“Ghost Lamp” | Short Story | Written by Matt Schorr - Mishmashers Mishmashers

“Ghost Lamp” | Short Story | Written by Matt Schorr

Thank you so much for coming, Father Hannigan.”

The priest smiled at Delores Beaumont as he stepped through the front door and entered the foyer. “No need for that,” he told her. “This sort of thing is why I do what I do.”

Delores wasn’t an old woman, by any means. She’d only just crept past middle age by hitting the big five-oh, a milestone she often quipped was her twenty-first twenty-ninth birthday. She also took great care of herself, keeping fit and trim with regular trips to the gym and, no doubt, a rigid diet of the healthiest foods.

As a result, she was a striking woman. Her shoulder-length hair was as blonde as ever, and her figure still had the power to turn even a teenager’s head.

Hannigan wished he’d aged as well. His salt-and-pepper goatee was becoming much more salt than pepper.

And yet, for the first time, Hannigan noticed the appearance of age lines on Delores’ face. They stood out most under her eyes, tiny cracks that wove around her lashes like snakes.

I’m more than happy to pray for your home,” he said as Delores moved past him to close the door. “But may I ask why?”

For several moments she didn’t answer. She stood at the door, her back to him as she stared at the dark, oak finish.

Delores?”

She glanced over her shoulder. She tried to smile at Hannigan, but it was forced. It was a mask, he knew, for some other emotion.

That worried him.

Father,” she began, “what does the Bible tell us about … ghosts?”

That’s an odd question,” Hannigan said. “Are you seeing ghosts?”

Delores turned to face him again. “No,” she answered, and a slight laugh escaped her throat. “Not at all. I just … I was just wondering.”

Father Hannigan took a breath. “Well, according to the Bible, the dead never return to earth. They leave us behind and go to their ultimate reward.”

Delores nodded, then looked down at the floor.

She wore a pair of sweatpants and a loose-fitting T-shirt. The clothes – coupled with her expression – gave her the appearance of a small, frightened girl.

A far cry from the strong, independent woman Hannigan knew her to be.

Of course, you could easily pull information like that up on your phone,” he said. “Talk to me, Delores. What’s troubling you?”

She looked up and smiled. Again, it was a mask, a cover for whatever feeling lurked inside. Hannigan believed he knew what that feeling was – fear.

Would you pray for my house?” she pressed. “That’s really why I called.”

At this hour, though?”

It was just after eight o’clock. Delores called less than fifteen minutes prior, and Hannigan made the trip right away. Something in her voice told him it was urgent, although she’d tried, even then, to hide it.

Please,” Delores whispered.

Hannigan nodded. “OK, on one condition. Afterward, you talk to me.”

She nodded back.

The priest turned and stepped into the living room. Its walls were white, with stained wood moulding. The floors were finished wood, with a white throw rug and glass coffee table in the center. An off-white couch with thick cushions was positioned against the wall, facing a traditional fireplace.

O heavenly Father, Almighty God, we humbly beseech Thee to bless and sanctify this house and all who dwell therein,” Hannigan began, bowing his head and closing his eyes. “Fill it with all good things. Grant to them, O Lord, the abundance of heavenly blessings necessary for life, and direct their desires to the fruits of Thy mercy.”

He heard Delores’ footsteps behind him. She crept across the floor until she stood beside him. Hannigan placed his hand on her shoulder and continued.

Bless and sanctify this house as Thou did the house of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. May the angels of Thy light, dwelling within this house, protect it and those who dwell therein. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Amen,” Delores repeated, her voice a tired sigh.

Hannigan turned to her again. “I’ll offer up whatever prayer you like,” he said, “but I’d much rather you talk to me.”

Delores opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. It seemed, Hannigan mused, that she was on the verge of opening up but thought better of it.

He sighed. “Can we sit?”

Delores nodded again, and they moved to the off-white couch. Hannigan watched her as they sat. She kept her eyes down, as if refusing to look at him.

Is it your husband?” he ventured.

That got her attention. She looked at Hannigan again with startled eyes. He tried to offer a gentle, knowing smile.

It’s OK if it is,” he told her. “It’s only been nine months since Harold passed. Many people believe they see their loved ones after they’ve gone.”

Delores nodded. She still said nothing, but for the first time, she seemed comforted.

A little, anyway.

Hannigan recalled the days after his own father died. Years of alcohol abuse had finally claimed him, and it was Hannigan who’d discovered the corpse. The old man sat in his tattered recliner with a half-empty bottle of Maker’s Mark positioned between his good leg and the stump his time at war had left him.

The smell was the first thing Hannigan had noticed, the cloying stench of piss and shit. It crept into his nostrils and lingered there, which made his eyes water.

The next thing he’d noticed was his father’s eyes. They were wide and vacant, and yet, somehow they seemed to stare right at him. Despite the glossy, empty appearance, they regarded him in much the same way they had when the old man was about to bring the back of his hand across Hannigan’s face.

For months after the funeral, Hannigan dreamed of his father – now an emaciated corpse – crawling across the floor of his bedroom, eager to climb into his bed and knock the hell out his stubborn boy one last time.

Hannigan wondered, did Harold stink when Delores found him?

Did he stare at her?

I haven’t seen him,” Delores said just before sniffling.

She recomposed herself, blinking her eyes dry and taking two firm, measured breaths.

Talk to me then,” Hannigan tried. “Please?”

Delores took another breath. Then, “I don’t see things. Not Harold. Not anything. I mean, yes, I’ve dreamed about him a few times. More than few. But I’m not seeing things.”

Then, what’s troubling you?” Hannigan asked. “It seems you’ve held in whatever it is for quite some time now.”

It’s just…” She blinked again, sniffled, wiped her nose with her hand. “I hear things.”

Hannigan frowned. “Hear things? You mean you hear Harold?”

No.” Delores shook her head. “No, nothing like that. It’s just … noises. Tiny scratches at night.”

Hannigan frowned. He started to offer a suggestion, but Delores beat him to it.

At first, I thought it was rodents,” she said. “I set out traps, but never caught anything. So, I called an exterminator, but he said there was nothing here.”

She shook her head.

I still hear it, though,” she said. “The scratching. It always starts around this time.”

Is … is that why I’m here?” Hannigan asked.

Delores nodded. “I just … I need to know I’m not crazy. I don’t seem crazy, do I?”

Hannigan smiled. “No. Just scared.”

She laughed at that. Her eyes grew moist, and she blinked them dry again.

Did Harold ever tell you about his ghost lamp?” she asked.

Now it was the priest’s turn to laugh. It slipped out of his mouth before he could stop it.

I’m so sorry.” Hannigan gave her what he hoped was an apologetic look. The last thing he wanted to do was insult Delores or the memory of her late husband.

No, it’s OK.” Delores smiled. “I know it sounds silly, especially saying it out loud to someone else. But that’s what he called it.”

A ghost lamp,” Hannigan repeated. “I guess Harold used it to ward off evil spirits?”

Something like that,” Delores sighed, then sniffed again. “He kept it in our bedroom. It was an ugly, old thing, made of what felt like solid steel. And it was heavy. God, it was heavy.” She caught herself. “Sorry, Father.”

It’s all right,” the priest assured her. “The Almighty’s heard worse, I’m sure.”

She smiled. “Anyway, Harold always kept it on. From the day we got married, that lamp never went off. And every weekend, without fail, he’d replace the bulb to be sure it stayed lit.”

Delores’ voice caught in her throat, and she covered her mouth. She closed her eyes to hold back fresh tears.

I turned it off without thinking one day, and he slapped me,” she murmured through her fingers.

Hannigan raised his eyebrows. That was so unlike the man he knew. Harold was a kind and gentle man. He couldn’t even remember seeing him angry. The idea that he could become enraged enough to strike his wife was unbelievable.

He screamed at me to never do that again,” Delores sniffled, eyes still closed, hand still over her mouth. “I could see tears in his eyes, and I knew he wasn’t angry with me. He was terrified. He was so terrified.”

She took a long breath and opened her eyes again. She lowered her hand to her lap and looked at the priest.

When he’d composed himself, he begged me to forgive him,” Delores continued. “That’s when he told me it was a ghost lamp. He said spirits of the dead plagued him as a child, and his mother gave him the light to keep them away. He kept it lit ever since.”

But that must’ve been decades,” Hannigan pressed.

I told you it was old.” Delores chuckled. “I left it on after Harold passed, but I never thought to change the bulb. It finally went out last week.”

Hannigan nodded. “That’s when the noises started.”

Yes.” Delores wiped her eyes and grunted. “Oh, I know it’s crazy. It was just an old lamp. There’s no way it could possibly have anything to do with … whatever’s happening.”

Would you mind showing me the lamp?” the priest asked. “Maybe even bring a fresh bulb, and we’ll replace it together.”

Delores opened her mouth to answer, but stopped. Her eyes grew wide, and she craned her neck upward. The movement was slow, cautious and frightened.

Hannigan followed her gaze. He saw smudges of dust and a cobweb near the corner of the ceiling, but otherwise nothing out of the ordinary.

Then, he heard it.

It was faint, but it was there – a light scraping noise. It brought to mind a squirrel attempting to dig at the wooden framework within the walls, or a mouse chewing on the overhead moulding.

You hear it?” Delores hissed.

Hannigan nodded.

He stood and tilted his head to the side, aiming one ear to the ceiling. The scratching grew quicker, more urgent.

What’s above us?” he asked.

The bedroom.” Delores’ voice cracked on the last syllable.

Show me.”

When he looked back at her, Hannigan saw the woman was trembling. Her eyes remained locked on the ceiling, and her chin quivered. Every impression of the strong woman was gone. Only the frightened girl remained.

Still, she forced herself to stand and, eyes still on the ceiling, turned to lead the way toward the stairs.

They rounded a corner and entered a short hall. The stairs – dark oak, all of them – waited at the end. A single light overhead illuminated them, which gave way to long shadows as Delores and Hannigan drew near.

Each step creaked beneath Delores’ feet. They creaked louder beneath Hannigan’s.

They’re old,” Delores apologized.

They continued the rest of the way up in silence. Once at the top, the hall made a sharp turn and directed them to the bedroom. The door stood open, and the room inside was dark.

Delores stopped and reached for the priest’s hand. He offered it, and she gripped it hard.

Hannigan felt an icy hand of fear take hold of him. It gripped the back of his neck and slid down his back. Once there, it settled into his belly, and his entire body felt cold.

Stay here,” he said.

He moved past Delores, who crossed herself. He continued toward the door, each step feeling like an eternity, and leaned into the room.

The scratching was more noticeable here. It wasn’t within the walls or floorboards, the priest decided. It was in the open, somewhere in the darkness.

He stepped into the room and look around. The bed rested in front of him, and a dresser stood to his immediate left beside the doorway. An old, age-blackened lamp – the ghost lamp, Hannigan surmised – rested atop the dresser. A single chain hung from the darkened bulb.

He moved further into the room, leaving the hallway behind.

When he rounded the foot of the bed, he stopped.

An elderly man was crouched in the floor. His body was unnaturally thin, and a dark, ill-fitted suit hung from his limbs. He scratched at the floor where the walls met, stopping every other moment to cock his head. When he did this, Hannigan could see that the man’s hair was thin enough to see the scalp beneath, and yet hung in strands long enough to reach his emaciated shoulders.

That cold fear in the priest’s gut unfurled into dread and panic, and everything inside his body screamed to get out of this room.

Now.

Get out now.

Then, then man turned to look back at him. His eyes were solid black, bottomless pits that reflected no light whatsoever. His jaw hung wide open, as if unhinged, and the dark tunnel of his mouth spiraled down into his throat.

And yet, there was no mistaking who he was. It wasn’t so long ago Hannigan gazed on the familiar map of wrinkles on the man’s face.

Harold,” he breathed.

Harold regarded Hannigan for a moment. Then, he screamed.

The sound was devastating. It pierced Hannigan’s ears and burrowed into his skull, where it echoed and threatened to drive out any sense of sanity.

The priest screamed and stumbled back. His arms flailed and, out of sheer desperation, he grabbed the ghost map’s chain and pulled as he staggered past.

You’re wasting your time, Father.

It’s burned out, remember?

There’s nothing here but you and the dark.

The chain clicked, and light bathed the room. It shone out like a tiny star, casting light in every direction. It filled the entirety of the area, driving away all darkness.

There was a pop, and the light erupted in brilliance, shining so bright Hannigan shut his eyes against it.

His back struck the floor an instant later. The impact drove out the impression of being bathed in pure, unfiltered light, and the beginnings of what would, no doubt, be several pulled muscles crept their way up his spine.

He opened his eyes, and the room was once again dark. The lamp’s bulb had sputtered its last gasp of energy and burnt out completely.

Hannigan looked about, frantic, in all directions to see what became of the nightmare just witnessed at the foot of the bed. He full expected the monstrosity that was Harold to be upon him in seconds, with that gaping maw of a mouth baring down on him and those empty eye sockets staring into his own.

And that scream. Dear God, that awful scream.

But the room was empty.

Harold was gone.