There Are Other Ghost Stories
Randy and his two sisters were left at his grandparents’ house on a Sunday night when he was nine years old. The house sat in the soft crease of a mountain. It was just out of sight from the highway that cut through the hard base of the Blue Ridge.
“You’ll stay here until we get things figured out,” his father said.
Randy was too sleepy to ask what they were trying to figure out. Marie and Trish were already asleep on the couch, their pale hair splayed out against the coarse blue upholstery. He fell back into the grumble of a Naugahyde chair. It was more wood than cushion and smelled of smoke and all the britches and behinds that had sat there before him.
“Stay here,” Dad said.
He woke up in this brown chair the next morning, and within days he’d claimed it as his own. He was told to stay there, and he did.
A bookcase beside the chair held two things of interest to him. There was a thin Kentucky Twist tobacco box filled with wood shavings so long and intertwined they looked like the endless curl of a doll’s hair. Next to the box was a book almost as brown as the Naugahyde chair. He forgot about the tobacco box, and the book won his favor. He mouthed the words of the title over and over: Ghosts of the Carolinas.
The book’s cover showed an old-fashioned car on the road. The image was out of focus and a sickly, yellow-brown - the color of haunt. This was the kind of car that delivered bad news, the kind of car that would grab unwilling passengers and drop them off in unfriendly places.
The stories were scant though scary, and the pictures - black and white photographs that suggested haunted places - lay like dark punctuation marks. He’d let his sisters sit in the brown chair only if they promised to listen to him read about the ghosts: the mysterious lights that haunted Brown Mountain, the gray man who warned against deadly storms, the lost spirit of a woman on a roadside somewhere in South Carolina.
Randy took long breaths before opening the book. The stories frightened his sisters’ small hands into fists. Each story seemed as if it could have happened right next to the very place where they sat, all of it so close to home. They stared at the photos and were convinced they were taken by actual ghosts with crude Polaroid cameras.
He kept the book near and would never loan it, not even to his sisters. It became both a comfort and a curse to him. The stories had him opening doors slowly, suspicious of dim rooms and startled by sudden noises. Still he kept it close. The book traveled with him in the backseat of his grandfather’s Buick to Hendersonville to visit Dad. As they turned off on Upward Road from I-26, he saw the large green sign and thought maybe he’d read it incorrectly. Upward Road: the name sounded so much like the title of a gospel song his mother would play on repeat when she went through her religious phases. Later in the summer, he took the book with him when they visited her in a trailer park near Myrtle Beach.
“I just can’t get used to the smell of the water here,” his mother said. The smell was like the worst part of a match that’d just been struck. “Too much sulfur. Like the Devil’s breath,” she said.
His grandmother Neely told him that if he didn’t stop looking at the book he’d bring all those ghosts to life. Her eyes were dark, Randy thought, like the ghost woman in the story who wandered on the roadside. She was always there, always lost, in the same place, year after passing year.
They crisscrossed the Carolinas as his parents moved from job to job, town to town - in separate directions. Sometimes on these trips, his grandfather would take longer routes so they could visit relatives. A great uncle in Camden lived near an outcropping of rocks that looked like a group of tombstones, neglected and slanting toward the ground. There were no children around to play with, so he and his sisters would move in and out of the car, using it like a playhouse. Randy pulled the book out and read three stories to them when the evening sun began to wane. They stayed until it was almost too late to drive home.
As the car pulled away from the house and onto the road, Trish leaned over the front seat.
“Who was that old man back there anyway?”
“That was my brother. Your great uncle. Vance. You know Vance, don’t you?”
“Oh,” she said. “No, I don’t remember him.”
There were many trips and nameless relatives they met and then forgot. The Buick gave way to a Ford station wagon that took them to the addresses written on the backs of postcards or infrequent letters. Grandma Neely packed them sandwiches for the road, the mayonnaise greasing dark spots onto the brown bags. She would give one wave of her hand in a large circle motion before stepping back onto the porch, the station wagon moving down the steep drive toward the pavement of the highway.
The book was tossed in with a suitcase packed too hastily before they set out to see his mother who’d moved to Winston-Salem by then. They agreed to spend the night in her small apartment. Randy and his sisters piled on the floor and Granddad folded himself between the arms of the short couch. Anything to stop his mother’s crying and the spew of her frantic words.
“I’m just so lonely here,” she said, “so lonely.” Later when she had settled down in her bed, she mumbled, “Sweet dreams, anyway.”
Toward midnight, she tore through the rooms of the apartment, throwing glasses and upending furniture and the two pieces of luggage they’d brought along. The edge of a bowl grazed Randy’s temple then shattered against the wall. Everyone had abandoned her, she told them,. “I might as well be buried alive!”
Her screams tamed to yells, and then finally a stupor of sleep fell on her again in the dark paneled bedroom. Marie wanted to leave. “She acts plumb possessed,” she said, and began gathering their clothes from the floor. They left while his mother was still asleep.
Randy rummaged through the loosely packed bags in the backseat of the car. His hand reached through T-shirts, wadded blouses and a stiff fold of denim. He could not feel the cover of the book. It was dark, and he doubted himself. Maybe it had fallen from a bag onto the floorboard? They were already two hours from Winston-Salem. He pleaded with his grandfather to stop the car.
In a swath of yellow light cast over an empty parking lot near the highway, Randy removed each item from the suitcases. His sisters folded the clothes carefully, making neat what had been crumbled in their haste to leave the apartment, and placed everything back before clapping the suitcase shut. His grandfather looked under the car seat and shone the flashlight in the back of the station wagon before he finally said they must have left it behind in the apartment.
“We have to go back for it,” Randy said. His grandfather shook his head in a slow phantom-like motion.
“I’m not going back there,” said Marie.
“Me either,” said Trish. “No way.”
Granddad started the car and they moved away from the light of the parking lot.
“There are other ghost stories,” his grandfather told him.
Randy could not stand the thought of the book being left behind in the cinderblock apartment. “It’s only a book and it’s gone,” they all said to him in one way or another in the days following. But he could still feel its fraying spine in the crook of his palm, the weight of it on his lap.
Somewhere there was the tobacco box filled with wood shavings. There were other things to wonder about, and many other days would fumble and fade into forgetfulness beyond this one.
Marie and Trish tended always to stay close together. Randy found his way, mostly alone. The sisters, on a Thursday evening almost two decades since the long ride from Winston-Salem, pushed themselves against the wall where the blue couch once sat. They watched as the casket was carried through the front door.
Before his death, their grandfather had insisted he be brought home before burial, in the old way. Randy walked with them, and together they looked down into the narrow box. Granddad’s arms were folded across his chest, palms down. There on his arms were the dark welts and cracks where his skin tore so easily in the last few years, mottled and no longer repairable, like the Naugahyde chair where Randy used to sit.
A sudden storm had come through earlier that day, and a sickly yellow-brown light slanted into the room. Here were his sisters standing near him, and his father, who hadn’t been seen in more than a year, was leaning against the doorframe of the kitchen. Here was the slump of his grandmother Neely. And here were aunts and uncles, from Spartanburg, Hickory, Columbia. And the cousins whose names he couldn’t remember. Here they were. Here they all milled around in this small house, these ghosts of the Carolinas.