnight, he stopped me with one, quiet question. “Was he wearing a gangster hat that covered his face?”
I didn’t have to answer, couldn’t have even if I wanted to. My face was confirmation enough. I didn’t even know my mouth was hanging open until I realized my tongue was so dry it was painful. Scott turned the key in the ignition and lit out of the parking space without even checking his side view mirror.
We wound up at a little coffee shop some blocks away from my house; Scott hadn’t said a word the entire drive there, even though I’d been peppering him with cuss words and indignant epitaphs the whole way.
“What are we doing here?” By this point I half-expected him not to answer even that simple question.
He grabbed a notebook from the back seat and headed for the restaurant door, saying, “Come on, I’ve got to show you something.”
By the time our waitress came back with our coffee, I was halfway through the second page of his story, fidgeting with the ragged edge of the loose leaf paper and trying to make his chicken scratch make sense. Scott’s story described my ghostie to a tee, and I knew I didn’t tell him about it.
“So wait,” I started, grabbing a handful of sugar packets and dumping them in my coffee, “is this fiction? What is this?”
“Yes and no...” He drummed his hand on the table and leaned forward in the booth, “I’m writing it as fiction, but the man in black is the real deal.”
“Okay...” I said, “so what, it’s like a ghost or something?”
He sat there, with this smug look on his face, like he knew some great life truth or something, but as near as I could tell, he was just trying to freak me out... except, I’d seen the guy and there was no way for him to know what I was seeing.
“Okay, what do you mean, ‘no’?”
“I mean I don’t think it’s a ghost. I don’t think it lived before... just read the rest of the story.”
I slammed the notebook shut and leaned back in the booth with my arms crossed. The story was, first of all about his ex-girlfriend, which was annoying enough. Second, I didn’t want to sit in front of him reading thirty pages of writing when he could just tell me what the hell he was talking about.
His eyebrows shot up and then he just shook his head. “Okay, basically, he’s this thing that’s been hanging around me for two years.”
“Okay...” I started, but the waitress was coming near our table and I didn’t want a perfect stranger to know we were both crazy. After she checked our coffees and moved on, I continued, “so far I got that you guys were playing with a Ouija board and this thing came through.”
“He didn’t just come through; he threw the stupid pointer thing into my wall!”
He was yelling so loud, I leapt halfway across the table to put my hands over his mouth to shut him up. And two truck drivers sitting at the counter were giggling. Have you ever seen a truck driver giggle, it’s actually not that pretty. Seriously, two big burley guys in flannel shirts and grungy hats, chirping like little school girls in my general direction... that’s uncomfortable.
“Shuuuuush... fine, so what’s the big deal, just have your house exorcised or something.”
“It’s not attached to the house. It’s attached to people. Everyone who was there that night has seen him since then, and none of them have been able to make him go away.”
What the hell did I get into?
“Wait – I wasn’t there.” I could feel the Cheshire cat grin, ha, ha... I felt like a little kid who got to glue just before the guy who was it tagged me...
“Yeah,” he said, fidgeting with his spoon, “here’s the thing, since I’ve been writing the story about it, he’s been acting up, and I think... maybe... ‘cause I’m around you so much...”
“Oh, nice... so what, you gifted me your psychic stalker?”
“Well, not on purpose.”
He looked so nervous, checking out the windows and looking everywhere but at me, I almost felt sorry for him. And I still figured it was probably more imagination than anything. By the time he dropped me off at home, I knew that the thing had been hiding his pens (more likely he misplaced them) and futzing with his computer (but he wasn’t that techie savvy to begin with). And I still didn’t see any reason to believe that if there was something there, it wasn’t just a run of the mill ghost.
I continued to see the shadowy figure in odd places, always when I was relatively alone. When I was with another person, they were never looking when it happened. A few weeks later, it started doing a bit more than just popping into my peripheral vision and disappearing. One morning, I was sitting in my kitchen after everyone else had left for work when all of the sudden the dog started barking. She was an older dog and usually only barked at the doorbell, so I thought maybe someone was coming to the door. But then her barking got louder and quicker, and by the time I got to the doorway of the kitchen, where I had I good view of the living room, she was in a full fledged fury. My mild mannered mutt was sitting bone straight in the middle of the couch, staring up at the ceiling, barking and crying at the same time. I stood there, confused for a second, until I noticed what she was looking at. There was a large cloud, it looked almost like smoke, but it was more solid and all in one spot, right up near the ceiling by the front hall.
I grabbed my keys and ran out the back, no shoes and still wearing my pajama bottoms. I’m not proud of it, but I left my poor dog there. In my defense, she was fine when I got back home.
Things quieted down a bit after that, but I was so on edge that any little thing made me skittish. Real people weren’t nearly as frightening as the things I imagined lurking around the corners.
Scott would occasionally ask if I’d seen it again, and I always lied. I didn’t want to freak him out any more than he already was, and I really thought all of his thinking about it was feeding the problem. He was convinced that the thing was trying to stop him from writing his story... Frankly, if it was me, I’d just chuck the damn story.
I was thinking that exactly, that I should convince him to throw out the story and not write it, on the last night I had contact with the man in black. We had a long weekend and I thought I’d turn in early on Sunday night because I hadn’t been getting much sleep at all in the previous weeks. Laying in the dark in my room, I got that feeling, like someone else was there.
A normal person might turn on the lights, but I froze, pulling the covers all the way up as if that would help. If anything, it just made it harder for me to move. Then there was a sound, a scratching sound, almost metallic but not quite, and it seemed to be right in my ear. I jumped up and turned on the light, half expecting that there’d be nothing there. Except there was.
One of those mylar balloons, you know, the helium ones with the pictures on one side – this one had hearts and flowers. It was bopping up and down near the ceiling and I breathed a sigh... until I realized the window was shut. There was no draft in the room. Why was it moving?
Then it raced all the way across the ceiling and stopped at the opposite wall.
“Huh... well, that’s not that scary... really.” I said it out loud, I think to convince myself, except I might have accidentally cheesed off the man in black or ghost or whatever, because just as I stopped talking, one, thick, hardcover book came all the way off of the book shelf and dropped with a bang on my desktop. The light from my overhead fixture shown off the spine, making the title wink and dance. The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul... nice choice.
Fine, that was scary... I wasn’t brave enough to say it out loud, though. I cracked my door open a bit, shut the light, and got back in bed, because there was no way I was going to sleep on the couch... again.
My eyes were closed for barely a minute, when I heard a low rumble coming from my closet. I looked in the direction of the closet door, which was open, and couldn’t see anything, but it sounded like something was knocking everything around, as if someone was having a fit in the closet. I could hear the hangers screeching against each other and things thumping around. I turned on the lights and, silence. Nothing looked moved at all, and the noise stopped. I shut the lights and it started right up, louder and more ferocious. This time when I turned on the lights, it didn’t stop. The noise grew louder and more intense, but nothing was moving.
I shut the light off and did the only thing I could think of. My grandmother once told me that to get rid of a curse, you have to surround yourself with a white light, pray to God, and ask that it be ‘sent back from whence it came’. I made the sign of the cross, imagining bright light like a halo all around, and said the Our Father, all the while, thinking, ‘Send it back from whence it came’. I said the Our Father a second time. By the third time, my mind was screaming, pleading, whining, “Send it back from whence it came, send it back from whence it came!” The minute I said, “Amen” the noise stopped. I added a Glory Be and Oh My Jesus and ended with a sign of the cross. Then I turned the light back on.
The room was completely quiet and that feeling, like there was someone there, was gone completely. The glow of numbers on my digital alarm registered 1:02 am. I walked over and closed my closet door and for the first time, took a good look at the poster I had hanging there. It was from the Art Institute of Chicago, a neon outline of the character from Dick Tracey – a shadowy man wearing a fedora. I tore it off the wall and threw it in the garbage. And when I fell into bed, it was the deepest most dreamless sleep I can ever remember.
The next day bloomed bright and sunny for October, and I was in the most fabulous mood. It was like walking out of smog into the most perfect summer day. Scott called during his break at work, like he usually did, and we made plans for later that night, but he sounded funny.
“What’s wrong with you, you sound miserable?” I asked.
“Nothing, I didn’t really sleep good last night... something started banging around in my closet at like one in the morning.”