Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Sneezening

Free Halloween story time at Squidcakes! Check it out if you dare! 

(The picture is me dressed as a Benadryl capsule for Halloween. At this point in my life, my body composition is about 60% Benadryl, 30% fat and 10% hair.) Enjoy!

The Sneezening

In my youth I enjoyed trick-or-treating like all the other kids in my neighborhood. We went everywhere we could and tried to see how much candy we could scoop up in a single night. Of course, like most of these stories there was the ever-popular abandoned house that we would dare each other to enter, especially on an extra spooky night like Halloween. We thought that it probably wasn’t haunted, but it certainly looked like it and therefore it piqued our interest.

Our neighborhood was originally built on land that belonged to a farm about 60 years ago. Then, as the town grew, the corn fields were developed and affordable middle class dwellings were built upon it. However, after the planning and zoning was complete a few acres survived untouched and unsold on the edge of our community along with the original farm house. Older generations of the family that owned the place lived there for a time but as they had passed on, none of their children or grandchildren had returned to live there and the empty house had eventually fallen into ruin.

When my friends and I turned 13 years old, we found ourselves in that awkward age where although we still liked trick-or-treating, we were old enough to seek something more mature for thrills. Of course, we were still a few years away from having our driver’s licenses, so we had to stay around our neighborhood to search for activities. The subject of the abandoned farm house came up again.

As we finished our trick-or-treating that evening, my two friends Ronnie, Will and I started walking towards the old farmland and house and dared each other again to enter the house. Ronnie, who munched on a mini candy bar and was dressed like a flesh eating zombie with tattered clothes and a painted face began telling stories while he walked along that he swore he had heard about the place. He said that a girl back in the seventies was found dead there and the murder was still unsolved. And that If you took a mirror with you and said her name three times you would see her appear in the mirror exactly as she looked at the moment of her grisly death.

“That was from a movie that was on TV last week.” I scoffed after he was finished telling the story.

He denied it at first, but finally admitted that was where he had gotten the story.

“We could still try saying her name. Movies are sometimes based on true stories.” He suggested.

But it didn’t matter because he had a hard time remembering her name. He thought it might have been Jill but he wasn’t sure.

Next, Will tried telling a story of his own. By then we had reached the part of the road that was seldom used by anyone and was very overgrown. The trees were thick on either side and we felt that anything could have been lurking in the shadows, the surrounding landscape was helping set the mood. He was dressed in a skeleton costume. His face was painted black and white resembling a skull.

According to Will, his Uncle claimed that the old farmhouse and the land was once used by a family of Satan worshipers. He said they would lure unsuspecting people (usually sexy women) to work on the farm and when the time was right they would ritually sacrifice them to the dark one. Somehow, (Will was never really sure about this part of the story) their evil was discovered and stopped by the sheriff and the townspeople. The part of the tale we were supposed to heed was that a demon still stalked the grounds waiting for another victim to be offered up to his master.

Will wasn’t as good at storytelling as Ronnie and it was obvious he was much more interested in talking about the virtually naked, sexy laborers than a fearsome demon so the story wasn’t even remotely scary to us. But when an owl hooted, I was startled nevertheless. When Will saw me jump at the noise he hastily added that there was a bloody pentagram or something painted in one of the bedrooms. He should have known that it wasn’t his story that had startled me, so I laughed at this, dug into my plastic pumpkin for a butterscotch candy and popped it in my mouth. I wondered if maybe a demon would settle for some hard candy or chocolate instead of my immortal soul, but I doubted it. We continued to walk and chat and tried to scare each other some more when at last we came to the house.

The truth of the matter was, it was just an old run down house nobody used anymore. No monsters lived there, no ritual sacrifice took place there, nothing. The only thing I had ever truly heard about it was the occasional use of the word “eyesore” to describe it. We had to invent something to make it fun, because it was all we had.

The moon was almost full and its light was very bright. Blue moonlight illuminated the surrounding yard and made it easy for us to pick our way towards the house even though the grass and weeds were pretty tall. We were quiet and only talked in hushed whispers as we got closer to the house. We stopped a few yards away from the front porch and stared at the dwelling waiting expectantly for something to happen. My friends and I had walked and played in these overgrown fields over the years but only during the daytime and we never entered the house. I stayed away from this area at night, mainly because I was worried there might be animals that were driven mad with rabies in the area and I wanted to be able to see them before they could attack and bite me. I had heard that the cure for that illness was six shots in the stomach. In a way, that was more scary to me than a ghost.

Maybe because the stories we were telling during the walk creeped me out more than I'd thought, but something about standing in front of the house that night really unnerved me and I could tell it had affected my friends as well. As we looked at it, the decrepit house stood there dark and shabby, in the moonlight. The moon's shadows accentuated the windows and the door and made them seem darker and more foreboding. It was almost like the face of a dead man. Pale, with rotted out eyes and a mouth stuck open while worms ate it’s tongue. Of course, the “worms” were just decades of old peeling paint but that was the impression I got.

Ronnie pushed Will towards the house and Will balked. He tried to get behind Ronnie or me and push one of us towards the place. He was unsuccessful in his attempt since the element of surprise was blown. We jostled about and whispered dares but still none of us made a move towards the front steps.

Finally, I decided that I was the bravest one there and I would prove it, by entering the house. They didn’t believe that I would actually do it as I was not generally known as a risk taker, but they were completely surprised and quiet as I made my way down the walk and up to the creaky porch. For a moment my fears shifted from the paranormal to what happens when you fall through rotten wood, but when the porch supported me, my brain shifted back to thrill seeking.

I looked back at my two friends who were huddled in the yard looking at me nervously. I tried to play it cool and gave them a thumbs up signal when I reached the front door. The door was a ruin although it was still attached to the house. At one time it was boarded up but someone had removed the wood and piled it carelessly on the porch. There was no need to knock so I reached out to grip the doorknob and noticed that my hands were shaking. I tried not to think about what horrors I might see as I gripped the weathered metal and turned it. Surprisingly it turned with only a small protest and I was able to open the door.

The interior was of course, dark, but you could still see a thick layer of dust that had settled throughout the place. The moonlight was seeping through the windows and illuminated the room a little but it wasn’t exactly a cheerful light. Also, there was a dreadful musty smell of old wood and moisture. Dark stains were on the walls and floors and looked to be random. It didn’t take much effort of thought on my part to imagine that it was in those places murdered victims had slumped to the floor or against the walls, their blood leaking out of hideous wounds, leaving permanent stains.
There were no furnishings inside except for an worn, old wooden chair standing in one corner of the room.

I pulled out my secret weapon against all of the dreadful things that lurked in the shadows and flicked it on. My little flashlight was compact but bright enough as I cast the beam about the interior and took stock of my surroundings.

I stood on the rickety porch and heard my friends behind me starting to snicker. I could tell that they were convinced that I would lose my nerve. I was irritated that they were laughing at me when they didn’t even have enough courage to join me on the porch. My anger helped me decide what to do next as I looked back at them one more time to make sure they were watching and took a step over the threshold.

When I entered the house I stood in the main room. A living area where the family would gather after the day’s activities were done. A dining room and kitchen were off to the right and a hall leading to bedrooms and bathrooms went off into an awful darkness opposite to where I was standing.

I did not move more than a few feet into the house. I wasn’t really sure what to do now. I had shown my friends that I was braver than them, so what else was there to do? If I explored the house would that be tempting fate? I doubted that evil actually lurked in those remote rooms but I still didn’t really want to explore them.

I ran the beam of my flashlight down the hall and moved it from left to right inspecting the damage to the walls whenever it was illuminated by the beam. On one pass, I thought I saw a dark shape move quickly out of my view. It seemed like a small shadow moved to the right and blended into another dark shadow and disappeared. I was startled and my first thought was, “Oh God, it's an animal probably ripe with rabies!” but that was only for a second until my rational mind decided to get a closer look. I took a few steps towards it and was in the middle of the living room when my flashlight went out.

I inspected the light and tapped it onto my palm to try to re-seat the batteries. It still didn’t come back on, so I put it in my pocket and looked around the now even darker room. The moonlight still kept the environment from being pitch black, but it was of course, much more creepy. I was suddenly concerned that a wild rabid rat would choose that moment to run up my pant leg so I desperately tried to make out any moving shapes in the dark hall.

Weirdly, I thought I saw a faint blue glow coming from somewhere down the hall. At first I thought it was more moonlight coming in through one of the bedroom windows but as I stared at it I realized that it was moving! The light was bobbing up and down like someone was in one of the bedrooms with a dim flashlight and they were walking towards me.

Standing there frightened, I heard nothing. But from what I could see, the dim blue light was getting brighter as “whatever it was” was coming down the hall. Goosebumps formed on my arms and I took a step backwards towards the front door where I had entered.

A brief thought flashed through my mind - I decided that my friends were playing a prank on me and had gone around the side of the house and entered through one of the broken windows. I was relieved until I turned around to leave. I could see both of them standing in the yard waiting for me.

As my mind sorted out their presence in the front yard and that something behind me was coming down the hall, I started to panic. I managed to take one more step towards freedom when I heard a moaning sound from behind me! It started low and got louder quickly.

The disembodied sound rang out. “AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH” And it reverberated off of the walls. I started to flee and almost got to the open front door when the noise ended in a loud eruption of volume. “CHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

In a flash, unearthly blue light filled the room and almost blinded me, but the last thing I saw before that was the terrified faces of my friends as the front door slammed shut with a “BANG!”. I was trapped. I screamed as I hit the door and tried to open it. I yanked on the doorknob but the door wouldn’t budge. “Guys?” I yelled. “Guys, Help!” I thought I heard them say something and then there were no more sounds outside.

Behind me however, I heard a “sniff”. I froze and I realized that the blue light although not as bright as before but still brighter than the moonlight was lighting up the room. I didn’t want to turn around. I really didn’t want to know what was there. I could feel a presence behind me and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Fear lived in the pit of my stomach and I stood there like a statue trying to get enough nerve to face the thing behind me that had trapped me inside the house. I heard a throat clear with a wet cough.

“Um. Excuse me.” said a voice behind me and I jumped, startled. It was only a slight relief to hear it coming from the other side of the room instead of right by my ear.

I still didn’t turn around but in a quiet and squeaky mouse-like voice answered it. “Yes?”

“Can I help you with something?” asked the voice.

My mind started to function a bit and I said, “You could open the door. I want to leave.” and then I added, “please.”

I heard another sniff, then a snort and then another throat clearing cough. After it was done the voice answered me. “Well, I suppose I could, but then that wouldn’t be really very scary.” Then I heard a sniff and then a loud sneeze. “AAAAACHOOOOOOOOO!”

I jumped at the loud expulsion of air and heard the voice say, “I’m really very sorry about that, I hope you can forgive me. This always gets in the way of a proper haunting.”

“What does?” I asked.

“These ghastly allergies. I’ve had them… well, almost forever.” That statement was followed by a wet sounding sniff.

My curiosity got the better of my fear and I let go of the doorknob and turned around to take a look at this ghost.

The figure of a well dressed man floated above the floor and emanated the blue light. He currently was fervently dabbing at this nose with a linen hanky and didn’t notice at first that I had turned around and was looking at him. When he caught my eye, he immediately stopped wiping at his nose with the cloth and threw up both of this arms above his head with his hands in the shape of claws in what I thought was suppose to be a scary movement. “BOO!” He said in a louder voice and then tried to add. “I’m a gho…..” but that was all he could get out before he started coughing uncontrollably.

He had his handkerchief up to his mouth as he coughed and at one point during the fit he held up one finger to indicate to me that it would probably only be about a minute more of the coughing and that I should be patient. When he was done, he managed to say. “Oh, I am so tired of this.” He stared at me for a bit and then said. “You’re not really scared now, are you?”

“No.” I said. “I’m afraid not.” and I wasn’t lying. Now I was just curious.

He sighed. “No, I wouldn’t imagine I would be either.” and I watched him stifle a another sneeze. Then he snorted.

His clothes looked to be from the 1920’s, give or take a decade. He didn’t appear to be a typical farmer, since he was well dressed and well groomed. His suit fit him nicely and he had all the fine accouterments to go with it. A gleaming watch chain at his waist, went well with the tie, vest and jacket. His hair would have been dark if it hadn’t been made of blue light and it was slicked back except for a single strand that fell over the side of his face. He kept having to move it back into place whenever he sneezed. His face was bedraggled and he looked quite ill. Bags had formed under his puffy bloodshot eyes and his nose looked raw from the constant cleaning.

As I was sizing him up, apparently he had been doing the same to me. “What are you supposed to be then?” He asked me. I was confused at the question but then I looked down at my shabby clothes and remembered that I was in a costume.

“Oh, it’s Halloween.” I answered to explain my appearance.

“I know it’s Halloween, all ghosts do. I meant, what are you dressed as?”

“I’m a Hobo.” I replied. It was an easy costume to do and didn’t require much thought. You just ripped up some hand-me-downs, painted on a five o’clock shadow and a reddened nose and “presto” you were a vagabond.

The ghost looked down his running nose at me. “I see.” He said. You dressed up like a homeless man with a drinking problem. Very scary.”

Suddenly self conscious I replied defensively. “Well, you’re not that scary looking yourself, you know? You’re too well dressed for one thing.” In response he sneezed loudly again into his handkerchief and looked at me with watery eyes. I continued. “I don’t see why you tried to haunt tonight if you're feeling that bad. Shouldn’t you have stayed home sick?”

“You are in my home young man, in case you need reminding.” Then he looked around thoughtfully. “Well, it isn’t really my place, I just live here now because I died here. When I was alive I wouldn’t have been caught dead living in a place like this.” He glanced around and took in his environment “My advice to you is never say “never”, because well, here I am.” he sighed, which caused his nose to be irritated again. He snorted. “Also, it’s Halloween. No ghost gets the night off.

“Oh?” I said. “I didn’t realize being a ghost was so structured. I thought apparitions just floated around moaning.”

“And clanking chains, too? Is that what you were going to say? Not all of us are lucky enough to have chains lying around. You seem to believe in stereotypes. Never judge a book by it’s cover.” He wiped his nose again, sniffed and continued. “Haunting as a ghost is a lot more involved. You have to haunt a certain amount of people before you get to move on. There’s a quota you have to meet.”

“What’s the required amount of people?” I asked.

“I don’t know. They don’t tell you that. You only know you’re finished when they come and fetch you. I’m not even sure how I know that, just that I do.”

I considered this. “It seems like you could haunt a shopping mall and get finished faster.”

“I wish. But you have to die in the place you haunt, you know, and most people don’t expect to become a ghost. You can’t just time your death to end up in a crowded neighborhood market. Also, you have to haunt the right kind of people.”

“What are the right kind of people?” I asked.

“Well, for starters, you can’t go after a group of people you don’t like personally. For example, if you are a racist you can just haunt black people. In your case, you can’t just haunt the homeless.”

“I don’t have a problem with homeless people!” I said indignantly. “I’m just dressed like a hobo for Halloween.”

“Of course, you’re right.” He said, in a tone that suggested he thought otherwise. I let it go. I looked around the room nonchalantly trying to think of something to say to break the awkward silence. Luckily he did it for me.

“This house is in a horrible location. Nobody really comes out here very much and I think it’s going to take me forever to finish my time here. I don’t understand why either. It’s creepy looking isn’t it?” He said.

“Yes. Very.” I replied.

“You kids wanted to explore it. Am I correct?”

“Yes. That’s correct.” I agreed.

He looked down thoughtfully and blew his nose. “Then it must be the location, I’m sure of it. That means it becomes a question of proper marketing.”

Confused at what he was talking about I finally asked. “How did you die?” He looked at me with his bloodshot eyes and a funny expression. My question had interrupted his train of thought and he had to suddenly think about his end again. I was worried I had offended him and quickly added. “Since you are on a farm you could chase people with a pitchfork or something.”

“Brilliant my boy!” That might work. The visitors here would have to know that they're in for a wild ride when they see something like that!” The blue light flickered but nothing else happened.

I smiled as kids do when they please an adult and I pressed on. “So how did you die? Were you murdered and now you seek your killer or a lost love?” That seemed reasonable to me, my life experience consisted of a lot of stories from books and movies up to that point.

“Um no.” He said and his demeanor quickly became pessimistic again. “Oh, who am I kidding? My death isn’t really all that glamorous nor can I play a maniac. My name is George Hagglethorn. I came to this farm when I was alive to sell my wares. I was a salesman of household goods. Pots, pans, tools… you name it. I sold things that they might not have carried in the general stores and I was much more convenient. If I didn’t have it, I could get it and deliver it. Rural areas in this state were my territory. I enjoyed my job, but I was new at it. What I didn’t know was that during harvest season it would aggravate my allergies terribly. The dust in the air on the year of my death was so bad and did such a number on me that during a sales call to this very domicile I sneezed my self to death. I think my head exploded. I don’t really know for sure. All I remember is experiencing a fit of some very strong sneezing and then a flash of light and the next thing I knew, I was floating around this house watching them take my body away.

No one saw me for years and it was only until recently that I figured out how to be seen, and move objects around and the like. However, it was too late. Because when I finally mastered my ghosting skills the house was abandoned.”

“So nobody helped you learn how to become a proper ghost?” I asked.

“No! No one helps you, you have to figure it out for yourself and there isn’t even a manual, just some vague rules that you have to discover within yourself. At least when I sold an item I took the time to explain to the customer how the product worked. I didn’t just fling it at them and tell them to figure out how a particular gadget works by exploring their inner self.” He looked indignant and dabbed at this nose. His eyes looked extra watery and puffy.

“You’re right,” I said. “That’s not a very scary story.”

“I know.” he said and looked dejected. Then he mimicked a person telling a ghost story. “Watch out children! Don’t go to the haunted house, you might get some snot on you!” He kicked at the lone chair at the room wheezing loudly.

I felt really sorry for the ghost but I also really needed to leave. My friends would be worried and eventually my family. I stretched my arms out to emphasize that it was getting late and said. “Well, it’s been nice chatting with you, but I really need to be going.” I gathered up my candy bucket that I had dropped in my failed escape and started for the door.

The ghost looked up and came out of his reverie. “Oh? Yes. Yes. I’m sorry that I’ve kept you from the night's festivities with my troubles. It’s been nice meeting you Master…” He trailed off waiting for me to finish the sentence.

“Robert” I replied. “But my friends call me Bobbie.”

“It’s been nice meeting you, Master Bobbie.” and the front door opened.

As I was walking out the door, I was thinking about what I was going to tell my friends about what had happened. That I had actually talked to a real live ghost! They would ask me how scary it was and I would have to answer “ it wasn’t”. I could tell them that he had suffered from post nasal drip, which when you think about it isn’t very frightening at all. I realized then that they wouldn’t believe me because it didn’t fit the usual template that a ghost story was supposed to follow. I decided that it would be better if I enhanced it by adding in some frightening parts because the real truth was... kind of goofy. I stopped on the threshold and turned around.

“Mr. Hagglethorn?” I said to the ghost who was starting to fade away.

“Yes, young man?”

“I think I have an idea.” I said.

When I rejoined my friends I told them an elaborate story. It had blood dripping down the walls, demonic shadows and the stereotypical chain clinking lost souls. I barely escaped with my life. They believed me of course, as they had witnessed the blue light and the slamming door and so they helped me spread the narrative. A good ghost story grows and spreads with each telling year after year and eventually tales of “Gorey George” the ghost that haunts the house in the old corn field were famous in our town.

Ghost hunters, testing their mettle would explore the house and come back telling of their frightening experiences. I don’t know if Mr. Hagglethorn ever got the hang of haunting but it doesn’t really matter. Legends have a life of their own and George didn't even need to show up after a while. People’s imaginations did all the work for him in a dark creepy house, filling them with ghastly horrors and they came away from the experience as believers.

Eventually the house was demolished by a storm, a developer or something else. I don't even really remember now. I never went back there after that night, but I always hoped that George had met his quota and had been able to move on. However, I can't be that sure that he did. Nowadays, I hear the local kids tell a story, that if you go to the old overgrown corn fields at night, when the blue lunar light dances amongst the trees, some say you can hear someone in the distance sneezing.

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