The Ghost of the Ashes (some fiction)
Nota bene: What I’m sharing with you is a short story that I wrote a while ago and it was published
by Gilbert, the magazine of the American Chesterton Society. It’s edited by my friend Sean P. Dailey, who is the most attractive editor in Catholic media (his official title) but was further edited by my dear friend, Emma Fox Wilson. It’s not my usual thing, but I love writing fiction and Sean was kind enough to let me share it. Please see the ACS website to see about subscribing.
The Ghost of the Ashes
It was the perfect, cloudless autumn night in rural Oregon, made more impressive by the orange and blue glow of the fire that consumed the Hamilton house. Had it not been a house fire, anyone would’ve appreciated the flickering shadows against the trees and the way the flames reflected in the neighboring creek.
In the months leading up to it, the Hamilton parents had a nasty divorce. Andy Hamilton, the eldest son, was living somewhere else while mother and father split. Mother had left a “dear John” letter for the drunkard father to find.
After the fire and all related investigations, Mom Hamilton was three states away and Andy remained at his new residence, not far from his family home. Aaron, the youngest son, was missing, as was his father. Nobody knew how the fire started. Rumors circulated, as they do in all rural counties, but nothing could be confirmed.
I tell you this as a background, a setting, if you will, for the real tale begins a short time after the mysterious fire. Still, there are more details to understand and, since you are not from the region, I ought to explain a bit more.
The rural landscape of Oregon is beautiful, so long as you merely visit and have the means to escape. For families such as the Hamiltons, it is hard to find beauty after a while. Andy would eventually go back to school, where his high school classmates made his life a living hell.
And of course there were ghosts. At first, the stories would be the kind that you’d tell at any November bonfire while sipping cheap beer, but the details of each story would get more elaborate with time. The remains of the Hamilton house became a spot where teens dared one another to see if they could contact the angry spirits of the fire. They’d invent games such as standing in the wreckage, chanting a calling, while listening for the noise of an avenging spirit.
However, we began to see something else emerge from the tales. At first, a neighbor would tell of seeing a lone boy with a black hoodie, standing by the blackened remains. The boy would appear often in daylight, but neighbors and witnesses claimed they could feel his presence even at night. Nobody saw his face. When we saw him, he seemed to be lonely and lost, but instantly disappeared when we tried to get a little closer.
Of course, anybody who dared to tell Andy Hamilton of these stories would be met with a blow across the face. If you even hinted that this might be the spirit of Aaron, who was still missing, there was a good chance that Andy would use the whole of his great stature to bring you to the ground and send you to the clinic.
Andy was the only teen who refused to show up to the old ruins. I assumed then that it was because of bad memories and a desire to let the past stay in the past, as most locals like to say. Every other teen, however, delighted in the thrill of visiting a local haunt and meeting other kids for beer and other vices.
As the ruins slowly turned to a more pleasant forest meadow, the stories would dry up, but people were still drawn by the hooded figure. Legend had it that he only showed up on clear days, while hikers reported hearing someone laughing and playing in the distance only to find nobody around. Neighbors built larger fences and kept their dogs indoors. The braver kids would, on a dare, go there with cameras and recording equipment, and a few of them claimed to have captured the hooded, faceless ghost. Each image was blurry and a few were clearly a normal teen in a hooded sweatshirt, with not a hint of the ethereal about him.
It was perhaps three years after high school that Andy asked me to join him to visit the old remains of his home. I was one of the few who had never talked to him about it and perhaps that’s why he wanted me along. On our initial trip, I was unsure what he was looking for. It was perhaps just to see the place to see if he could recall it, but I remained uncertain.
Regardless, as we spent some time wandering around silently picking out what we could from the ground, I asked that we could leave as night was about to fall. I pulled the car out of the drive way when, without warning, Andy opened his door and flew from the car, running down the driveway. I looked in the rearview mirror to see a hooded figure. Or, maybe it was the Hooded Figure.
As is often the case, there was so much about the figure that was unremarkable. It could just as easily been a scarf caught in the wind with just the right light or it may have been just another curious wanderer looking at the ruins of a house fire in the dense forest.
I stopped the car and backed in to find Andy was at the spot where I saw the Hooded One. He was yelling and cursing in a tone that betrayed anger. While I tried to calm him down, there was nothing I could do to bring him any sense of peace. The anger eventually wore him out and then there was silence with only the murmuring, splashing water of the creek. Andy kept that silence for the whole ride back.
Three times we journeyed back to the house, not seeing the figure again until our very last visit. However, there was always a feeling of being watched. Perhaps something still lurked behind one of the great firs that dotted the landscape, but I never saw any evidence of more than a party the previous night.
It was the last night of Andy’s return that we drove up and this time we took enough provisions to stay for hours. By now, Andy was obsessed. This hooded kid had pissed him off a great deal and I could tell that he would not be satisfied until he confronted the figure.
After several hours, six beers, and a few packs of cigarettes, Andy and I were ready to go. I excused myself to answer nature’s call while he smoked his last cigarette.
As I wandered back, my heart quickened at the sight of the hooded figure. Only this time, its back was to me while Andy was in front of it, studying what he was seeing with a look that conveyed horror mixed with a strange alleviation. Whatever it was, his anger was no longer present at its sight.
“How long have you been hanging around here?” Andy asked the figure.
“I’ve lost track of time, to be honest,” the figure responded.
“Well, do you want to come with us? I know folks would love to see you.”
“I don’t know,” the figure began. His voice was young, child-like, but was flat and emotionless. Having never met Aaron, I couldn’t tell you if it was familiar. “I want to show you something, but only you,” the figure continued.
“You’ll see, I can’t describe it. It’s just across the creek and won’t take but a minute.”
“Okay, well, why don’t we bring my buddy, he should be back soon.”
“No! I can only show you. I’ve been wanting to show you it since…since…oh, come on.”
The two walked away together and I remained frozen in my cowardice. Had I not just relieved myself, I am positive that I would have done so then. I wanted to call out to them and make the Hooded Figure turn around, but I couldn’t find the words. More than anything I wished I could have run to the car and gotten the hell out of there.
I watched them move out of sight just beyond the Hill but I could hear them conversing. Between the pleasantries I heard their last exchange. I have forgotten many things since then, but I will always remember this.
After some steps, they stopped and Andy asked, “You’re not actually my brother, are you?”
A moment’s pause and that childish, flat voice responded, “No, not anymore. But does it really matter?”
With a sound that could be wind as much as a sigh, Andy answered his interlocutor, “No, I guess not.”
I never heard from Andy and have been too timid to tell anyone of this. The county went about its business and the ruins were eventually reclaimed by the forest. Noises and figures are still encountered and stories are still told.
image: Afternoon fog and the trees of the Pacific Northwest – Ecola State Park, Oregon by Justin Kern via Flickr. Justin is a brilliant photographer, please checkout his website and facebook page for more amazing shots.