Sunday, November 18, 2007

A short story: There's No Such Thing

There’s No Such Thing

A storm rages outside as I lie in mid-sleep sometime between midnight and dawn. I have always found it difficult to sleep during thunderstorms and tonight is no exception. I listen as rain scratches violently against my bedroom window; the branches of the old tree just outside my room scrape against each other seemingly eager to be liberated from their captor and go wildly free with the wind. Suddenly, and strangely, three successive flashes of lightning illuminate the room and penetrate even my closed eyelids. Almost immediately, three successive cracks of thunder follow in increasing volume, adding to the already maddening cacophony of storm sounds.

A chill, brought about not by the damp air that pervades my room nor by anything physical at all, suddenly courses through my body as I suddenly recall something that I thought I have already forgotten: it was on a night like this, on this very same house, that I saw a ghost for the first and only time in my life. That ghostly encounter changed my life in more ways than one.

As if in a sudden dream, I find myself recalling vividly what had occurred that fateful stormy night.

The storm had just started when my family and I arrived home late from a family reunion. I was ten years old at the time, twenty years ago. I recall that during the four-hour trip from my uncle’s place up north, winds were already ominously bending palm trees on the roadside – a sign that the coming storm would be really nasty.

My mom, who had always been a stickler for pre-bedtime personal hygiene routines, had asked me to go to the bathroom, wash my face and brush my teeth before going to bed. That was something she had always done for as long as I could remember. She added that since it was already way past midnight, I should hurry about what I was doing and immediately go to bed.

As I was walking in the dim hallway of the second floor on my way to the bathroom, I suddenly heard three cracks of thunder. It stopped me on my tracks. It was weird, I thought, for I had never heard such a thing in my life before. Three successive thunderclaps. I waited for a few seconds for it to happen again. No such luck. I waited for a minute or so more. Still, no thunder, just the sound of rain loudly pounding on the roof and the silent flashes of distant lightning.

It seemed that I was standing still waiting for something to happen for minutes. Then, as if in generous response to my wish, it happened.

As I was about to resume my walk to the bathroom, I noticed a shadow in front of me. It was my own, but it was cast by a bluish light coming from behind me. It wasn’t the fleeting kind of shadow cast by strobe-like lightning flashes, it was the kind of shadow produced by a seemingly continuous source of faint light. However, my shadow, which started out long and a bit faint, was starting to shorten slowly and become more distinct, which meant that the light source was moving and coming closer. I turned around and saw the seemingly luminescent ghost of a man heading slowly towards me. Surprisingly, I did not feel the least bit afraid. If anything, I was curious about who this ghost was—where he came from, how he died, and why he was haunting me. Although I knew that I was mildly shaken by the unsettling event that was unfolding, I also knew that I wasn’t really frightened of that thing, that apparition, that specter.

He was cautiously walking while looking at me with eyes and mouth wide open, apparently in shock. The funny thing was, this ghost seemed to be as surprised to see me as I was to see him. I thought then that maybe he was just the ghost of someone who recently died and was doing his very first haunting. That incident was probably the first for both of us – he was my first ghost and I was probably his first human. And if I hadn’t known any better, I would have deduced from the look on his face that the ghost was actually more afraid of me than I was of him. That thought almost made me laugh.

I found myself walking towards the newbie ghost who by that time was already standing still, apparently not knowing how to react to being in the presence of a living person.

My surprising audacity in the presence of an eerie specter stemmed from the fact that I had never believed in ghosts. Well, my father had always told me that ghosts didn’t exist; that they were mere figments of our imagination. I grew up believing this. Whenever my classmates would tell ghost stories, which I knew for sure they had made up, I would just laugh and tell them off. There’s no such thing. I would always say.

“Are you a ghost?” I asked.

He opened his mouth to say something but either the rain was hammering too loudly on the roof thus drowning out his ghost voice or he actually produced no sound at all. I then thought that he probably was a pure spirit and did not have the right equipment, like vocal cords and such, to produce anything audible. Still, I fervently wanted to communicate with him, so I pushed on.

"Who are you?”

Again, he tried to speak but, again, I couldn’t hear anything.

Despite the fact that the glowing apparition was transparent and rather blurry, I could make out his face. And what I could read from his facial expression was mild confusion and utter frustration—the exact same things I was feeling at that moment. It seemed that he wanted as much to know more about me as I wanted to know more about him. This silence, this inability to communicate, however, prevented us from really knowing what was going on.

“What are you doing here? Do you live here, too?” I remember asking.

Once again, his lips moved but still the only sound that I heard was the slightly easing rainfall and the rapid thudding of my heart. I took my boldness a level higher and decided to inch nearer, desperately wanting to know more about this otherwordly visitor. But as I took my first careful step he started to vanish, and quickly, like smoke being diffused by a sudden gust of wind.

As the apparition disappeared, the hallway started to dim again and I was left with an odd feeling of emptiness—the sort of void that’s left with the unexpected departure of a friend. It was strange that the short two-minute experience left a tremendous impact on me. Then again, I was just ten years old at the time.

Now, twenty years and 15 best-selling ghost novels later, I suddenly think of my old friend to whom I owe a great deal. It was he who started me on the path to ghost story writing. It was he who effectively sparked my interest in the unknown, in the fourth dimension, in the twilight zone. It was he who I suddenly miss terribly. I have never seen him since that stormy night. Come to think of it, I have never seen any other ghost since then.

I had kept on wishing for him to reappear one night. It was for this reason that I held on to this house, in the hope that one stormy night, he will find his way back to my hallway. But, dozens of storms have come and gone. Still, no ghost. I have married and separated and have a ten-year-old kid that I raise alone. Still, no ghost.

As I lay waiting for the downpour to pass so I can go to sleep in the still and cool of the afterstorm, my attention is drawn by light seeping into the room through the narrow gap under the door. It doesn’t seem to be the kind of light produced by strobe-like lightning flashes, but the kind that is produced by a consistent, although faint source.

I get up and walk slowly to the door. My heart races as I realize the possibilities waiting for me outside. Could it be him? Could this be the moment that I see my long-lost friend again? Would he be able to talk to me this time around? There is one way to find out. I open the door and step outside.

What waits for me outside is not the ghost of two decades past, but something else. Someone else. Even though he is facing the other way, apparently unmindful of my presence, I know nevertheless that he is not the same ghost who visited me twenty years ago. He is much younger.

Taken aback by this new and not entirely expected visitor, I inch closer.

I am a grown man who makes a living fabricating tales about ghosts, vampires, werewolves and other less-than-pleasant beings for the purpose of scaring the wits out of my readers. Writing horror stories empowers me for I become the source of fright, the purveyor of fear and, as such, I myself become immune to terror. Weaving together tales of the supernatural allows me to rise above petty fear and trepidation. But now, faced with the kind of being that haunts the very pages I write, and for only the second time in my life, I tremble uncontrollably.

He turns around and sees me. His young face, blurry like the image from an improperly focused camera, shows signs of surprise, as if he does not expect any human being to see him in his haunting. Then again, I am no longer totally surprised by this reaction, for it was the same reaction of my past visitor.

Burdened by an uncomfortable mix of fear and disappointment, I resolve to find out more about this young specter. I know that talking to him may be a futile effort, but I still want to try, hoping that this time around, he will be able to respond audibly.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

Just as I expect, he opens his mouth to talk but he does not produce anything audibly perceptible at all. Not even a whisper or a gentle murmur. I suddenly recall the same disappointment that I felt twenty years ago; the frustration of wanting to know but not being able to.

“What are you doing here? Are you lost?”

He speaks. But silently. Again.

I try a couple more times and in both instances he tries to communicate but to no avail. It’s as if a wall, a sound barrier, stands between the two of us. All I can hear is the steadily softening patter of raindrops on the roof. The storm is easing up and the wind is starting to weaken, as is my hope of learning anything more about my silent young friend.

A few more seconds elapse and I am still face to face with the blurry apparition, not knowing what else to do and what else to say. It’s both funny and sad that I have been waiting for twenty years for something like this to happen again; yet, now that I am experiencing the very thing I have been wishing for for quite some time, I am at a loss for action.

What persists for sure, however, is a strange feeling of déjà vu. The three successive thunderclaps. The very same hallway. The same time of day. The same feeling of helplessness.

Then a sudden realization hits me. An urge to talk to him again to confirm this creeps in but as I open my mouth to speak, another realization hits—I know that I would never ever know. Then, a bit expectedly, my young friend starts to fade like smoke diffused by a sudden waft and I am left with a familiar sadness.

I turn around and head back to my room tired and dejected. I know now that I would never see this apparition nor the one I saw twenty years ago ever again. In fact, I don’t think that I will see any ghost for the rest of my life.

I lie on my bed with the thoughts of what has just transpired. I suddenly feel that I have had enough of ghost story writing. In the morning, I will go to my son’s room and tell him that there is no such thing as ghosts.

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