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By John Fogarty
She was only 67, but felt every bit a decade older. Her once long, auburn tresses now an icy gray, her skin withered and choked with veins, and her back an unending source of agony, Sylvia Praither was, by now, little more than a cripple. But there had been a time . . . a long, long time ago. Her rheumy blue eyes surveyed her bedroom with an aching despair as she climbed to her feet once more.
She made it as far as the bathroom before she remembered that the ghost had stolen her pills yesterday. For the past two days (or was it three?) Sylvia had become aware of an unfriendly presence in the house. Not an evil spirit, really, more of a mischievous one — a poltergeist. And it seemed to take great delight in stealing small, inconsequential items from her, like perfume or the odd piece of costume jewelry.
Sylvia hadn't minded, at first. In a way, she welcomed the company; all her friends and relatives had been gone for so long. The mere hint of another presence in the house was oddly comforting, somehow. And if the ghost felt obliged to help itself to her perfume, well, good luck to it. A ghost would have about as much use for such things as she, anymore.
But yesterday it had crossed the line. Yesterday, it had stolen her pills. Who knew what it would get into next? The silverware? Her real jewelry, her diamonds? Now thoroughly distraught, Sylvia drifted back through her bedroom, down the long, spiral staircase and into the huge living room below.
It was a fabulous room, richly appointed with authentic Victorian pieces, as was the rest of the house. On the far wall, beyond the Steinway, was a tremendous fireplace, terribly ornate, the mantelpiece rising fully six feet from the floor, and a gigantic crystal chandelier hung overhead, like an unspoken boast.
Ostentatious? Yes. Excessive? Most assuredly. But if Sylvia Praither's health was lost — if all she'd ever known or loved was lost — at least she still kept a beautiful home.
For the ghost.
She settled onto her sofa and stared out the bay window to the ice and snow beyond. It had to go; she realized that clearly now. The ghost had overstayed its welcome. But what could she do? What course could she take? A priest? An exorcist? She had no stomach, no patience, for such mummery. How, then, to rid herself of the haunt?
It was then that she heard it moving about upstairs, in her room.
She rose from the sofa and made her way across the vast living room to the foot of the staircase, where she paused, listening. It seemed to be whispering to itself up there, a soft, susurrus sound very similar to the sound made by coat hangers sliding along a —
And then she realized that, of course, it was the sound of coat hangers sliding along a rail. In her room. In her closet. Furious now, Sylvia mounted the stairs and began the long climb upward, without a thought for her own safety. Her anger was absolute, no room for fear, and so she sailed up the stairs, reaching the top in a matter of seconds. She scurried up the hall to her room and stepped through the door, a shout of protest already on her lips.
And it was gone. The ghost had vanished, along with most of Sylvia’s dresses. The older woman staggered to her closet and gaped in shock at what remained of her wardrobe. The few gowns and blouses that the ghost hadn't stolen were left hanging in total disarray, the gaps between them grinning back at her like a skull’s missing teeth.
It had to end. The theft of her perfume and costume jewelry was one thing, but her pills? Her dresses? Her gowns? It had to end.
She would call an exorcist. There was no other choice. But she wasn't Catholic, she was a Presbyterian. Would a priest respond to a Protestant's call for help? Or would he even bother to inquire about her religious affiliations? Sylvia had no idea. All she knew for sure was that she had to be rid of the ghost. Today. A few more scares like this and she would become a ghost. Her heart couldn’t take it.
Sylvia crossed the room and picked up her bedside phone and the yellow pages. Or tried to . . . The rheumatism. It had gotten much worse the past few days — ever since the arrival of her ghost or poltergeist or whatever it was. Try as she might, it was all Sylvia could do to pry the princess phone from its cradle and let it tumble onto her bed. It took both hands and a good two or three minutes for her to even raise the thing to her ear. She hadn’t been eating properly, she knew that. Indeed, she couldn’t even remember the last time she had a full meal.
Now the telephone book — even heavier than the telephone. God, but this was a torment. She almost wished she were the haunt instead of the haunted; at least then she wouldn’t suffer so much from the indignities of arthritis.
Clawing like a crippled crow at the massive slab of book, she searched first under "Churches," then "Clergy," and picked the name Fr. Francis McKee at random. She dialed his number and waited.
A man answered the phone: "Hello, St. Mary's."
"Yes. Yes, hello," she tried, aware now that her voice was barely more than a small, papery whisper. "Is Father McKee there, please?"
"This is Father McKee."
"Father, I . . ." Suddenly, she felt ridiculous. Not only was she referring to a man probably half her age as "Father," but she was also about to ask that man to come out to her house and chase away a ghost. The absurdity of her situation came to her fully then, and she nearly hung up the phone. But, summoning forth the same courage she'd used to race up her staircase and confront the elusive spirit, she sucked in her breath and continued: "I need . . . an exorcist, Father. To come to my house and . . . well . . ."
"I see," said the priest. "And just how do you know you need an exorcist, Mrs.? . . ."
"Praither," she managed. "My name is Sylvia Praither, and I live at . . . 919 Misty Hollow Road. And my house is . . . haunted."
"Haunted," echoed the priest. "Have you (ahem) have you actually seen the, ehhh, manifestation, Mrs. Praither?"
"No. But it is here, in my house."
"And how do you know that?"
"I just know it. I can . . . sense it."
"I see. Mrs. Praither, you may not be aware of this, but calling forth the powers of Mother Church to conduct an exorcism isn't quite as easy as the movies depict. There are certain . . . steps . . . that must be taken, in order to —"
"I tell you it's here," she whispered. "In my house. I can . . . I can hear it."
And she could: it was moving up the hallway now, toward her room, drifting slowly but inexorably closer, the floorboards squeaking softly just outside her door.
"Send someone now. Please," she gasped as the door swung open. And the spirit stood before her.
It was the ghost of a tragically young woman, no more than 21or 22, and she held in one dove-white hand a silver locket and chain. She stood in the doorway glaring at Sylvia, with horror in her eyes. Then she threw the locket at her and disappeared down the hall.
"Help me!" Sylvia cried. She curled around the phone like a mother protecting her child. "Please! Help me, Father, please . . ."
“What’s happening? What’s going—”
“It’s trying to kill me, Father! Please, please, oh please come help me . . .”
Even in her terror, Sylvia could almost hear the priest wrestling with his conscience. What the hell was wrong with him? What was there to think about? Why wouldn’t he come to her rescue, Protestant or not?
“For Christ’s sake, Father, please . . .”
Just then, in the background, echoing horribly through the telephone, Father McKee thought he heard a young woman’s voice calling, “Go-o-oh!”
"All right, all right, I'm . . . coming over," the priest said at last. "Get out of that house immediately and meet me on the street. Do you understand?"
". . . please . . ."
"Do you understand? Mrs. Praither, can your hear me?"
". . . help me . . ."
And the line went dead.
Ten minutes later, Father McKee pulled up to 919 Misty Hollow Road. He saw no sign of Sylvia Praither anywhere — not on the lawn, not on the street, not anywhere. There were some footprints in the snow, but they led to the house, not away from it. Father McKee shivered as the awful realization swept over him.
She hadn't made it out.
He left the car running and walked slowly up the drive to the huge Tudor mansion, soaking in the almost palpable pall of fear that permeated the place. "Lord, help me . . . please help me," he muttered, unaware that he was repeating almost exactly what Sylvia Praither had said to him last.
The priest got to the front door and began knocking, then pounding, in the slim hope that the old woman was all right.
Upstairs, in her room, Sylvia still cowered on her bed, curled around the dead child of her telephone. There was no dial tone, no ringing, nothing. She was completely cut off from the rest of the world.
She had to get out, had to escape, but how? She'd never before had to run for her life, and now her ability to think clearly was vanishing. Still, one thing was obvious: she couldn't remain in her room any longer. The ghost had her cornered here. Sylvia was just starting to crawl toward the edge of her bed, just getting ready to make a break for the stairs, when the specter returned.
This time it was holding one of Sylvia's shoes, like a trophy. Moaning horribly, the ghost stepped forward and threw the shoe at her. Sylvia flinched, throwing her frail arms up for protection as the shoe passed harmlessly overhead, striking the wall behind her. The apparition vanished down the hall once more.
Sylvia knew that this was her last chance. She had to escape before the ghost returned. She got to her feet and made it across the room to the doorway, where she paused, trembling, as she listened to the ghost moaning and sobbing down the hall. She had no choice; she had to continue. Stifling a cry, Sylvia stepped out into the hall.
And the ghost was there, at the head of the stairs, as if waiting for her.
"Get out of my house!" they screamed in unison as Father McKee burst through the door. The young woman threw another shoe at her, and this time she didn't miss. The shoe passed right between, or through, Sylvia's outstretched hands and hit the old woman in the chest. Then it continued through her back, clattering harmlessly onto the floor behind her. Sylvia looked down at her own shriveled body in astonishment.
"You're dead," the young woman cried, tears streaming down her face. "You died three days ago, don't you understand? This is my house now. I’m going to live here. Please . . . please leave this place. . . ."
Sylvia looked up then, her withered hands held out imploringly before her. "But, this is my house," she was about to say, drifting soundlessly toward the young woman, who stumbled backward in fright. She grabbed for the railing but missed. Father McKee watched in horror as the young woman fell down the stairs, tumbling around the first turn, then smashing through the banister and crashing to the floor fourteen feet below in a twisted heap. She lay sprawled on her stomach amid the jagged shards of wood, her head turned completely around, facing him.
The priest screamed and ran from the house.
Later that evening, after police had removed the body, Sylvia Praither sat down to tea in her dining room. Had Father McKee been brave enough to stick around awhile longer, he would have seen nothing more than a silver tea pot rise from the walnut sideboard and pour into first one cup, then another, and then descend again to the table. But Father McKee wasn't there at the moment; he was still heavily sedated in his rooms at St. Mary's, so Sylvia and her guest were alone.
"One lump or two?" came the papery whisper, barely audible in the vastness of the room.
"Two," came a sigh, and the young woman was an intruder no more.
John Fogarty - Author of The Haunt, a horror novel published by Warner Books and Online Learning Today: Strategies That Work, a nonfiction book published by Berrett-Koehler
All Rights, © 2007, John Fogarty