I'm reading Neil Gaiman's wonderful short fiction anthology, "Fragile Things", and one of his stories in there is his only personal ghost story, "The Flints of Memory Lane". It reminded me so starkly of MY only personal ghost story that I think I have to get it down. I've not told it, or even thought of it, in years, but perhaps I can do it justice...
The thing about seeing something vanish, really disappear, is how subtle it is.
I know, that sounds weird- some bleeding great big THING looming in front of you, gone, poof, like a fart in the wind (except it's your eyes and not your nose that are fooled), and you'd think subtle is the last word one would use to describe it, but there it is.
It's funny, actually- I don't really remember how old I was at the time. I can guess- somewhere between 14 and 17, because I was only out at the park for the six summers between when I was 14 and 20, and I clearly remember that I was in high school at the time, so that narrows it down a little. Everyone knew the park was haunted. People heard strange things, saw strange things, felt unseen eyes, etc. You know, the sort of things kids swear happened to their friend's friend late one night after everyone had gone.
"The park" was a bowl-shaped depression in the hills on the edge of town where the local small-town junior thespians put on a musical each summer. I was a techie- changing batteries in microphones, running a spotlight, climbing ridiculously tall poles during thunderstorms to wrap tarps around equipment that I valued more than my own health. At night, after the show, when everyone had gone home, my cousin and I were the Night Watch. We slept out there, peeking out the door of the costume shop every few hours to make certain no vandals or thieves were abusing the property.
Most nights, someone would hang out there until pretty late. This night, in particular, I remember a fairly large number of folks sitting around, chatting, huddling, flirting, as teenagers will on a cold prairie summer night. I probably felt more comfortable because of this; I suspect, aside from large amounts of alcohol, being in a crowd of people is the most effective courage-fortifier a person can find. That probably explains why I wandered out of the group and headed to the restroom on my own.
The restrooms were in a small cinder block building, shut with massive steel doors to keep out miscreants during the off season. At the peak of the building, pointed down and slightly out, were two floodlights, of the sort that leave you with big purple blotches in your vision if you looked at them, even in broad daylight. The others were either on the stage or in the backstage building; regardless, they were a few hundred feet away, on the other side of a greenbelt of trees growing around a coulee which was, of course, haunted.
The park was never intended to be an "all-hours" venue; the lights in the restroom were on a timer and were off well before I got there. Enough light bled in from the aforementioned eye-melters that standard restroom activities were manageable; not enough, however, that my eyes were not very well adjusted to the dark by the time I left.
Turning the corner out of the door to the restroom, I saw, standing stock-still about 10 yards away, right outside of the edge of the floodlit area, a man-shape. A BIG man-shape. Men of a certain age and disposition will remember a wrestler in the WWF with the stage name "The Undertaker". For a while, he was a main heel in the WWF- I always felt he was created to takeover for Andre the Giant. The man-shape facing me was bigger than The Undertaker in about the same degree as The Undertaker would've been bigger than me.
There's really only one option a well-evolved hominid brain has when presented with this sort of situation: complete and under catatonia. My joints seized. My eyelids, lacking a more desirable option such as emigration, tried to crawl behind my eyeballs in the hopes that, maybe, if they got out of the way, the eyes would start to report more favorable information. My higher brain functions became full of equations of the "a train leaves Chicago at 5 p.m. at 60mph and another train leaves New York at 7 p.m. at 50mph, where do they meet" sort, only these equations involved the levitation speed of the shrouded undead versus how fast I could run before my sneakers tore off.
I don't know how long I stood there, staring. Longer than two seconds, less than fifteen minutes. "It" stared back towards me (I can't say at me, because I didn't see a face, and moreover, I didn't have the feeling of being watched). I'm sure it was as scared of me as I was of it, or something equally reassuring that will let me sleep tonight. That's when the scariest, most nerve-jarring, mind-jangling event of my life happened.
The thing, this monstrous, black-cloaked, hulking THING, vanished. Gone. I bet you expected that he lunged towards me, or spread his cloak and reveal a portal to hell or something, and I fell down screaming and came to surrounded by the ashen faces of my friends with a distinct scent of sulfur in the air, didn't you?
See, and you expected that because of the simple fact that in all your life, in all the movies you've seen and books you've read and ghost stories you've heard, nobody who's ever seen something vanish has ever told you how it really is to see something vanish. No smoke, no "I flinched and he was gone", no "I looked back as I ran and nothing was there", no flashes of light or grand gestures: just a monstrous, don't-screw-with-me entity one second and empty grass and hillside the next.
The really, truly disconcerting thing, the part that makes this hard to think about too much, is that I didn't notice it disappear. THAT'S what makes it scary, scarier than anything it could have done (I say that now but a vision of my own death or being disemboweled probably would have been scarier). See, our brains spend most of our lives making up a map of how the world works. Things don't just...vanish. A movie ninja disappears in a puff of smoke or a leggy blonde disappears under David Copperfield's tablecloth and we're sort of...okay with that. Sleight-of-hand, ignore the man behind the curtain, etc.
But this, this was something different. It was sleight-of-mind, like BEING the leggy blonde disappearing under the cloth and discovering that it really IS magic fabric. When something disappears in front of you, and you realize that you don't know when it disappeared but you know it's been gone for a good while, well, that brings up some uncomfortable questions, questions about your the way your brain works and about the way the universe works and about whether either of them is actually working at all.
Like I said, subtle.
It's been a long time since this happened. I'm more skeptical now, less willing to believe that spirits and spooks and ethereal beings exist, let alone that they would have nothing better to do on a summer evening than scare the bejesus out of some kid leaving a cinder block shithouse in a public park. I've never had another, similar experience, and I've enjoyed excellent mental health since then, devoid of hallucinations, so I don't think it was insanity.
But maybe a little insanity is better than the alternative.