Fiction Funny

Dr. Conway wore her hair like she expected the universe to speak to her. 

And it did. 

Her sister bought a dilapidated property in Salem, Massachusetts to remodel and flip just when we were reading The Crucible in her concept class on recreations and reimaginings of classic tales. Like the external structures of the ear amplifying regular sound waves, Dr. Conway’s center part and curtain of waves funneled straight to her soul the clarion call of fate beckoning our class on a field trip.

Emma and Clueless, Taming of the Shrew and 10 Things I Hate About You hadn’t drawn any very urgent suggestions from the cosmos, but by October, creation spoke. How better to take onboard the way hysteria gripped those people, turning the whole town into mad dogs at each other’s throats, than by walking the streets of the town itself in spooky season? And, of course, like a bunch of kids at camp, we told ghost stories after dinner. What else were we going to do with no wifi and hardly any light? 

We sat around the huge wooden table, both shiny with oily age and bitten with carved initials, bare bulb in the corner losing its battle with growing shadows as the sun sank and the cloud bank gathered until Shirin declared herself unwilling to ruin her eyesight trying to continue the card game. 

Once the suggestion had been made, Dr. Conway said it was the perfect activity for our class, recreating the famous ghost story session that birthed the two most famous monsters of English letters. Dr. Conway swung out and removed a black cauldron hung from an iron arm over the ashes of the last fire lit in the kitchen hearth before starting a new one. Dancing flames flickered on the white stone floor, as David began painting a picture of teens summoning with a Ouija board, carefully adding the hearth and cauldron to his creation.

“Dutch oven,” Dr. Conway corrected, straightening from her kneeling posture before the fire. 

“Dutch oven,” David agreed with a grin.

 Dr. Conway lifted her flowing skirt hem and floated out, leaving the young people to their talk and the rising wind. The gas furnace worked fine and the house was solid, just dusty and almost totally unfurnished, like a good newly purchased fixer-upper.

“She’s perfect,” Miles quipped when she was gone. “Witch boots and all. Did anybody see a broom?”

“When in Salem…” I started.

“Accuse people of witchcraft, right Abigail?” Janet retorted, neatly encompassing all the jokes about the name I shared with The Crucible’s villainess.

It took me too long to formulate a comeback and I was left just awkwardly explaining, “I wanted to say something about you being a sneaky backstabber even without being named Bianca,” which weirdly made us all laugh harder than if I’d pulled off the joke.  

David resumed his tale. A New England mansion just like this one, a staircase heavily carved in dark wood, just like that one there. They turned their heads to take it in; gargoyles peeped back at them from behind high-relief grape leaves. A disorienting twist of the staircase that left the group of gathered young people, just like this one, unable to find their rooms or each other as cold and voices reached through the halls like icy claws probing the corridors of a doll’s house. 

As his heroine leaves the house, rejected by her fellow seekers, filled with rage and humiliation, there came a distant but distinct tapping. Startled by the interruption, seven ears cocked toward the sound; seven pairs of eyes sought each other for explanation.

“Who would knock at the door of this dump?” I asked, stretching with fatigue but reluctant to go to an empty room upstairs.

“It’s just the wind,” Shirin teased me, but I saw her huddle down into her scarf with a shiver.

Tapping, tapping it came again.

“I’m not sure the doors in this place are secure. I’m going to see if it’s Dr. Conway locked in somewhere,” said another guy, whose name I couldn’t remember, the one with the sweaters and the suntan like he sailed or played golf. 

“I’ll go with you,” I offered, eager to break up the stories and nudge some of my roommates upstairs.

“One of the doorknobs came off in my hands earlier,” Janet added in agreement as we stood to go. “I can’t believe the university even approved for us to come to this deathtrap.”

“You think the university knows she canceled the midterm for anybody who came? They don’t know we’re here.” As they debated, Cableknit and I followed the tapping up the stairs. They turned around, bringing us face-to-face with a statue of some Greek goddess peering from the lintel of the kitchen door.

“Is that a weird place for a statue?” I asked.

“Protecting the kitchen? Maybe.”

“You think if we pull on it a wall will slide open?”

“You try. It looks to me like it has birdshit on it.”

“Tap tap” replied whatever we were pursuing. An unmistakable rattling of a door followed, hastening our steps. “I’m coming,” I sang out as I grabbed the porcelain knob of the nearest closed door. It was a bathroom, empty and lit only by the hook of a moon shining through an octagonal window of cracked glass swinging back and forth on its hinge.

“Conway’s sister is definitely going to have to update that,” I muttered. A whistling gush of wind swung the window back into its pane with a teeth-rattling clatter that made me jump backwards into V-neck. I latched the window shut, mildly surprised to see our cars on the little gravel lot outside, as I had expected to be looking out from a side window.

“Tap tap,” reiterated our original siren.

“Well, I guess now we know the wind sets the house talking,” Cashmere shrugged, trying to look comforting.

“Yeah.” I said with a dismissive shake of the head. “It’s definitely the wind.”

“Let’s just find it anyway to see if we can stop it from keeping us up all night.”

A single bare bulb glowed in the long hall, faintly illuminating the ghost of wear on the hardwood floor where a carpet runner had once lain. Despite my nerves, I pictured that same hall with new bulbs screwed into bright glass fixtures and a floral pattern of wool on the floor dulling the sound of children’s running steps up this hall. Dr. Conway’s sister was going to make a killing.

“Tap tap.”

“We hear you!” Pullover had lost his patience. Still, he moved with his back to the wall and a protective arm outstretched to keep me behind him. I saw the jolt in his shoulders when the next tap, tapping rang through the corridor, closer now. Without really noticing, we had changed our tread to one of stealth, lifting each foot carefully off the floor and resetting it gently to test for creaks. 

Silently I nudged Mainmast and pointed toward a heavy wooden wardrobe, something I imagined stood in for a hall closet in this ancient shamble that had been built without them. The tapping came not from a branch at a window--there were none in this interior corridor--but from behind the door of the wardrobe. 

“Is it a trick? Was anyone away from the table when the tapping started?” I whispered.

“No. Everyone was there…except Dr. Conway.”

“You don’t think?”

He only reached his hand forward by way of explanation, all the days of sun and saltspray now drained from his face.

“Tap tap” whatever was in the wardrobe insisted. 

“What if it’s a trick to lure us away from the others?” I croaked.

He swallowed hard and put on his best brave guy mask. “Whose trick?” he dismissed, but we could both see that the wardrobe was locked from the outside. Still keeping me behind him he stepped up to the dark double doors and lifted the latch.

“Ready?” he asked, though for what, neither of us said. He thrust both doors open in a single rapid motion. A large black bird swooped out at his head. I screamed and turned my body toward the wall, instinctively squatting down and throwing both arms around my head. A heavy thump sounded on the hardwood floor and then another “tap tap,” before Argyle's laughter rang out. 

Cautiously, without lowering my arm to expose my face, I peeked at my companion, now giggling on the floor, clutching a stuffed toy crow, the whine of gears within audible now that its bobbing heading contacted nothing. He let the toy drop and it lay on its face, flapping its wings and tapping its lurid yellow beak against the hardwood floor, while I unwrapped myself from impact position and the thundering feet of our classmates approached.

“Oh my God, Abby! What happened?” Blake wrapped her arms around me.

“What happened to her? I’m the one who got clocked in the head with a mechanical bird,” Poopdeck whined.

“You okay, Archer?” Janet asked. Archer! No wonder I couldn’t remember his name.

Archer pressed a button at the bird’s base. “Caw! Nevermore!” he answered, and “Caw! Nevermore!” the toy played back.

We retold the tale amid the group’s jabs at our foolishness. Miles offered me a hand up to my feet. 

“Still,” said Shirin, tugging at her lip with one silver-ringed finger, “No one has lived here for months, why did it come on now?”

I didn’t want to answer that. 

“Maybe it was on the whole time and we just started to notice it when it got quiet?” Blake suggested.

“The wind picked up when we started hearing it!” David countered, opening wide the wardrobe doors to poke around. I imagined the parents leaving this detested noisy toy behind, answering “Oh no! We must have lost it in the move,” once the resettled child finally noticed it missing. 

David stepped onto the inner edge of the wardrobe itself, reaching shoulder-deep to feel around the top shelf, but found nothing else. He shook his head to let us know it was empty, but as he stepped down and withdrew his arm, some serpent-like thing attached to his sleeve slithered out and swung toward us. I jumped back and clutched Shirin’s arm, trying to get a grip on myself and not repeat the shrieking madness that had brought them all up here, but as David shook the thing loose from the cuff button it had snagged on, it was Shirin who screamed. 

We huddled around, foreheads practically touching, speechlessly staring, searching for some plausible explanation for the noose on the floor. 

Archer was the one who broke the silence, laughing again, but this time mirthlessly. “It’s not a noose,” he declared. He reached out and delicately lifted the rope. “See? The knot doesn’t slip. It’s just a tangled mess with a loop in it.” This seemed to satisfy the others, who breathed easily and straightened up--more discarded kid junk left behind in the move--but Shirin and I still cautiously eyed the rope.

“But why does it look like a noose? Why is it here?” I pressed.

“I don’t know,” Archer said, losing interest and wanting to put the embarrassing episode behind him, “for you to untie,” he said, tossing the knot flippantly at me. 

We looked at each other, but there was nothing else to say. It was a paranoid mistake provoked by the spooky story and the howling wind. Shirin and I tried to put on good faces, but an awkward exchange of looks signaled that we both wanted to head for the girls’ bedroom and avoid the regrouping down in the kitchen. 

We had dropped our ground pads and sleeping bags in the empty room when we arrived, and readying for bed was done in just a moment. 

“What do you think of all this?” Shirin asked, measured voice carefully controlled. 

I shrugged. A talking raven and a noose were objects too telling to be child’s play, and there was the matter of who had switched it on. 

She went on, “Do you think Dr. Conway is trying to show us something about the power of suggestion?” 

I thought about her crooked grin, always knowing more than she let on while she waited for us to figure out the connections between the source text and the recreation of it. It could be. But the ghost stories hadn’t been her idea, and I remembered her correcting David’s “cauldron,” to the more mundane “Dutch oven.” If she wanted us overreacting, she would have pushed the other way, wouldn’t she? 

I could make out Shirin’s worried expression as she lay stretched out on the floor, sleeping bag pulled protectively up to her chin.

“I think it’s just the wind,” I lied, “and an empty house with kid’s things left in it.”

“And the ghost stories,” she finished.

“Just coincidence,” I said, and felt proud of myself for saying so, for a moment later a flash of lighting lit her sleeping face, followed by a crash of thunder that would have kept her awake and on edge, jarred from sleepiness as I was by the instinctive jerking tension in my shoulders.

Hot inside the sleeping bag, I lay awake. Another flash of lightning showed some irregularity in the wall, a ripple raised out of the paint; a drop of blood at the top. The scuff marks in the wood of the floor and the sharp-edged smudge in the white paint of the wall indicated where a bed had stood on its four legs for many years, its occupant touching the walls with a greasy hand or head from time to time; the changing of sheets inching it back and forth away from the wall to the detriment of the oaken floorboards.

Repeating to myself the assurances I’d given Shirin, I approached the ripples in the wall. Pinned just where the sleeper’s eyes would fall as they opened in the morning was a paper, scrawled in a child’s hand, pinned to the wall with a blood red thumbtack. I had to wait for another flash of lightning to see the writing. 

It was a poem of some sort, but it’s meaning I couldn’t make out.

“Bear water find these live

away can’t more begin say”

I could make out no more as the flicker through the window faded, but the conviction that it was a message took hold. Why would they leave on the wall their child’s cryptic poetry? 

I thought of the button Archer had pushed to record his sarcastic “Nevermore.” What prior recording had he erased in doing that? What message sent by the child who had trod these creaking boards? “Bear water find these live?” What could it mean? Did some danger lurk in the tap water? The ghostly face of a child hidden away and slowly poisoned with arsenic floated before my eyes. “Away can’t more begin say.” The child desperately scribbling, unable to state the case plainly lest he be discovered. Or maybe…maybe he’d been locked in all his life and never acquired fluent speech. 

I snatched the paper from the wall and brought it to the window. The sliver of moon, if it shone from this direction, was hopelessly obscured by clouds. The questions swirled in my mind like a fevered dream, I felt myself blown like the tree limbs outside between dismissing the words as nothing and interpreting them in ever more sinister ways. 

Another bolt illuminated the sky.

“good boy again I’ll soon want,” the poem went on. My heart ached for this child, crying out for care, promising he would be good again soon if … if what? What inhuman punishments had his parents put him through to prompt this fear? I thought of the noose slithering to the floor. Had he plotted revenge? Was it inexpert child hands that had formed the slipknot so poorly, leaving only a tangled and unusable mess as some kind of metaphor for the poor child’s life? All of this flashed through my mind in the second or two before the clatter of pursuing thunder descended. 

I considered waking Shirin, but I remembered her fearful shudders and let her rest. The boy and his family had departed, leaving no threat to us. And yet how had the tapping started….

A strike of lightning startled me from my reverie, illuminating the last of the verse:

“animals night round north anger”

“Abby?” Janet asked. I jumped, slipping the paper behind my back. 

I took a deep breath. Pull yourself together, an inner voice hissed at me. 

“Everything all right?” She asked.

“Nevermore,” I quipped, lightening my own mood, and retired to a fitful sleep, disturbed by the animal anger round this north night. 

My companions let me sleep through breakfast, bringing me a cup of coffee and buttered toast when it was already nearly time to go. I walked down the hall with Blake and Shirin, who pulled from her pocket a little gadget. “I had to stop the boys from pranking you with this. They were going to turn it on as you passed the closet again.”

“What is it?”

“The remote control that started the toy bird tapping.”

“It was joke?” I asked alarmed.

“No, it was on the bench at the table. One of us must have sat on it,” she explained. She pushed a button and I heard a distant tapping commence.

“But… but.” I snatched the paper from my back pocket, scanning in the light day for more meaning in the child’s cryptic poem. I turned the paper over and there, in an adult cursive hand “High frequency spelling words. Please hang where your child will see them!”

My mouth fell open as I halted in my tracks.

“Are we ready to head out and see first-hand what the power of suggestion can do to a mind primed to find evil?” chirped the voice of Dr. Conway from the end of the hall. 

September 29, 2023 15:31

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Amanda Lieser
04:28 Oct 15, 2023

Hi Anne! I adored your take on the prompt for this one! Mostly because I think that it’s a great lesson all of us really need to learn from time to time. Suggestion and fear are two very powerful motivators, which I think you used well for this particular piece. I was quaking in my boots as I read each line and heard the tap, tap tap. It also reminded me of all of the reality TV shows where people go and search haunted places for ghosts. How much of that is made for TV how much of it do we find because we are expecting to be frightened? This...


10:32 Oct 15, 2023

Thanks so much for the support. It’s also supposed to be a joke about Northanger Abbey, and literary jokes are definitely my wheelhouse, but the spoof on the Gothic only works if you hit the Gothic, and ghost stories are definitely not my comfort zone. So thank you so much for quaking in your boots and taking the time to tell me so!


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Kathryn Kahn
21:09 Oct 05, 2023

As a Jane Austen fan, I appreciated your title and the running joke with that novel. It's very funny to contrast the two stories -- both about the power of suggestion. Your first line, by the way, is brilliant.


04:01 Oct 06, 2023

Thanks so much for reading and leaving nice comments! There was a lot of fun in writing this one.


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Helen A Smith
09:51 Oct 04, 2023

You kept me on the edge of my seat with this one. I didn’t know which way it was going to go which made it enjoyable. Dr Conway was a well-drawn character. Wise and clever. Humorous, but a few life lessons here too.


18:19 Oct 04, 2023

Thanks so much for reading my work! Glad it kept you interested!


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Michelle Oliver
09:22 Oct 04, 2023

Very well told. I loved the references to the classics, from the title, which definitely caught my attention to the Raven it had such an authentic gothic feeling in the narration. I particularly enjoyed the different names Abigail made up for the boy she couldn’t remember. Mainmast, Poopdeck. It made me like Abby just that much more to find she was flawed. Cursed with an inability to remember names and making up derogatory nicknames, so childish yet so relatable.


18:17 Oct 04, 2023

Thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed the nicknames—they made me laugh, and especially glad the gothic worked! Thanks for taking time to comment!


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Rebecca Miles
21:28 Oct 02, 2023

This was an intertextual treat for any fans of the gothic or books generally. From the play on the title to Poe's raven, this had one teacher feeling guilty at not attempting to take learning " out of the classroom" more often. Good old Dr Conway both stoking the fires of suggestion and pedantically nailing it a Dutch oven. That's an English teacher if ever there was one!


21:34 Oct 02, 2023

Thanks for reading, Rebecca! Northanger Abbey was too tempting for this prompt: a spoof of a spoof! I know it was too much to expect anybody to get the references to Benito Cereno (which no one’s ever read, but should) but I hoped the Raven and Hill House and a little Wuthering Heights would land. I’m so glad you read it! Don’t take your students to camp on the floor of a run down mansion!


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Michał Przywara
20:40 Oct 02, 2023

Very good! I've never met a ghost I didn't invent, and the ones I invented scared the crap out of me. I was really curious to see what people would come up with for this prompt, and I think this nails it. The setup is perfect for all kinds of horror stories. But nothing happens. Some tension, some bruised egos perhaps, and an excellent field lesson. The comedy is in the giddy relief we get, when we realize some horrible thing was just mundane and we flew off the handle. The poem especially was fantastic, and I'll admit I was digging for ...


21:03 Oct 02, 2023

Oh, but that’s the fun of it— it all does mean something. Practically everything in this is a reference to a gothic classic and whole class about recreations of classic tales itself recreates Northanger Abbey. North Anger, Abby was just a stopgap title and it came to me today it should have been called A Gothic Tour. Anyway, thanks for the nice comments and for reading.


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Mary Bendickson
01:13 Oct 01, 2023

Perfect set up for a haunting tale.🏚️


17:04 Oct 01, 2023

Thanks for reading, Mary!


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Chris Miller
11:56 Sep 30, 2023

Very good. Brave people just lack imagination! A clearly developed sense of tension and fear that will be familiar to readers. Point very strongly made about the human propensity to find evil/threat. Does it result in some things being seen as good or virtuous when all they actually are is safe or unthreatening? Some nice word choices to continue your themes - ghost in the hall, make a killing, Dr Conway's voice 'chirped'. Good stuff.


13:19 Sep 30, 2023

Thanks for reading as always, Chris. I don't know if I should be pleased that the themes worked better than I expected or disappointed that the giggles didn't work as well. I don't typically do spooky, so I'm glad I didn't land on my face in that aspect. "ghost" and "a killing" where definitely deliberate, but "chirped" was just serendipity.


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