Fiction Writing: Ghost Hunters Part 1 – S. H. Marpel
Welcome to the world of John Earl Stark. A wonder-filled world. Seriously.
It was another gloomy night and there I was, out on the pasture with dungarees stuffed into mudboots, arms and chest inside my chore jacket, and head covered by ball cap. Somewhere there had been a calf bawling and wouldn’t shut up enough to let me sleep. The tall grass and brush was making my walk tough. A stumble now and then. At least my feet were staying dry and warm. But the odd tree branch would catch my hat or whip my face from out of the dark.
I didn’t like tending cattle in the dark, but I’d forgotten any flashlight. My cedar staff in one of my leather-gloved hands was helping me find my way. The other was out in front to find those tree branches.
A thick root caught my boot, and my staff only helped slow my fall instead of keeping any balance.
Landing with my other hand out, and rolling to my shoulder kept my face out of the muddy ground. Knees were soaked through from cold mud instantly. And I was on my back where my long chore coat at least was keeping my butt and shoulders dry – for now.
So I rolled back over to knees and hands, using the staff to get myself back upright.
And saw the ghost.
Typical lightish form, almost like thick smoke that was holding together somehow.
“OK – who are you and what do you want?” I asked.
And a typical moan came back to me. This one wasn’t going to cooperate.
So I spoke again, “Look, you can talk. Use your English.”
“Well, you don’t have to be snippy.” was the reply.
“You saw me in the mud and you know it’s cold and wet out here. The only reason I’m out here and not in my warm, dry bed is because of some over-vocal calf. You didn’t have something to do with it?”
A short of shrug seemed to take place in that form. Slowly it morphed into something that looked like a body.
“Oh, sorry. Yes, that was me. Hope I didn’t cause it too much upset.” Another shrug. ”But I was told you could help me.”
“Me, help you? How about coming during the day time? Maybe in dry weather?” I snipped back.
“Again, my apologies. There just isn’t much time.” Now the face and body of the ghost showed. A younger girl, wearing a flowered sundress.
“OK, back up. Tell me your name and we’ll see.”
“I’m Amanda, or was. And I have to figure something out before they come and get me.” A tremble in her voice told her fear of whoever they were.
“Amanda, relax a bit. Focus on what you have to figure out. What can you tell me about it?”
“I don’t know if he loves me…” Her hands went up to her face and she started sobbing.
Not knowing how to console a ghost physically, I was forced to use my wits.
“Amanda. Listen to me. Focus on my voice. You’re here in the woods near a cow pasture. I’m here with you.” She quit sobbing and wiped the tears from her face, and sniffed.
“That’s a good girl. Now, you love someone and want to figure out if he still loves you, right?”
She nodded, her hands clasped in front of her chin, fingers interlocked.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“We were walking. I’d been writing in my diary and he surprised me. So we were walking back to the village. We stopped on a bridge over a creek. He got curious about the diary and tried to grab it from me. He finally got it and when I tried to get it back, I lost my balance and fell off the bridge.” She then started sobbing again, head in hands.
“Amanda. Look at me. There you go. Now, what can you recall after that?”
“I was looking down at my body in the creek and he had run down the bank to get it out of there, and then pulled it over to the bank and tried to push the water out of its lungs. But then he saw the blood on the back of my head and backed away. At that point he scrambled back up the bank and started running down the road away from me and the bridge. The last thing I remember is the diary laying open on the bridge by itself. I tried to pick it up and and couldn’t.” She was looking at me directly now, her grief was through, even though her teary eyes remained.
“So, he was trying to save your life, even though he put himself at risk to get you?”
“Meaning that you meant quite a lot to him.”
She nodded again.
“And his running away was probably to get some help for you?”
She nodded and smiled.
“Does that answer your question?” I asked.
Amanda smiled. “Well, yes. I guess it does. Thanks.”
She looked off into the distance and a light brightened her face, coming from somewhere. She turned back and smiled at me again. “Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
Then she stepped toward whatever light she was looking at. And vanished.
Then I woke up in my bed, completely dry. I sat up. Jacket was dry, hanging on the wall with my dungarees. Mud boots below them were also dry, no mud anywhere.
My knees and feet were dry and warm under the blankets.
I could use less dreams like that.
And I’d forgotten to ask who sent her to me – or who was after her…
I was just cleaning up after breakfast when I met the two of them. Sure, they appeared like ghosts, but were something more. And when you don’t believe in ghosts that gives you a bit of a start. Or a bit of an edge.
Well, it’s not that I didn’t believe in ghosts, I just believed in life more. To me, ghosts were just another part of life. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Anyway, I was cleaning up after breakfast, A white Corelle plate, a ceramic mixing bowl, and cast-iron skillet. All I needed to prepare most meals. Meanwhile I was nursing a chipped white mug of coffee with two spoonfuls of honey in it.
This remote, minimalist, 96 square foot tiny-home cabin had everything I claimed to own in it. Well, except for a 20-year-old dark blue pickup truck that sat outside it, the one that took me to town every week or so.
Because the point was to write, and read, and write some more. No other distractions.
All the writing I could do, when I wasn’t checking the livestock and their fences, part of the deal for living here on this remote farmstead.
My needs were few. A Thoreau type of living.
There I was, standing at the basin I used for a sink, and had just rinsed off the last of the dishes, setting them out to air dry on a folded flour-sack dish cloth. I’d already wiped out the skillet with a paper towel and set it to cool.
It was then I heard the knock at my front door.
I started at that. I don’t get many visitors and usually hear a car or truck drive up. Even with the heavy outside door shut (which it wasn’t) I should have heard an engine wind-down, the gravel smooching under the tires, the vehicle door open and shut.
This visitor just showed up. Well, at least she knocked.
A measured average female voice came after that knock. “Hello. Hope I didn’t startle you too bad. At least I waited until after breakfast.”
“Excuse me, but who are you?”
“Oh, sorry. Call me Sal. I’m just here to ask you some questions. No, I’m not selling anything, but hope you are the one we’ve been looking for.”
I dried my hands on an old plaid wash towel and hung it on its wooden rung. Everything had a place around here. It had to. Not enough space to waste any.
The sunshine of the early morning was just peeping up for the day. It came from behind her through the door and windows on the East wall. Backlighting her. I could only see her form, wearing some sort of jacket and pants. All the screen door allowed me to to see with the glare.
“Hi Sal, I’m Hugh. I’ll be out in a second.” I checked the room to make sure everything was back in place. The bed was made back into its usual couch. The tidied desk with the rolling swivel chair pushed in. The laptop, a legal pad, and pen were ready for use, as always. Otherwise, with my chore coat on its hook by the door, blue denim ball cap on top of it, and my boots below it, that was all this Thoreau cabin needed.
All was as it should be, predictable. Simple. Like the life I’d led for the past few years. Until now.
With a nice Spring day, it would be better to sit on the two chairs out front than invite a stranger into my tiny cabin. And I had two chairs outside. For one for a visitor, one for me, except on stormy days.
And where was that dog? She should have been barking. Bertie, my Labrador mix was always alert and protective. She’d gone out when I had first gotten up. Should have been barking.
“Coming out.” I announced to my visitor. (Didn’t want to hit her with the screen door, since it opened out.)
Sal moved back and stepped off the narrow porch back onto the gravel drive, over to one side to allow me to push the aluminum screen door open. I saw why the dog wasn’t barking. That visitor was scratching the dog’s head, right behind the ears, and the lolling tongue told me they were new friends. By that, Bertie told me this stranger wasn’t one, or didn’t need to be.
So I stuck out my hand. Sal grasped it with a firm grip and shook it. Her warm hands soft, and smallish compared to my calloused, oversized mitts that were made more for farming than typing.
As she let go, I saw her jacket was part of a suit, and it matched her pants. An off-white, pin-striped with gold thread. Tailored to her trim form. Three matching off-white buttons, which left the jacket apart to show a white blouse that buttoned right up to her neck. Business attire.
Not like me, who wore my usual blue, worn cotton dungarees, red cotton pocket t-shirt under a grey sweatshirt. Thick gray wool-blend socks.
Her face was light-colored, surrounded by soft and curling blonde-streaked brunette hair, which fell just below her shoulders. A smile lit her face, which had no freckles or tan, but not so light to tell that she’d been inside all the time. And no wrinkles to say she’d been outside much, either. All this in a glance, something we writers practice, getting details fast.
“Again, I’m sorry to come without notice, and hope I didn’t startle you too much.” She spoke again in that soothing tone, Not having to raise her voice.
“No, I was just finishing up, so it was a good point. Here, have a seat.” I motioned to the solid wood chairs that sat on each side of the door of that small porch. Toward the one closest to her on the right. I took the other on the left. On an 8-foot porch, that left just enough room for the door to open in between.
“How can I help you?” I asked.
She smiled a perfect smile. “Funny you should phrase it that way. But that’s just like you. We need your help to correct a little problem. It’s about Death.”
Death was both interesting and repelling at the same time. On a farm, you deal with Death as a constant companion, the constant stress to keep things as alive as you could all year round, but knowing the fact of dying was inevitable. Harvest was yearly, which meant living things died as scheduled.
I asked, “How could I help you with Death? Not yours, I hope.”
She smiled and looked out to the East, where the sun was higher now and gave a contrast to the long gravel drive up the hill. The grassy edges struggled to contain a pair of gravel driveway paths. Trees and shrubs started up a few yards from each side of that, just behind wooden fences built out of native oak poles laid up criss-crossed against steel t-bar posts. These fences snaked their way up the drive as a warning to cows they tried to hold in.
We both enjoyed the view. Death seemed the furthest away possible on a nice day like today.
Sal turned back towards me. “The problem you can help us solve doesn’t have to do with anything dying, the problems start with the ones that don’t want to fill their end of their bargain.”
“How could Death be a bargain?”
“Like everything, there are established forms and sequences. When living things die, then they should move on. Nature then digests what was left behind. That’s the deal, the bargain.”
“You mentioned ‘we’?”
“Oh, of course. My associate should be here any second.”
As if on cue, there was a loud thump in the cabin. It sounded like some weight had dropped a few feet to the floor. Darkness filled the cabin, and seemed to flow out of the screens on the open windows and doors. Someone or something was coughing inside.
I jumped to my feet and reached to open the screen door. Sal met me there, and put her hand on mine. “Just wait a second. She likes to be dramatic. Let the dark settle out.”
With her warm touch, I kept my hand on the screen door handle. And waited, looking into her eyes for a signal.
At last the darkness quit flowing out and the coughing stopped. Sal nodded, and I opened the door.
There was a raven-haired beauty looking at me, one hand to her mouth as the tears welled in her dark-brown eyes. She wore a slinky, low v-cut, long-sleeved black dress that flowed to the floor and then some. Tall, dramatic collar. Long, wide sleeves showed with one arm holding her hand to her mouth and teary eyes. Thin eyebrows raised and forehead creased as if apologetic for casting a wrong spell.
Sal spoke. “This is Judeth. Or Jude, as she goes by these days.”
Jude took her free right hand and extended it my way. While wiping the tears from her eyes with the other. “Glad to meet you.” She coughed once more.
Sal frowned. “Jude, the coughing doesn’t seem to do well with all the darkness.”
Jude looked at her with still bleary eyes. “Yea, there’s work to do on the entrance. That darkness can suck the air out just when you need it most.”
The darkness had evaporated by then. We were all three now in the tiny cabin. Which had even less room with that many people standing there.
Sal noticed my discomfort. “Hugh, Jude, it’s a beautiful day, let’s take this talk outside.” Looking at Jude’s dress she said, “And why don’t you change into something more appropriate. With sturdy shoes.”
Jude looked down at what she was wearing and raised her head with a thin smile. “Guess you’re right. Please excuse me.”
Jude then turned around and made a gesture I couldn’t see from behind her. The dress shrank around her legs and arms, retracting into itself. It formed into a black satin suit jacket over tight black flare-legged jeans. Her feet were now in black boots, visible only as toes just stuck out beneath the jeans in front.
Jude then turned back around. A black blouse, with high collar, but unbuttoned well down her chest, completed the outfit. Jude tugged down the cuffs of her shirt sleeves inside her jacket. All with a broad smile.
Looking direct to me, Jude asked, “How to you like it?”
I closed my dropped jaw, and stuttered out, “Looks good on you.”
“Thanks.” She said, pushing a stray lock behind an ear, while she continued to look deep into my eyes.
Sal interrupted. “I’ll be just outside. Jude, you coming?”
Jude curled her smile into a wistful grin. “Sure. Hugh needs his boots and somewhere to put them on. We girls don’t need to crowd him so much.”
The two women left, and I could smell their different fragrances in the cabin. One of violets, the other of roses.
I sat on the bunk/couch and pulled my workbooks over, tugging my feet into them. Grabbing my ball cap and brown chore jacket, I was ready for an outdoor conference with these two ladies.
Outside, I saw that Jude now crouched in front of Bertie, who found another fast friend. Bertie’s tail was wagging and Jude had another wide smile on her face. Sal was standing nearby, with a wistful grin of her own.
Sal looked at me, “It’s like you have a little piece of heaven here.”
I answered, “In the Spring, everything is fresh and green and alive. Heaven would be a good word for it. Especially now, with the young calves birthing and hatchlings of all types.”
“Let’s head out to the hill top,” I suggested. “The dew won’t be so heavy there.”
Passing through the open, faded red wooden gate, we entered the well-grazed pasture. While there were cow-paths we could use, they had cropped the grass so short over winter it was easy walking it three abreast. The new growth was still short enough to hold little dew. I thought of this in regard for my visitor’s long pants and city-type footwear.
We walked for a time in quiet as I saw these women were reveling in all this natural beauty. Like they didn’t get to enjoy this often. The farm has that effect on people. It’s why I came here to write.
My curiosity finally prompted me to speak, “OK, tell me who you really are and what you really need from me.”
Sal looked across at Jude, who was walking on the other side of me, both were smiling. “Well, if you stop here we’ll give you the explanation you deserve.”
We stopped. The two girls moved to my front, facing me at a conversational distance. The sun to their backs gave more highlights to their hair. My ball cap visor kept the sun out of my eyes so I didn’t have to squint.
“Hugh, we are not normal humans, in fact, we work for Death.”
OK, that’s a bit weird. Working for Death. I had no reaction to this as I knew more was coming. No, they weren’t “regular humans.” Appearing out of nothing, and changing clothing wholesale, already got me over any idea of that.
Sal interrupted my thoughts. “Jude and I work together, as we have since Time was young. We help people move on after they die. And recently, we’ve been told that our methods haven’t been efficient enough.”
“You mean, there’s management running your operation?”
“In so many words, yes. There are laws and rules, ‘company policies’ within that metaphor, and we have to stick within those guidelines. Our ‘job description’ is helping our clients to stay within those guidelines. This is where you come in.”
“You’re going to either say I’m about to die, or become one of you?”
Jude smiled and cocked her head. “Not that we wouldn’t mind having a hunk like you around, but no. Neither of those options are on the table. Only regular humans can solve our ‘client’s’ problems.”
Sal continued. “The problem we are having is with our clients. Too many of them aren’t able to stick to the guidelines, and so don’t transition.”
I was catching on. “So you mean there’s a certain percentage of acceptable ‘ghosts’ and ‘specters’ and you’re ‘over quota’?”
“Exactly.” Sal and Jude looked at each other, relieved.
Jude said to Sal with a quiet voice, “I knew we picked out a good one this time.”
Sal just smiled more and turned my way. “So what questions do you have?”
I had dozens. “The first point is why should I accept this job? I already have two – writing and managing this place.”
“Because the way we operate, you won’t miss any time from either of them. We bring you back within minutes of leaving. Here, let’s show you how that works.”
Sal and Jude took each other’s hands, and each took one of mine. The scenery shimmered and became the inside of the tiny cabin. We were just inside the door where there was enough space for all of us to fit.
Sal spoke first. “We don’t have to hold hands every time, but this cabin is so small, it helps us fit better when we arrive.” They then let go of my hands.
“Now, fill up your coffee mug.”
I’d brewed my coffee this morning and had emptied my first mug-ful with breakfast. The coffee maker was in reach of my desk, the mug nearby. So I turned around, picked up the mug, and filled it up again. Then turned back to face them. The warm coffee inside the mug steamed with its thick aroma.
“Ok, now put it down on your desk. You see the steam rising off of it?”
The women took my hands again. The cabin shimmered.
When the shimmering cleared, we were in Griffith Park, Los Angeles. Its Observatory parking lot. All was almost pitched black outside the street lights and architectural lighting for the buildings. The moon was high in the sky, and the L. A. streets twinkled through their own lights as they stretched off toward the ocean. Behind us, the mountains were dark and nearly invisible in their gloom.
While we could hear the sirens and street traffic, there was none around us, and the parking lot was bare of cars.
“This isn’t just early morning, is it?” I asked.
“No,” Sal said. “This is two weeks before we were in your cabin. That moon was a sliver on the horizon when we left your place and now it’s nearly full, high in the sky.”
Jude added, “Different place, a different time. Now, watch.”
An apparition shifted from a fog-like mist on the west side of the parking lot to take a near-solid form. It looked solid, real. Except there was something unreal about it. Maybe it was the staring eyes and the fact that its feet walked through the parking curbs instead of stepping over them.
The straight line it was walking didn’t deviate. And it was coming straight toward us.
“So this is one of your ghosts you need to deal with?” I asked,
“One of them. Not our worst.” Sal replied.
“Worst is what? This one is darned spooky. It would keep most people wondering for months of nightmares,”
“True enough. But there are ghosts who are far spookier, and more dangerous.”
The specter was a slight young girl, dressed in something out of the 50’s, it looked like. Sweater over a simple blouse. Full skirt below the knees, bobby-socks, and saddle-back black-and-white shoes. Her face was blank, her eyes focused on something beyond us.
She got closer and never saw us or slowed down. She kept going, walking right on through us. I flinched, but the girls didn’t.
I turned around to see her dissolve right through the front wall of the Observatory tourist shop without slowing her pace.
Just then, Sal shouted, “Look out!”
I turned to look and there was some cosmic pinwheel-shaped rift in the sky. A few feet off the ground. Just where we had seen the girl appear. A red-orange fireball pushed out of it and shot right toward us.
Sal grabbed one of my hands at the same time Jude grabbed the other.
The view shimmered, just as the fireball was nearly on us…
We were back in my cabin again. It was daylight.
No fireball. No Griffith Park.
My mug of coffee still steamed on my desk. The spring air was still wafting through my screen door and windows. A mockingbird was singing in a tree outside. While a momma cow lowed for her babe in a distant pasture.
I picked up the mug and sipped it. Still hot and sweet, with a dark mix of chicory and Brazilian beans.
“Ok, you proved your point. Time and space aren’t limits to you two.”
I rolled out my desk chair. “I need a seat. There’s a folding chair behind the door, or you can both use the couch.”
I sat. Sal pulled out the folding chair, another solid wood arrangement. She set it up and sat down on it, crossing her jean-covered legs in one smooth motion. Jude flounced onto the couch and felt the quilted comforter with her hand. Then reclined as her hand slid across, down to her elbow, and then back up to prop her head. And smiled again.
She presented a far more feminine a view than I needed.
Sal frowned at her, and Jude sat back up. “I couldn’t help it, sis. This is just a great comforter. We should get one.”
“So you can just get a certain someone under it?”
“Well, the thought had crossed my mind…”
I sipped my coffee in silence, smiling at these two. If we went into business, it would be a very interesting time, for sure. Their banter was amusing. I hadn’t talked this much in months, let alone with a matched pair of good-looking gals.
Sal looked at me. “So, what do you think?”
“Well, the transportation is fine. But you said there might be dangers. I take that fireball would have been the end of us?”
Jude said, “You, certainly. Us, not so much. But uncomfortable, for sure.”
Sal added. “Of course, there’s training you’ll need to do as part of it. Just to keep you safe.”
I nodded. “Safe is a good thing. But why do you want me and why me in particular?”
Sal answered, “It’s your unique skill set. You’re not just a writer, and not just a farmer. We’ve been reading your books and see there’s something else you have. You may not even know it.”
Jude added, “On top of your rugged good looks, you write detective stories. And this will give you a lot more stories. Because the reason each of these ghosts are still around is a mystery. To both them and everyone else…”
Sal jumped in. “Well, mostly everyone else. That fireball was a discouragement.”
“Like someone knew we were coming?” I asked.
“Exactly.” Sal replied. “That particular ghost is probably easy to solve, and so we visit her with potential hires. That was a booby-trap set to take us unaware. But since we’ve sprung that before, it wasn’t a real surprise.”
“Well, good you weren’t surprised. But I got quite a start out of it. Not like a day of writing.”
Jude said, “Just a start? Well, OK, what does it take to get you good and scared? Or even terrified?”
I took another sip of coffee and let that sink in. “Well, that’s not done with any ease these days. I’ve already lived a lot and recovered after many freak-outs. And dying itself isn’t even all that interesting a threat. Been there, done that. But you know my history.”
Sal said, “Yes, we’ve read one of your papers on ‘Erasing the Fear Aspect.’ Fascinating approach. Surviving major surgery with an out-of-body experience was another. And together with your fiction led us to find you.”
Jude leaned forward, elbow on the top knee of her crossed legs. “That’s a rare talent. Combat vets don’t even overcome that. It’s what makes PTSD. Repressed fears and anxieties. That’s why we want you to consider our offer.”
I smiled. “Offer? To go and decipher the background of ghosts? And face fireballs of death? I think maybe my life is simpler here.”
Sal nodded. “Of course it is. But consider how bored you’re getting these days. Your stories have been taking a lot more action into them, but the hero is just taking it in stride. Your main character is more often than not just sitting bored like Sherlock waiting for a remarkable case to appear and meanwhile practicing his violin.”
I agreed. “Yes, you have me there. All authors write themselves into their stories. The main character most times.”
Jude said, “Besides that, you’ve already passed many of the tests.”
I was puzzled. “Tests?”
Jude continued, “Remember that dream you had last night? The one about the girl and the bridge and her diary?”
I put the mug down on the desk before I could drop it. “Wait, all these weird dreams about ghosts lately – that was you two?”
Jude nodded. Then sat back against the couch pillows and hooked her hands together behind her head. “Of course, if you like being bored and want to miss out on all these great stories, well…”
Again, this was a more feminine view than I needed. And both these girls knew this. Sal had a wry grin on her face, watching Jude using her charms to get what she wanted.
I swiveled to Sal to take parts of my mind off the display. “Is there something else I’m supposed to get besides just story inspiration? Beside getting to see you two now and then? I don’t need more distraction from my writing – that’s why I’m out here.”
Sal smiled again at this. “Just think of that inspiration. You get to be Watson and Holmes all in one. Solve the case and then write it up. Regular weekly installments, new cases. Some tougher than others, none commonplace.”
I picked up my mug to sip my coffee again. “You both know I don’t need inspiration, my imagination is far more active than either of you could keep up with. That’s why I took up writing. Just to have an outlet.”
“And is why you moved out here, so you could settle your thoughts.” Sal agreed. “And we also know you’re bored stiff and want a little break now and then.”
“OK, you got me there.” I replied. “How about a salary? Or other income?”
“Just look up your online account. Check your email, you’ll see you’re already rewarded for the few minutes we’ve taken.”
The smartphone in my pocket buzzed, announcing an email arriving. Shifting to pull it out of a back pocket, I fished it out with my non-coffee-mug hand and thumbed up the display. “Four figures for a few minutes work. Not bad.”
“And that’s yours to keep or donate or anything you want.” Jude was now reclined on the comforter again, watching her fingers trace idle patterns on its surface.
I paused to admire the view. Jude looked up at me with one eyebrow raised above twinkling eyes and a devilish grin.
I glanced back at Sal, who was also smiling. “So, life-threatening adventure and money. What else could a guy ask for?”
Jude opened her mouth, but Sal broke in, “There is still the training do. And you’ll have to satisfy us that you’re up for the job. You’ll get paid during the training…”
Jude interrupted. “Unless you die in the process…”
Sal frowned and continued, “But we won’t let that happen….”
Jude spoke again. “Not just because you’re so damned cute, but because we’ll be there to ensure we save that tight bum of yours before you get it into trouble.”
Sal’s cheeks reddened at that. “What Jude meant to say is that we take every precaution with our trainees. And we haven’t lost very many, but there are risks.”
I smiled at this. These two were making my life interesting, to be sure.
“OK, I’m in.”
The room shimmered. I had only enough time to put my coffee mug down before the desk disappeared…
If you liked this article, or got something out of it…
PS. Sharing is caring – go ahead and send this on to someone you know.
Also published on Medium.