Anniversary Present — A Ghost Story

The ocean was silent. It always was. Jud could never figure out what about this town’s coastline made the waves lap so silently against the rocks. It was deafening in its slow, gentle ebb and flow. He stood out on the walkway when he wanted to feel something, anything other than the dreary emptiness he faced with each new day. The lighthouse life was one of loneliness for Jud Bench. The long, monotonous days were broken only by meals and the turning on of the beacon. These were the things that gave his day any sense of time and worth. At least since –

Jud went into town, walking the whole way. It took Jud an hour to reach the supermarket. The shop was brightly lit in the garish style of such buildings, all light and no shadows. Nothing to hide. But wasn’t there, in the corners and edges, the slightest hint of struggle? As the light pushed deep into them, while the shadows beneath writhed and wriggled beneath temporary bars. Jud knew as walked the endless rows of sterile tiled floor that The town would bury him.

The town was beautiful in pictures. The ideal, all American town, with sidewalks for children to run, fences that stood straight and narrow. It was perfectly formed. Jud left the town to seek success elsewhere, but like so many others he returned. It wasn’t easy going out into the world after the air of The town.

It was unlike any town in the world. Now, as he walked alone, he knew he was right. He would die here. People died here. They could move away, but they could never leave. Not that many tried.

It had been nearly a year since it happened. If he ever thought he could leave before, he knew he would die here. He was certain when he left the supermarket and returned to the lighthouse. The lighthouse was at the edge of the world. The beginning and end of time. In front of it was the boundless sea who’s gently rose and fell to the rocks beneath.

It was nearly a year since his child had been murdered in the junkyard.

At dinner he sat across from an empty seat that would always remain so. There were just two chairs at the table. One for him and one for Susie. That was all that was needed. His wife hadn’t been in the picture for years; she wanted to seek a better life for herself and didn’t want to be bogged down by baggage. He sometimes smiled deviously to himself — the day she came crawling back into town would bring him great joy. How did he know she would be back? As was said earlier: no one could ever leave. Not really.

He had been in a low place when he happened to stumble across a drunken man literally stumbling from Jock’s Tavern one autumn afternoon. The man apologised profusely — or at least as profusely as his loosened tongue could allow. Jud didn’t like to send him on alone, so he helped the lighthouse keeper home. As to why he left the house unmanned, he answered: “It’s never empty.” It took them the guts of two hours to get there and by the time they did, Jud was an apprentice.

Three months after he took over a marriage took place in the town church and still later a girl was born to Jud and Sarah Benchly. Once Sarah left a year in, it was just Jud and Susie. Soon enough though, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Susie disappeared a week shy of her fifth birthday. She was a small child for her age but the doctor assured Jud she was just slow to grow. Looking back, Jud couldn’t say just when she went missing. He had been in his office working and Susie had been outside playing jump rope and singing to herself. Jud suddenly realised that she had stopped singing. Outside was silent, the jump rope lying limp where it fell in the gently rustling grass.

Three weeks went by. Three painful weeks. Sleepless nights and anxious days with nought to do but hope. At night Jud still woke with a start, thinking he heard the slow steady knock at his door that had preceded the shattering of his world. His hand still reached to open the door to find three stern faced policemen. These days he found an empty space of land sloping down to the rocks. He still heard it though: Susie was dead. She had been murdered. Her body was in bad condition.

The junkyard had always been a source of allure for the children of the town. who delighted in daring each other to enter and grab this or that. It was a source of concern for their parents and all those who had grown old enough to realise that their town was wrong. Not that anything was out of place, but it was wrong. Shadows tilted at a degree too far, the statues in town seemed to shift under a bright sun, the air seemed to glimmer with an atmosphere too thick for comfort. The junkyard had always been there.

Each pathway that cut through mountains of trash and treasures curved too quickly to escape if you went too far. One curve caught your foot and dragged it on until you became part of the place. Surely the place wasn’t this big when you entered. Surely the exit was just past this bin of shoes. Surely you would find your way back.

The junkyard dreams were the worst when they came. In those dreams his spirit rose and flew to the site, pulled on by a force that beckoned to him Come in Come in. Past piles of junk that seemed to rise taller and steeper with each twist of the path — past bins that overran with excrement and flies, bones and shoes, life and death. On he was pulled until he found himself in a clearing — with Susie and a tall, shadowed figure. Its hands were clasped on her shoulders as she cried for him to help. He always woke up screaming.

The day Jud ended began as normally as any other. It was bright but cool with a sharply fresh air that braced Jud’s lungs. There had been no accidents during the night. There very seldom was. At least that was a purpose. Going out the door for a walk to clear his head, Jud almost fell over a box that sat on his front step. It was a large grey cardboard box, covered with newspaper and loosely tied with yellowing string. It took no time at all to take it inside and open it. Inside were mounds of tissue packed around something for protection.

It was an oversized doll, almost grotesquely so, about two feet in height, made of smooth porcelain and clothed in dark green velvet, laced with white and light green. Flowing from its head was a mass of dark brown curls that tumbled over realistic eyes. It resembled Susie. But that couldn’t be the case surely. What kind of person would give him a doll that looked like his dead daughter a year after her death? The town was strange but he didn’t think it was that cruel.

No, he thought to himself.

It must be a coincidence, maybe it was delivered here by accident.

To a lighthouse in a box with no address?

Sure, whatever helps me sleep at night.

It was a stunning piece of work so he had to admire it for that. But he couldn’t bear to look at it, so he tossed it into the bottom of his wardrobe and put it out of his mind.

After dinner that night Jud stood on the walkway watching the sun beginning to set. Soon he would turn on the light, but he watched the daylight start to filter out of the world each night. It gave him a sense of calm in the face of predictability.

As he stood there a sound came to his ears, low and rolling. It unfurled on the air like a wave of movement. It was rolling, rolling, rolling, higher and lower. It was crying. Soft, gentle tears and sobs rising and falling on the wind. His first thought was the asylum, but as he descended the spiral staircase he was forced to admit that it seemed to come from downstairs. Shit he thought. I don’t have my bat. He crept slowly down the stairs, watching his steps on the creaky ones. Slowly, round and round, the sound gaining weight and substance in his ears. Down he descended. As he reached the final step the sound had peeked, a wild expression of grief reverberating harshly against the stone walls. But the moment his touched the floor — the sound ceased. There wasn’t even a final echo to pay tribute to its presence. A quick scan of the building determined he was alone. The lighthouse was silent.

Though shaken he put it down to his own overactive imagination. It was year after all. That was in the back of his mind at all times, when it wasn’t in the front of his mind. That’s all it was. That’s all. He went to bed after setting off the light and checking all doors and windows were shut to the salty air outside. The town settled in for the night. By moonlight the town seemed to shift. The streetlights hummed a sickly yellow. From behind each door, wall, post and bin, shadows unfurled, reaching forth in skewed lines. The sea was silent.

The next morning Jud was visibly shaken after the events of the previous night. His shaking hand spilled his third cup of coffee that morning. As he washed it off with a damp cloth he thought that maybe if he wrote it down and looked over it, that it wouldn’t seem as real. Maybe if he was lucky it would turn out to be a dream.

It took him several days to complete his narrative, for the strain of recalling the event and what led to it were perhaps more painful than he could handle for long periods of time. He finally finished it, leaving it on his desk for someone to find. Years past and the manuscript eventually found its way into my hands. I here reproduce the end of his account relating to that night:

I placed the doll on the left-hand side of the chest of drawers against the wall at the foot of my bed. There is a space of about four feet between it and the bed. At around 10 o’clock I climbed into bed but didn’t turn off my lamp until nearer to 11. I finally bit the bullet and plunged the room into near darkness. I could just about barely see the doll until the light cam around and I saw it staring. Soon I fell into a dream filled sleep. They were similar to those nightmares I had the night before.

I awoke last night for some reason that I can’t explain. The room was in total darkness, illuminated very briefly and very dimly by the circling light outside. The air was stale, very heavy and very cold, like a morgue. Freezing cold. I have been scared before in my life, but nothing could compare to the complete and ultimate fear that gripped my soul in that darkness. It was an all-consuming dread. I had awoken facing the wardrobe — who’s door was now stood open.

Then I heard the sound. Crying. A soft, plaintive, otherworldly sound. There was a slight echo to the sound, as though carried down a long hallway. It was a crying that comes at the end of absolute sorrow, when the tears no longer run, but still you cry.

I was coming from the chest of drawers at the foot of my bed.

I peered into the gloom, straining my eyes against the darkness. They did, just barely. But when the light passed by I wished I hadn’t woken. I could see the doll, but it was no longer on the left side of the chest of drawers, it was standing on the right-hand side. Standing? Could it be, yes, yes it was! God in heaven it was standing! Its long brown hair was now a ghastly white and tightly cropped to its head, which was covered with tiny cracks. Her dress was faded to a dull, milky green, tattered and torn, reduced practically to rags. Her small hands were held up and covered her eyes. She was crying.

Then the sound got louder and louder. The heartbreaking sound was quickly increasing and soon she was hysterically sobbing as if all the hope and joy had gone to from her life. I saw with trepidation that she was slowly turning around and lowering her hands. I could see her face. It was filled with cracks and missing pieces and one of her eyes had caved inwards, leaving a large gaping void. From the other eye, there came a stream of thick crimson liquid. Her hands reached towards me with twisted, broken fingers and the sobbing grew still louder and louder. Suddenly she started screaming and screaming! Her arms shattered in unnatural angles with sickening crunches. I couldn’t take it anymore — I had to make it stop! I fumbled in the dark and my hand met the bloodied baseball bat. In a moment of sheer adrenaline driven action I leapt from the bed and flew across the room. The doll reached its broken arms out to me but I raised the bat and brought it down on the thing. The doll’s head was shattered and the screaming rose to a fever pitch. A loud, shrill shriek that attacked my ears. I threw my hands up to block out the sound but it pushed through and drove itself into my brain.

I passed out.

When I awoke I was lying across the end of the bed. I sighed at the new day. My eyes looked cautiously looked to the locker. The doll wasn’t there. At least not all of it. There were piece of porcelain scattered about the top and on the floor lay its body and head, shattered wide open and scattered across the room. One of its eyes still stared at me.

I quickly went to clean up the pieces. The sooner they were out of my life the better. It was when I picked up the remnants to throw in the waste bag that I noticed two things. One, a piece of paper released from its hiding place in the doll’s head. It was fresh paper, way newer than the doll could possibly be. The two words scrawled across it in ink read:

“Happy Anniversary.”

I remembered the anguished cries, echoing as though down a long corridor, the one bloodied eye that seemed to pierce through the dark and into my core. Such things ought not to exist but yet here I was, screaming at the top of my lungs. Quickly I gathered the remaining pieces, though I was careful to pick up every single piece, no matter how small it was. I dashed out of the lighthouse to a rock I knew had a large groove in it. Casting the bag into it, I dosed it with lighter fluid and in no time I was watching the black bag melt over the form inside until it burst into flames, rendering its once beautiful clothes and visage no more than ashes.

I mentioned that I had noticed two things. The first was the piece of paper. The second was rather more insidious. It was when I picked up a large piece of the broken doll head that I noticed the inside. It was a pale ivory colour and very uneven. There were small lines running across the surface, some fused and others not. It was bone.

The ocean was silent. The sound of footsteps reverberated on the spiral staircase. The light turned in its calming manner. The patients of the asylum muttered and screamed. The junkyard gates remained open to enterprising explorers. The town welcomed another eternal resident. Jud’s body was found on the rocks at the base of the lighthouse. After turning on the light one last time, he had let himself free-fall to the ground below. He was buried after a short service beside the grave of his daughter which was covered in a layer of oddly fresh soil.

Writer — Folklorist — Film buff — UCD Graduate

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