Empty as Churches

BY JAMES ULMER

Henry Rickman thrust his head out of his office door, glancing first to the right and then left. The darkened hallway was profoundly silent, the rows of doors closed and locked on empty offices.  Somewhere downstairs an outer door opened, and the wind flew noisily up the stairwell and gusted down the vacant hall. Behind him, the spines of books arranged on his shelves caught the lamplight on their glossy jackets, and his window looked out on a black, moonless night, a single streetlight dimly illuminating the nearly deserted parking lot.

Henry realized he’d lost track of time.  “They’re all gone but me,” he muttered.

A glow across the hall drew him.  He slipped through the carpeted shadows and turned into the break room where they’d held their Christmas party.  The room was strung with colored lights; a single lamp burned, the bulb shaded. Snowflakes, beautifully cut from white paper by the Russian exchange student who worked in the English Department office, were taped against the black metal door of the refrigerator.  A few empty platters and serving spoons, abandoned by Henry’s retreating colleagues, cluttered the table.

And there, alone among the ruins of the feast, he found Dr. Charlotte Masterson, Charlie, seated in an upholstered chair, her diminutive hands folded neatly in her lap.

“Well, Charlie,” he said, “I’m surprised to see you still here.”

“And what about you, Henry?  Don’t you have a home to go to?”

Not really, he thought.  But he smiled and didn’t answer.

Charlie Masterson was in her seventies, but seated there in that queenly fashion, her dyed black hair bobbed elegantly at her jawline and a sparkle of diamonds at her ears, one might have taken her for a woman half her age.  She wore a red ribbed sweater fastened with a silver pin in the shape of a shock of wheat, a black leather skirt with leggings, and soft black leather boots that reached to her knees.  In the silence they heard the rising, melancholy wail of a train whistle somewhere out in the darkness of the Texas prairie. Henry imagined a string of rusted boxcars rocking past under a sprinkling of stars.

Charlie looked up with her violet eyes to where he leaned in the doorway.

“I had a visitor last night,” she told him.

Henry felt his attention sharpen instantly. He understood that she’d been waiting there, alone in that room, that she had a story to tell. Without a word, he pulled a chair out from the table, turned it, and sat facing her.

“Tell me,” he said.

She took a moment to assess him before she began.

“I was home alone last night. John was away on business, as usual. At around ten, I turned the television on, just to push back the silence.”

Henry nodded. He knew the sense of isolation, deep as floodwater, that could rise up in a town like this when the dark closed in.

“The house felt strange somehow,” she continued, “and I was nervous. I felt as if something was about to happen. Ridiculous, of course: it was just a normal, quiet night. Still, there was a weight in the air.” She shrugged and smiled tightly, without humor. “After a while, I started hearing something under the sound of the television—a soft rubbing, a sliding sound.  At first I thought it was part of the soundtrack, but then I realized it was coming from outside the room.”

Her eyes were wide behind her glasses.

“My god, Charlie, had someone gotten into the house?”

“That’s what I was thinking, but it didn’t seem likely. John has a security system set up that would keep a small fortress safe, and the system was armed. But there was a noise, a movement in the house that I couldn’t account for. That’s the house my daddy left me, you know.  I’ve lived there, off and on, since I was a child, so I know every sound those old rooms make.  But I couldn’t figure out what I was hearing.”

She was silent for a moment, thoughtful, gazing at the hands folded in her lap as if they held an answer.

“Well, finally,” she said, looking up again, “I turned off the television to listen.  Of course, as soon as I did, the sound stopped. Wouldn’t you know it? I told myself that I must be imagining things. Still, I had the oddest sensation. Someone was there, Henry—I can’t explain.” She turned a quizzical expression on him. “Do you hunt?”

Surprised, he shook his head. Henry was an outsider, a transplant. He’d come to teach at the university that kept that little East Texas town from dropping off the map, and he had no connection to the rituals practiced by the town’s old families.

“Well, it was like the feeling you get sometimes when you’re out in the woods, deep in the pines, that something you can’t see is watching you, listening maybe, from the trees. Do you know what I mean? You understand that the animal has turned, and that whatever you were looking for has, in fact, found you.”

What was it, he wondered, that had found her? Henry could see that she was shaken, even in remembering. Charlie was thin-boned, quick and delicate as a sparrow. The smallest emotion registered in the tilt of her head or the way she held her hands. But something was wrong. A shadow had fallen in the room, pressing down on her, dimming the light. Henry experienced a rush of vertigo: the dull glow of the break room lamp seemed far away, and he felt as if he were gazing up from the bottom of a deep, murky well.

“What did you do?”

“I got up and walked down the hall to check, to search the place. You know, in my house, nearly all the rooms lead off that hardwood hall. I stepped past the bedroom and looked in. Then the office, the library, our son’s old room. They were all as empty as churches. I came to the end of the passage, with the dining room on my left, the kitchen on my right, and the parlor just ahead.” As she spoke, present in that place again, she gestured with her hands to indicate direction. “From where I stood, I could turn and see every room and the open doorways behind me. The outside doors were all locked, and I could see the red light of the security system pulsing silently on the panel by the garage door. There wasn’t another living soul in the house.  I was certain of that.”

In the silence, Henry heard the low electrical hum of the refrigerator.

“You must’ve been frightened.”

“Terrified,” she concurred, a short, nervous laugh escaping her.  “But I felt I had to do something. So I called out, ‘Is there anybody here?’ No answer. So I called, ‘If you’re here, make a sound!’ Well,” she shook her head, “you won’t believe me, but there was a tremendous bang, as if someone had smashed his open palm against the wall. I nearly jumped out of my skin.” Charlie touched her chest lightly, with two fingers, as if to slow her racing heart. “I suppose it might’ve been a branch falling from one of those enormous old pines in my backyard and landing on the roof. That sometimes happens during a storm. But I’ve heard that before, and this didn’t sound the same. For one thing, it was more insistent. And it came from inside.” Henry imagined his friend standing at the mouth of the hall, holding herself while the enormous suggestion of a waiting presence asserted itself in the not-empty house. He felt a chill tighten across his shoulders.

Jesus, Charlie. What did you do? I would’ve gotten the hell out of there.”

She lifted her chin. “I wasn’t about to be driven out of my own home,” she informed him.  “Nor was I going to just stand there all night. If someone or something wanted me, it knew where to find me. So I went back to the television room, sat down, and waited.” She smiled grimly. “I didn’t have to wait long. After a few moments, I heard it again—that whispering, sliding sound—and with the television off, I knew at once what it was. Slippers. Someone was shuffling down the hall in bedroom slippers, coming closer—and then the sound stopped in the open doorway.”

Henry asked, “What did you see?”

“At first, nothing. The doorway was empty. Then he was standing there.”

He didn’t have to ask who. At that moment, gazing up at him wide-eyed with her shoulders rounded, she looked like a frightened child.

“The walls in my hallway are painted gold, you know, a sort of buttercup yellow, and a single bulb was shining from behind that frosted glass fixture on the ceiling.” Her voice broke for a moment. “There he stood in that sallow light, right in front of me.”  She shook her head emphatically, twice, in denial or bewilderment. “Two black slashes of shadow over his eyes, his mouth a straight line. He wore the same navy pajamas, his burgundy robe open, the tassel dragging on the floor.”

He could see it, saw the old man fixing his daughter as if he meant to swallow her.         

Her words reached him from the darkness. “My god,” she breathed, abstracted, “how I hated him!  He was a horrible man.” Then, “It was so cold I could see my breath in the room.  A pall of stale tobacco smoke drifted in the air, and his mouth hung open as if he were still struggling for breath. I asked him what he wanted, why he’d come, but he just stood there, staring at me. ‘What do you want?’ I asked again. Then he was gone.”

“You mean he turned and walked away?”

“No.” She stared at him, compelling him to see, to understand. “One minute he was there, as solid as you or I, and then he wasn’t. And the house was empty again—I could feel it. That awful sense of something impending had lifted.”

Her shoulders relaxed, and she returned to the present, to the deserted break room with its colored lights and paper snowflakes. “You must think I’m mad,” she commented.

To his surprise, Henry discovered that he believed her implicitly. The cast-iron clock standing in the town square had stopped dead sometime in the nineteen-fifties, when opportunity had packed up and left town for good. The place was full of ghosts. They lurked around each corner, mimicked the ragged flow of Spanish moss in the shade of hundred-year-old live oaks, flickered briefly behind the darkened windows of deserted storefronts and the abandoned marble façade of the Cotton Belt Saving and Trust. They hid in every room.

“What do you think he wanted?”

“He wanted to frighten me, just as he had when he was alive. And he succeeded, too— damn him.”

She was right, of course, but Henry sensed there was more to it. He saw a vacancy in Charlie’s expression, an absence that he’d never seen before, and he suddenly understood what it meant. But, as with so many things in his life these days, he kept what he knew to himself. What could he tell her that wouldn’t be pointless or cruel?

Her story told, she sat waiting.

“There’s nobody left but us,” he said at last. “Are you ready to go?”

Charlie nodded. He stepped across the hall to lock his office, and they shuffled into the elevator that led to the first floor. She slipped her arm into his. The elevator dropped, and when the doors opened, the two of them turned into the hall and moved together toward the exit.  Henry felt as if she were drawing him down some shadowy passage to the underworld. He watched their disappearing shapes approach in the dark glass doors, the reflections wavering slightly like flames, she with her eyes down, averted.


James Ulmer is the author of two collections of ghost stories, The Secret Life (Halcyon Press, 2012) and The Fire Doll, which won the George Garrett Fiction Prize and was published by Texas Review Press in 2017. Ulmer’s fiction and poetry have appeared in The New Yorker, The North American Review, The Missouri Review, Rosebud, and elsewhere. He is currently a professor of English and Chair of the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Southern Arkansas University.

Image Credit: “Rise” by Thomas Gillaspy

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