Haunting the Haunter (He Wrote, Week 1)

by Dave Smith

When people used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always told them I wanted to be a mountain lion.

I was serious, but they always laughed.

It was discouraging.

Of course, now I know that was all childish foolishness. I never became a mountain lion.

But now. These days, when people ask me what I do, now that I’ve grown up, I tell them I’m a ghost haunter. Yes, that’s right, I said haunter, not hunter.

I’m just as serious, but they still laugh.

*****

Now, I didn’t always believe in ghosts. I used to think they were stupid fairy tales and the people who believed in them were drunk or high or something. But about seven years ago, right around the time I turned twelve, something happened that changed me forever.

I woke up, around two on a Saturday morning, to my grandmother sitting in a rocking chair by my bed with a book in her lap. Gram wasn’t supposed to be in town. She and Poppy left for the beach the day before, so I was surprised to see her, especially at that hour.

So, I asked her why she was there, in as coherent a way as I could muster at three AM.

Gram just said “Shhh … let me finish this story for you, DeDe.”

DeDe was her pet name for me. My real name’s Deanne.

I didn’t think much more of it. After all, I was having a story read to me and it was a little thing she and I had shared since as far back as I could remember. I always loved the way her voice sounded, mimicking different characters and effects. I closed my eyes and listened, imagining the mysterious land and what I’d say to the characters if they were real. Soon, I fell back to sleep.

I slept in that morning. Must’ve been around nine when I got up. I could smell breakfast being made. Then I remembered my encounter from the night and turned to look at the chair. Gram had folded her blanket – her legs always got cold – laid it on the seat and laid the book on that.

I scrambled down the stairs, nearly falling, to have a surprise breakfast with her and Poppy.

But they weren’t there.

“Mom, where’s Gram and Poppy?” I asked.

“They should be enjoying coffee on the beach by now.”

“How did they get there so fast? I just saw Gram last night.”

“What? No, dear, they left yesterday morning. You waved goodbye with me. They’ve had plenty of time,” mom said.

“No. No, Gram read me a story last night,” I insisted.

I grabbed mom’s hand and took her upstairs to show her the blanket and book laid on the chair. She stood there, puzzled, her right eyebrow crinkled up as she tried to make sense of what she saw.

“Strange. I know your Gram took that blanket with her. I laid it on her lap as I hugged her goodbye,” she said.

Poppy could boil a pond in the middle of January. His car always had the air conditioning on full blast. Gram always turned the dial up to get more comfortable, but then Poppy turned it right back down. He finally had the dials removed, permanently fixing the A/C to always on. Gram resorted to taking a blanket with her.

This blanket.

We stood there for what seemed like twenty, thirty minutes. It probably wasn’t that long, but it felt like it. I was getting a little scared and mom was confused. We both jumped when the doorbell rang.

Mom answered the door, me right behind her. I didn’t want to be left alone.

There were two police officers standing on our doorstep, one really tall and the other really short and stocky. It would’ve been a funny pairing if mom and I weren’t both already freaked out. Police at your house, uninvited, tends to freak you out even more.

“I’m Sergeant Everett and this is Officer Thoms. We’re with the Roland Police Department,” said the tall one. “Are you Audrey Rice?”

Mom’s expression changed from confused to concerned.

“Yes. I’m … I’m Audrey,” she replied.

“Ma’am, Hodge County Sheriff’s Department asked us to make contact. There was an accident last night. We’re very sorry to tell you your father is in the hospital and your mother passed away,” said Sergeant Everett. “The pedestrian bridge they were standing on collapsed and they, with seventy others, fell to the rocky coastline. That’s all we know. Here’s Hodge County’s departmental contact and here’s my card if I can be of any assistance. I’m so very sorry for your loss.”

The rest of that summer was a blur. I remember we went to the beach to be with Poppy and bring him back. I also remember we arranged for Gram’s body to be returned home. Poppy recovered, but just barely. He was left with a lost spouse and a severe limp and was never quite as happy-go-lucky as he had been. It was so sad.

*****

That summer changed me. Remember I said I never believed in ghosts? Well, the death notification was about when I started believing. I couldn’t explain Gram’s visit with me any other way. It was her coming to saying goodbye. I’m as convinced of that today as I was back then. Once I believed, a whole nother world opened up to me.

You see, ghosts are everywhere, but only people who believe, at some gut level, can see or hear them. I know some folks say they don’t believe and then run into a ghost. But at some level, they subconsciously believed before their experience. Those that really, truly don’t believe never experience them.

That’s just the way it works.

Now, as I’m a ghost haunter and there’s not much reference material out there, I had to develop knowledge and set some ground rules by myself. Haunting ghosts serves the same purpose for humans as haunting humans does for ghosts. It is a show of dominance. Territorial marking. Like a dog pissing on a fire plug.

The first thing to realize is not every ghost is like that and needs to be haunted. I sure as hell wouldn’t haunt Gram for reading to me. I hope you wouldn’t either. Most ghosts fall into this category. They’re spending time with loved ones. They should be made to feel welcome because often, once they’ve said their goodbyes or I love yous, they’ll disappear.

Occasionally you get the nasty ones like murderers or old, old ghosts, but they’re usually looking for the same kind of thing … a loved one to see one last time before moving on.

Now, murderers and kidnappers might not have many loved ones. If you can find them, great! But a lot of times any loved ones they had were part of whatever process made them a criminal. You might even find their ghosts sometime.

The old ghosts, like a Civil War soldier or something, just don’t have any living loved ones. Living relatives are different. They usually won’t be a good substitute for a loved one, but it’s worth a try.

Not finding their peeps is why certain ghosts get aggressive.

What if you can’t find that person? I suppose someone could court the ghost and try getting intimate, but ick! If they do, they’d better keep that shit to themselves. Otherwise, people call me, no ghost sexy time required.

Secondly, haunting ghosts isn’t glamorous. It’s pretty basic, really. Some heavy chains, strong lifting, lots of beads, sand, and a willingness to pull allnighters is really all you need. That and coffee. Tons and tons of coffee.

Well, okay, you don’t really need the chains. But they make you sound really cool, especially if you drag them over tile or concrete. Spooky!

It doesn’t mean driving around in a modified hearse, looking like a fool in a khaki flight suit with a nuclear device strapped to your back. I’d like to have children someday. Normal ones, not three-eyed, green-toed, gilled freaks. So no unlicensed nuke is getting near my body intentionally. Unless, of course, the nuke looks like Timothy Olyphant. Then we might reconsider things, especially where I’d strap it.

I’m getting sidetracked.

Where was I?

Oh, yeah …

It also doesn’t mean flagging down some random priest to come pray or exorcise demons or some shit like that. That stuff only works in the movies. Save the crucifixes, holy water and bibles for Sunday school, prison redemptions, and bedtime reading.

Finally, as much as they scream and yell and move furniture, they really can’t do much harm to you. I mean, sure, they could push over the china hutch and you could die from a million cuts by glass and pottery shards, but that’s just not realistic. Ghosts may be annoying, but they’re most definitely harmless by themselves, at least physically.

I’ll recount one of my jobs for you to give you a sense of how these things go. If you ever find yourself face to face with a haunting, give me a call.

*****

I was called to a beautiful old two-story Victorian house that overlooked the college campus in Roland. It’d been converted to three very large apartment suites; basement, main, and second level. For years, former tenants told stories about their times with the ghost who also lived there. His name was Milton and, as far as anyone could tell, he was the son of the original homeowner. Since he was so passive, no one really put much thought into how he died or why he haunted the place.

Milton was mostly friendly, but he did like his peace and quiet. He’d pound on the walls if you disturbed him too much.

This time though – the reason for calling me – Milton was getting pretty aggressive with a young female tenant, Kirsten Moss. She was a student, about my age. She thought Milton was funny at first, but soon his antics started to wear on her.

I began my pre-haunt investigation.

“So, tell me about your first experience with Milton,” I said.

“Well, at first, I came to know him when I visited a party upstairs, after orientation. Before I moved in.”

“How did he act toward you then?”

“Indifferent mostly. He was just knocking on walls, trying to get us to quiet down. Never vocal, never obnoxious,” Kirsten said.

“Did you guys provoke him?”

“No. Well, I didn’t at least. Some of the guys thought it was funny, so they clinked beer bottles together for a minute or two. They got bored and moved on pretty quickly. Everybody else tried to be quieter. As quiet as we could for a party.”

I didn’t think Milton would get so riled up at her just over a party.

“Once you moved in, how did things change?” I asked.

“Well, it started out with knocking if I had my speakers turned up too loud. I started talking to him, saying things like ‘Sorry, Milton. I’ll turn it down.’ Not long after, he would knock the wall while I was in the shower. That kinda creeped me out, but I always told him it wasn’t polite to look at a naked girl he didn’t know without her permission. I never gave him permission,” she explained.

“Does he still knock when you’re showering?”

“No, he stopped the knocking. But the creepiest thing now; he just yanks the curtain open! Started doing that a few weeks ago. I almost had a heart attack the first time it happened. Holy shit! I thought a rapist or something snuck in on me. I never felt comfortable bringing a guy over after that, nevermind showering or being naked in my own apartment. I always feel watched.”

We continued the back-and-forth a few minutes longer. The message was pretty clear. Milton had developed an infatuation with Kirsten, either because she didn’t outright ignore him or because she actively engaged him.

I stopped by the library to dig a little more into the house’s history. That’s always the first step. Turned out it was built by one of the early professors of the college. He had three sons; Theodore, an attorney, Ellison, a professor, and Milton, an elementary school teacher. Milton was the only one to stay in town. By all accounts, the students liked Milton, but he never married.

Curiously, there was a newspaper clipping that mentioned he was charged as a peeping tom. Maggie Rose, another school teacher in town, had turned down his advances, so he stationed himself in a tree outside her window to get a peek at her goods. Long story short, he was caught, charged, and lived a life of embarrassed isolation in this house, pining away for Miss Maggie. Best I could tell, he died in the house, linking to it forever.

I managed to find a photo of the Rose family, in the shade of a massive oak, enjoying watermelon on a lazy summer day. Maggie was a dead ringer for Kirsten. Now it made more sense. Milton thought Kirsten was Maggie and since she was in his home, he thought he had free reign.

Armed with this news, I met Kirsten for coffee.

“Wow! Wow. I’m pretty sure I’m not related to that family, but she could be my twin sister,” said Kirsten. “You’re not gonna suggest I do … umm … anything, you know, with … or for Milton, are you?”

“God, no! But I do have some less invasive things to try.”

“Do I have to tell him I’m not Maggie?”

“No. He probably won’t believe you anyway, at least not right away. You have two options here. First, you can move out. He can’t follow you to another location, but if you just signed a lease, that may be tough. Second, I can work my magic. It’s up to you.,” I said.

“Well, aside from Milton, I really like the place. And I love living this close to campus. I’d like to stay.”

“Then I’ll need your keys and a couple of days. Do you have another place to stay temporarily?”

“No problem. I can stay with my sister for a few days. She lives just across town.”

Breaking leases in this town was more of a pain in the ass than me, so no one ever chose that option.

*****

Ghosts, like teenage boys, really only need a couple of things. But instead of porn or food, you give ghosts a chance to say goodbye or give them so much work to do that they get burnt out and move on. Now, Milton, with his family and Maggie now long dead, couldn’t say goodbye. He had to be haunted out.

There are a couple of methods to haunt a ghost into submission. I didn’t want to jump immediately to the most aggressive method. I start slowly, gently. I always considered it something along the lines of a doctor using the lowest effective dose (or at least recommending it).

“Milton, my name’s Deanne. I’m here for a few days and I’d like to talk,” I said. Trying to establish a relationship was the first step. He’d never been known to be very talkative, but there was always a chance.

No reply.

So I continued to sort of think out loud and ask his opinion on matters. I talked for a few hours about childhood, family, lots about Gram, and finally got around to Maggie.

He knocked loudly.

“She was so pretty, Milton. How did you know her?”

The sofa shifted.

I really didn’t know how to interpret that. I was never all that good at getting symbolism.

“Milton? I don’t understand. Tell me how you knew her.”

He responded by pushing my seat, sliding me backwards to the wall. That, I could interpret. He was telling me to get lost.

Now we were getting somewhere. Time for step two.

I left briefly to rent a moving van. I loaded it with all the furniture and locked it. Milton was officially a pain in the ass to haunt – I hate moving furniture. I figured if I reduce the amount of stuff he can manipulate, the better chance I had of getting him to vocalize something.

That was the plan anyway.

“Milton, it’s Deanne. I’m back. Let’s chat.”

He knocked twice. I took that as an ‘okay’.

“Maggie was very beautiful, Milton. I can see why you watched her.”

No response. That was good.

“But the girl who lives here isn’t Maggie. You’ve been around a long time, Milton. A couple hundred years almost. Maggie isn’t here. She isn’t alive anymore.”

The lights flickered and every faucet in the apartment turned on full blast. He was upset.

So I pulled the photo I found of Maggie with her family and laid it side by side with one of Kirsten and her family.

“Milton, see these? Maggie is a different person from Kirsten. You’re not peeping who you think you are. Do you understand?”

This time things got interesting. The toilet tank lid shot straight into the air and shattered on the bathroom floor, the oven door slammed to the floor, and I could hear dishes rattling in the cabinets.

Mental note: remove dishes and utensils next time.

There was also a loud, violent knocking throughout the apartment. He wasn’t gonna speak, but I was pretty sure of what he’d say if he did.

“Milton, old buddy, you don’t leave me much choice. Kirsten wants you gone. I tried doing it kindly, but you’re being a stubborn jackass. Get ready for some serious shit, my friend!”

It was time for me to escalate another step.

Most people don’t know this, but ghosts are very OCD. Put something loose, with many objects, in their paths, and they’ll count every object there. The trick is, it has to be loose. My favorites are small jewelry beads or sand. Sand in a jar won’t cut it. Throw that shit on the floor, however, and they’ll be occupied for days. Keep doing it for a couple of weeks, and they’ll get burnt out and leave.

Kirsten wasn’t entirely happy with the next step, but she had to get rid of Milton somehow. I enlisted her help to get a couple of large sandbags from the hardware store. We threw loose sand all over the apartment.

And Milton stopped. For about a week. His knocking was weaker, his peeping incidents were less frequent, but he was still present.

So more sand went down. We gave it a week, cleaned it up and promptly put more down so he couldn’t continue counting. Cleaned that up a week later, then had a chat with Milton.

“So, buddy. How goes it?” I asked.

And he spoke!

“No more. Sorry. No more,” replied Milton.

And just like that, we broke him! It was done.

*****

I followed up with Kirsten a month later.

“So, how’ve you been?” I asked.

“Never better. I didn’t realize how much Milton had upset me until he was gone. I hear some of the other tenants complain that it’s no fun without him. They have no idea what he put me through. I’m happy with the peace.”

“Well, keep me posted. I’m pretty sure he’s gone for good. I haven’t had one return yet. But if you hear anything from him, give me a shout. Would you mind giving me a testimonial for my website?”

“Absolutely! Oh, by the way, I overheard my history professor talking about a supposedly haunted room in the library. Sounds like a Civil War soldier. Any interest?”

“Ooooh! Tell me more ….”

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