Uncle Nick had a bump on his head. It wasn’t like the lumps a phrenologist reads, or the normal, swollen result of standing up under a low cupboard without realizing. Nothing like that. It was an ugly, purplish cauliflower to the side of his forehead that just wasn’t natural looking at all. He’d had it for months.
“It’s that God-damned portrait,” he explained, rubbing at the knot as he sipped his coffee when I asked about it on my first visit to his new apartment in the City.
I winced a little. Mama was always after him about his language around me.
“You know how many times that thing’s fallen off the wall? It used to hang above my bed and it kept hitting me in the head when it fell. Whack-o! Same spot every time. So I moved it. It’s supernatural is what it is.
“I was asleep in bed and I don’t even remember a thing. Annie, I promise you. I woke up and found the picture lying in bed with me. It must have fallen off the wall and hit me in the head so hard it knocked me out… only it wasn’t hanging above my head this time. It was hanging right there where it is now!”
The picture was a puzzlement in itself; a lady with a bindi on her forehead. It wasn’t a portrait of anyone I knew. Uncle Nick said it was there when he moved in. He didn’t want to get rid of it because he believed she was a “spiritual guide” from someplace unpronounceable. I’ve always suspected he was just infatuated with her beauty. Regardless, it’s spot above his dining table was nowhere near his bed.
“It doesn’t look any different than before,” I said of his bump.
“And that’s just the point isn’t it? Bumps go away. They heal. The swelling goes down.” He paused. “I think it’s a poltergeist. It has to be a poltergeist.”
“What’s a poultry-geist?” I asked, recalling Mama’s recent lesson that poultry seasoning was for seasoning chicken.
“It’s something you can’t see but it’s there, an invisible entity, a ghost maybe. It could be a ghost. The landlord says the last tenant moved out because the place was haunted. One of the previous tenants was murdered here. Knocked $200 off the rent for me.”
“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” I snickered. “Mama says you’re just clumsy.”
Uncle Nick drew dead serious to stifle me silent. “There’s no such thing as a bump on your head that won’t go away for two months either, is there?” He pulled his hair aside so I could observe it plainly.
“The picture hit you in the same spot?”
“In the middle of the night!” he said excitedly. “Whack-o! But…!” Mama’s brother was one for theatrical drama. “How could it fly from here,” he gestured to the alluring, dark brown eyes that constantly gazed at me wherever I stood in the apartment, “to here,” he walked to his bed and pointed, “unless… unless… something… or someone… threw it?”
There was no arguing how far it was from the adjacent wall to where his head must have been while he slept, but I doubted that the picture flew.
“Maybe it’s a picture of the ghost,” I suggested, still not sure I believed in them.
He shook his head. “No, the victim was a man.”
“What if she’s the one who murdered him and now she’s trying to murder you too?” I tried not to let real worry show in my voice. “Why don’t you just get rid of her? I don’t like her. She watches me everywhere I go.”
There was a long, long silence during which I leaned slowly back and forth watching her eyes suspiciously.
Finally, he took a deep breath. “Annie, I’m sorry,” he apologized. “You’re such a doll coming to visit me, and here I am filling your head with ghosts.”
I stared at him uncomfortably. Scary stories were better than the familiar alternative I recognized in the sudden change in his tone of voice. Uncle Nick was a bit of a night owl with a habit of sleeping in the day.
“I’m afraid I need a nap,” he yawned. “You understand. Just a couple of hours. You can find something to watch on TV, can’t you? And there is a sandwich for you and some pudding cups in the fridge if you get hungry.”
“What if the poultry-geist hits you in the head again?” I wondered aloud. “Should I wake you up?”
Uncle Nick took his turn looking uncomfortable. “You know how the TV works, right?” He picked up the remote and clicked the TV on.
“I know how it works,” I said, and I watched as he lay down in bed and covered up for his nap.
There was nothing on TV and I was bored before Uncle Nick could start his nearly-instantaneous snoring. Even Cartoon Network was just a dumb rerun of an old Popeye cartoon. I shut it off again and listening to Uncle Nick’s hypnotic, buzz-saw droning, I turned to stare back at the portrait whose gaze bothered me more now than ever. I got up and went to stand directly beneath her.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” I reminded her quietly.
And then I had a brilliant, seven-year-old idea. I pulled the chair over from table, climbed on top of it and reached up to pull the staring, bronze-skinned “spiritual guide” from the wall. I looked around nervously. My heart was pounding while my brain kept insisting, “There’s no such thing as ghosts!” I was quite certain a poultry-geist was a monstrous netherworld chicken like one of those 2,000 lb. canaries with an appetite for kitties. I jumped as Uncle Nick stirred in his bed, and then my eyes searched the apartment settling on the couch.
I tip-toed back over to it, stuffed the annoying portrait underneath one of the seat cushions, placed the remote on top of it and stood back proudly. Uncle Nick’s apartment was just an apartment. There were no ghosts, or giant chickens, and there was no portrait to fall off the wall and hit Uncle Nick on the head again. Satisfied, I headed outside to see if there were any other kids in Uncle Nick’s new neighborhood.
Closing the door quietly behind me so as not to wake Uncle Nick, I double-checked to make sure I had my key around my neck, and twisted the handle to make sure the door was locked. I started down the stairs, but exactly four steps before I reached the landing, my heart exploded in my chest. The bells on the door at the bottom of the stair jingled sharply and a bright light flashed into the stair corridor. I pulled my key out and stood petrified, poised to race back upstairs to the door.
The bells ceased their jingling as the door slammed shut below me, returning the corridor to its normally dim state. Heavy footsteps started up the stairs and I took one step upward myself as I waited, fearing the worst. Well, maybe the worst would have been that 2,000 lb. chicken, but these footsteps belonged to a big man in hard-soled shoes. I waited for him to reach the landing, ready to race away in fear at the slightest unsavory appearance, but to my surprise, he never appeared.
The footsteps stomped heavily up, turned on the landing, and then stomped up the second tier, not past me but right through me, and through the door at the top, slamming it loudly behind them – the same door I had made sure was locked, while I still held the key.
I stood for several minutes on the stairs, frozen in shock and trembling uncontrollably. It’s hard to explain, but I knew he’d passed through me because I’d felt his thoughts and his memories as he passed. Noises were coming from the apartment now. Finally, I began to gather courage as it seemed the invisible man had not even noticed me on the stair. And then I heard a loud thump.
“Uncle Nick!” I raced back upstairs, and tried to open the door, but it was locked. Trembling worse than ever, I fumbled with the key, finally getting it in and turned, and burst frantically back into the apartment.
Uncle Nick was sitting up in his bed, rubbing at the knot on his head. The staring lady lay in his lap, watching me with evil eyes. The couch appeared undisturbed, the TV remote still carefully placed on the same cushion where I’d hidden her picture. I turned back to Uncle Nick with my mouth agape.
“You see?” he said. “Flew right off the wall again! Whack-o!”
I didn’t know what to say. There’s no such thing as ghosts.
© 2013 Anne Schilde
Happy and safe Halloween, everyone!