I put sensitive content to play it safe, but that warning is a stretch. Just some ghostly stuff.
The Vengeful Haunting of Ernest by Best-Friend Ivan
Autumn had begun browning the hedge much earlier that year. This captured Ernest’s attention, as he meticulously hosed his lawn from corner to corner, and was the first fresh thought to interrupt his graft since he had found Ivan motionless on his potato patch next door two weeks prior. The days since had been tough, but the variegated darkening of the leaves offered a timely distraction from those lingering visions of the whites of Ivan’s upturned eyes and the deep red of his gaping mouth.
Both were widowers of more than two decades and their friendship since had evolved into a brotherhood. Ernest had, however, so much left to say, but there were no goodbyes that afternoon, only another Friday planting potatoes on his own patch.
For much of the decade prior to Ivan’s death, they had competed in regional potato-growing contests, annually. Neither was ever a threat to the wider gardening population, but the chance to outgrow each other was enough incentive alone. Ernest’s patch neatly ran along the edge of his patio, while Ivan’s had resided at the bottom of his garden. This strategic discrepancy could be attributed to Ivan endorsing a greater period in the evening sun, while Ernest favored the baking heat of mid-day. As with most matters, the two of them found the other expressing a different attitude to their own, and often with impenetrable stubbornness.
Ernest continued to drench the grass in mourning until, again, the hedge pulled his attention away. The leaves were browning, this was normal, but they were patchy, sporadic, and to a man who had spent decades working no more than 20 feet away, completely unnatural. He placed the hose on the lawn and approached the hedge. Looking more closely, the outer edges were predominantly brown, but the central region had thus far resisted the oncoming season. It was in this region of green and yellow that a bewildered Ernest saw in mosaic-like patterning, the words, “The soil beneath”.
Ernest was not a church-going man but was one to believe a ghost story or two and the closer he found himself to the grave, the more compelling he found those stories would feel. So, while rattled by this apparition, he did not shun with incredulity, or scream “prank” into the quiet street. Instead, he, breathed, soaked in the moment, and prepared to embrace the unknown.
“What is it, Ivan? You left me something?”
Ernest had immediately recognized the felicitous nature of a buried gift. They had never seen eye-to-eye concerning gardening matters, and often light competition would be sullied by nefarious tactics, but wrapping a parting gift in soil was deliciously apt. So, while still unsettled, he welcomed the humor sugaring his friend’s little haunting.
“Very good Ivan. Always one to get the last word… and making me work for it as well… that is so very you. But work for it I shall my friend. I shall dig through the turf and into the soil; I shall dig deeper and deeper, foot after foot until I unearth your parting present to me.”
And this is what Ernest did: He dug for the remainder of the afternoon. But as he dug, he recalled their final years together and as those events played out in his mind, he was saddened.
Often their gardening rivalry had gone too far and both said regrettable things. Ernest had, in recent years, also purchased potatoes rather than grown them, dusting them in dry dirt to disguise them as his own. Maybe Ivan had been right to grow farther away from the patio, but Ernest was too proud to admit this and resorted to underhand tactics, and now Ivan was gone, the seed of guilt had been planted in his heart.
Once that seed was planted, it was further watered by other questionable behaviors. Their mornings following breakfast unfolded like clockwork: A game of Scrabble and a dive into the morning newspapers, before retreating to their respective gardens. As Ernest had grown older, his Scrabble prowess had waned and he was often prone to stealthily switching out a letter here and there. Like the potatoes, this once felt harmless, but now he only felt the dishonesty; a dishonesty heightened by Ivan’s mysterious overseeing.
The newspapers had also introduced ever-increasing acrimony. From politics to gossip, no exchange went well, and worst of all these disputes would bleed into the garden with acerbic exchanges over the fence. Ivan was a man of few words, but in these moments, he knew exactly how to sting Ernest. And although the sting of these moments passed, he couldn’t help but feel they took their toll on Ivan’s heart.
So as he scooped and tossed the soil these thoughts swelled, until what began as a niggle, evolved into torment, and still nothing was unearthed.
“Am I digging for nothing my friend? If this is a parting jibe, I am too old to be over-exerting for nothing. Was your competitive edge sharper than I thought? What about the borrowed saucepan and the shoulder to cry on, and what of the rides to the hospital... or the birthday barbeques? Did it all mean nothing? Oh Ivan you old fool, did 50 years of friendship deteriorate into something dire?”
Exhausted he lay back on the grass and 20 minutes were spent in reverie. He thought of his friend and the regrets he had, he thought of the petty bickering, and he wished for a chance to thank Ivan for his company and his ever-present ear over the years.
Despite his attention being directed back to the garden by a sprinkle of light rain on his face, he continued to lay in repose for several minutes more as his clothes dampened. Once the rain began to pour more heavily, he lifted his stiff body off the lawn and ran inside for a sheet to cover the fresh crater. Returning, he stopped dead at the crater ledge as he saw a mysterious pattern forming in the soil and moisture. Again, this was not a random manifestation of nature, but something controlled. The rain pooled and the soil darkened, until another message, more chilling, appeared: “The fire poisons”.
“What is this Ivan? What fire? Are you burning or is this another clue?”
Ernest collected himself and considered the messaging with greater poise. Were there more messages to be found?
The next steps on the path of torment that Ivan was laying was obvious: The living room fireplace, which Ernest swiftly made his next destination. He trotted back across the lawn and around his potato patch, opened his patio door, and entered the house. Out of the sun, Ernest’s world felt oppressively darker, and as such, Ivan’s visitation unsettled him further. He crept through the house, as if in fear of an intruder, before reaching the living room.
The fireplace was unlit, which he remedied with a stricken match, bringing the coal remains to a modest flame. As the fire burned brightly, he inspected the ornate metal surface arching behind the fire. No clear message stood out.
“Ivan, Ivan, what of this fire? Am I on the right track in your game? Or are the poisonous flames flickering somewhere beyond my comprehension? You were a good man, as was I. I loved Agnes, and you loved Dorothy until the very end. What fires do you speak of?”.
He paused, catching his breath. He scanned the room in desperation before a painting on the wall to his right caught his eye. The painting is a cross-section of an old house. Many would note the creepiness of a doll’s house in a picture, and Ivan would deride it for this very reason.
“Nowhere but a child’s playroom should a doll’s house ever be, either built or drawn”, Ivan would often say. Ernest would always insist it wasn’t a doll’s house.
But what now captured Ernest’s attention in a way it never had before was that in the room painted bottom left stood a roaring fire. The oils were brighter, redder, and more brilliant than he had ever before noticed.
Leaning into the painting to better marvel at the glowing embers within its edges, he reached forward to gently rub the painted fire. Pulling back sharply, Ernest yelped as his finger was subjected to a burn not unlike that from a hot kettle or stove. He sucked his finger desperately, wincing away the pain. As he did this, the roaring flames began to spread violently within the painting. Ernest could smell the oils, the charring camphor wooden frame, and he watched, as room by room, the painted house was frazzled to dust. All that remained of the elegant imagery was a mirror in the upper right bedroom, and it was completely unblemished. Surely this was impossible! All surrounding features had been reduced to the rich black of burnt oils and camphor. Ernest frantically wiped at the black, hoping to reveal something, anything, any other features, to prove this phenomenon was merely random. As the dust was swept away, Ernest jolted backward, for in the black was the next chilling message: “The Damned”.
“Who is damned, my friend? Is this a warning? Are you my Jacob Marley? And why the mirror? What is this puzzle? I see only myself in a mirror. Does this mean that I, the possessor of that terror-stricken reflection, am damned?!?!
Ernest turned 180 degrees dripping in sweat. The living room itself was a single space abutting the kitchen on the far side. On the far wall was a mirror, but a layer of condensation prevented him from seeing himself. Would the answer to his question be seen in the mirror itself? He tiptoed forward, and the closer he got to the mirror, the thicker the condensation seemed.
“What lays behind this thick mirror mask Ivan? I dare not even wipe it with my hand, but I must”.
He clenched his right hand and rested the softer underside on the left side of the glass.
“I have to sweep the moisture away, but I am afraid Ivan. Will I see myself, but not as I expect? Will I see a face of ill health, will I see the eyes of a man with secrets of lies and treachery, or something else altogether? Please try to remember the good times. We were friends and I treasure every minute”.
He closed his eyes and swept with his fist, hearing the squeak of skin on glass, but opening his eyes, the condensation remained. He swept again, but still nothing. He slapped himself in despair.
“Ivan, this is torture. First, you gave me only visions but now you have rendered my hand ineffective in the physical world. This is like a dream in which one cannot open a door, chop down a tree, or is forever chased with no escape”.
He began to wipe the mirror back and forth in desperation as if attempting to remove dirt. The moisture would smear and smudge, but gradually, in patches, it would begin to disappear. Shaking his head, he continued, until Ivan’s message began to manifest. B….N…Y……. He swept faster, but the message revealed itself at an agonizing pace, BE…ND…Y..O. Finally, with an aching arm Ernest uncovered Ivan’s latest message, and his heart skipped as he processed it. It said, “Behind you”.
“Behind you". Ernest read it again, panting in fear and exhaustion. In the mirror, he only saw himself.
“You must turn, you must turn again, but no one is there” he muttered to himself under his breath, eyes closed. “Will this be Ivan behind me, from the grave? My heart will not survive such a vision”. Ernest turned and what stood in front of him was not Ivan, or any man, but a tall table, and on the table was a Scrabble board and a green-cloth bag of letters.
“You wish to play Ivan? I cannot play Scrabble with a specter. And for what prize am I playing? I neither have the courage and no longer feel I have the sanity”. He picked up the bag with a shaking hand and spilled the letters on the board.
The letters landed and dispersed, but he did not see the normal distribution. He did not see the many Ss, Ts, and Rs, the occasional H and F, and the even rarer Q, Z, and X. He saw only a sequence of 15 letters, repeated over and over. It said, “You finally leave, you finally leave, you finally leave”.
“What do you mean ‘I finally leave’ Ivan? Is it my time? How will they take me… and will it be with great force? Will those that drag me from this life inflict pain on me? I promise you, the fear with which they flood my blood and bones is already an agony too much to take. Look what you have you reduced me to in five short messages! The terror that tightens my shoulders and wobbles my knees is torture enough for this humbled man. Oh Ivan, what were you feeling those final months? Was there a grudge unknown to me? and is that brewing bitterness magnified when one finally crosses over? Do the pearly gates open further the wounds of resentment? I wish you were here to tell me. If you were, I would play one last game with you and the letters I would place down on this Scrabble board would spell out “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry”.
In despair, he swept his backhand through the Scrabble board, sending both it and its words hurtling across the room and into a bag of rice propped up by the side of the kitchen sink. The bag rustled and Ernest waited for the inevitable, as the rice eventually began to trickle slowly onto the porcelain-tiled floor. Before the words had even formed, he was standing over the mounding rice waiting for Ivan’s next revelation. The pouring rice slowed and as the last grains settled, the scattering spelled out “What does that extra tile conceal?”.
Ernest realized immediately that the messaging rice lay on the kitchen tile inserted most recently. It had been a replacement for a damaged tile, cracked by Ivan when he had brought over a pan of mashed potatoes, subsequently dropping it during an argument about who’s potatoes they used.
Ernest’s leg was trembling, but he kicked away the rice and looked at the loose tile. He was terrified to move it.
“Ivan, will I be pulled under? Will I be dragged by your hand or by the claws of the devil himself?”
Ernest moved the tile. Underneath there was no hand or horror show, but a photo album. He turned the pages, seeing image after image of Ivan and himself over the years. Their wives were in many of them. There were photos in the garden, at the Scrabble board, and at competitions. Everyone was happy.
He reached the back of the album where he found a letter:
I had no doubts that you would find this and wherever I now rest, there is surely a smile on my face.
As you know, I was never particularly good at expressing myself face-to-face, but I’ve not had the best news from the doctor this week and there are a few things I don’t wish to take to my grave. It may be my last communication after I am gone, unless I figure out another way.
I have three messages for you my dear Ernest:
Firstly, I will miss our Scrabble games, for I’m afraid there will be no Scrabble in the afterlife. I will miss the banter and the jokes, I will miss the competition and, yes, I will even miss our cheating somewhat. I would always see you rummaging in that bag of tiles, so I followed suit to level the playing field. Paradoxically, I believe that touch of playful skulduggery brought us closer together during those years, and when watching your sleight of hand in the bag, I often chuckled when thinking to myself, “What does that extra tile conceal?”.
Secondly, I hated that we would always argue about politics and now that I am gone it all feels like lost years. All of those trashy gossip channels and magazines, at this stage I realize it was only precious minutes wasted. Every page you turned of that bloody tabloid newspaper would cause an argument so It’s about time you finally leave the damned Mirror behind you.
Also thirdly, before you start planting your potatoes this year, and for this I owe you an apology; I spoke to the gas man five years ago. He said since those new radiators were installed to support the fireplace, the collective piping underneath the patio had been prone to minor friction damage, and as such, the pipe from the fire poisons the soil beneath. Don’t worry, the house isn’t going to explode, but it probably gives you a clue as to why your potatoes never turned out as good as mine in recent years.
Look after yourself, Ernest. I look forward to bickering with you once again, but I hope it isn’t anytime soon. Goodbye for now.
Your friend, your comrade, your buddy, your brother,
Ernest slumped into himself on the kitchen floor.
“Yes you always did have trouble expressing yourself didn’t you Ivan?”
As he placed the photo album gently on the porcelain tiles, he began to sob tears of both grief and laughter.