Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
Suzie had lost her trademark smirk. A frail pink mouth quivered in its place. Her green eyes sparkled in the firelight, the naive naughtiness now absent. She was holding back the rest of her story, almost as if she wasn’t sure if it was fiction anymore. Our touching knees parted.
Karl accidently knocked over a can of Budweiser and we lost unity. The energy dispersed around the ritualistic circle and I stared back at Jack who was using subtle hand gestures to suggest we escape. I started to sober up, but the night had felt sober for Suzie ever since she started this horror story. Nobody had the guts to ask her what happened next. We leant in but still nobody said anything.
The flames illuminated the cemetery landscape behind her; gigantic forest trees created a fortress miles deep surrounded by a locked gate. Our breath disappeared into the thick enchanting smoke before us and our bodies shivered.
Suzie gripped Jack’s hand and behind his blond bangs his eyes closed as if affected suddenly by her contact. I closed my eyes too; partly to hide my envy, partly to recall the story already revealed.
We were only a few blocks away from the ghost story setting on the edge of town. Four months ago there was carnage on the streets due to a change of government. Military gas masks cloaked the identity of so many alienated, senseless yobs. Feisty riots broke out and youthful hooligans took to torching and looting local stores and homes. I don’t even think they knew what they were fighting for; they just wanted to be part of something anarchistic.
Luckily enough, nobody we knew was injured. But House of Reeves, an ancient, discount furniture store, was burnt to the ground. It was as if the fire services were just avoiding it, a conspiracy theory for the local government to use it for a new commercial fast food joint. It had been there for years beforehand so it was already decrepit and nobody ever went inside its enormous complex. It was on the verge of being disused. My dad told me that where it stood was a portal to another world from the past; but that rumour was only spread to make our hometown sound more thrilling in bedtime stories. The most recent owners, twins late in their eighties, were surprisingly proud of the building and lived together in the attic above the store. It had been passed through his family for generations—their great-great grandfather Edwin being the founder sometime in the mid nineteenth century.
And Suzie had said that ever since the violence occurred, no trace of the twins has been discovered. There is no news report remembering their endangered lives, or copies of their death certificates; their existence was never acknowledged. Although, on the last of the CCTV footage, the brothers were seen clambering up the stairs to safety.
No deceased bodies were found in the wreckage where a wasteland now remains; despite the later police interviews which claimed that male screams were heard from the attic as the perpetrators fled the scene. One of the more curious arsonists looked up at the window before he ran. Police were sceptical that it would have been too smoky and late in the evening for him to have seen in the deceptive firelight, but he reported that through the darkness, there was a grey haired gentleman standing peacefully still, the flames roaring behind him and the smoke slinking around his dated three piece suit. The man’s lack of expression troubled the young boy; he didn’t seem to be affected by the destruction. His paranoid friends kept yelling at him to leave the scene but the last thing he saw was the old gentleman extending his finger toward him sternly. Suzie said it was the ghost of Edwin Reeves.
I realised that for a while it had been silent and intense. Karl looked agitated and asked if Suzie thought the boys had been cursed by Old-Man Reeves in the window. Aurora laughed and nearly fell into Jack’s arms. Suzie said it was only a scary ghost story and nobody had died in that fire anyway. Besides, the arsonists had got what they deserved and were locked up in jail now, so what was the point of getting any revenge? She said the two owners were probably hitchhiking across Europe; they must have done anything to escape that shithole; even faking death. They didn’t want to be found. Aurora rose to her feet rather gracelessly and leant against a gravestone to stabilize herself. She yawned, unenthused and disappointed by the lack of closure to Suzie’s story. Jack sighed and said he would take Aurora home. Suzie looked even sadder and paler.
“D’ya think he’s buried in this cemetery? You know, Edwin Reeves?” I asked her.
“Probably. I mean, as far as I know he never left Cortizone”.
“How do you know that?” Jack asked.
Suzie didn’t say anything.
“So he could be somewhere around here?”
Aurora overheard me. She rolled her eyes. “Shut up”.
* * * * * * * *
It had been a week or so since Halloween so all the decorative bunting was sagging across the school gates and you couldn’t move for damn candy wrappers on the sidewalks. I’d caught glimpses of that Edwin Reeves’ face in every window I passed by. As the visions progressed, the images burned bolder and longer. I felt those soulless eyes burning through my skull and the bony finger casting blame. I hadn’t seen Suzie at school so I tried to call her a few times to see if she was sick, but her dad always insisted she was out. He obviously hadn’t been informed that Suzie was cutting class so I just hung up. After the fifth time of speaking to her dad, he finally revealed that he was concerned about how much time Suzie was spending alone in her bedroom.
At first he thought Suzie had been given more homework. Then he speculated that maybe she was going through a ‘womanly’ time and because Suzie didn’t have a mom to turn to, it forced him to ignore her even more. Then Suzie started refusing meals and never switched off her nightlight, even when her dad passed her bedroom at 5am to use the toilet. He would rap lightly on the door and call out her name like a lullaby but heard no reply. He knew that Suzie wasn’t asleep, though.
One Sunday morning before church, her dad had taken the opportunity to investigate Suzie’s bedroom when she was using the shower. It looked just the same as it had done since he asked her to tidy it at the end of summer break. Her feathery dream catcher swayed softly in the breeze above her lavender bed sheets and her desk was stacked neatly with her favourite poetry books. Her wooden, earthly jewellery was tucked away and her floaty clothes were folded perfectly. As the sunlight glimmered brightly into the room, it led a spotlight to the underside of her four poster bed, where her dad caught sight of a crumpled array of newspapers. He walked over to the bed and grasped the tattered clippings.
The one that lay on top was coverage that ran from the Cortizone Gazette during midsummer. The official crime correspondent was Mick Shaft; known for his previous retirement from the detective squad, and probably the best superintendent we’d ever had. The articles Suzie had collected recorded all the damage and justice of those involved in the riots and as the pile wore thin, Shaft’s focus directed toward the lives of the boys who had torched down the furniture store. I wanted to tell her dad about the expert ghost story that Suzie told at the campfire, but remembered she wasn’t supposed to have snuck out with me that night and so I kept quiet at the other end of the phone.
I choked. “What was the last entry?”
Her dad hesitated. “Do you hang out with Karl, Ricky?”
“Karl?” I said. “Yeah, sometimes. Karl’s cool”.
“Has he been in school lately?”
He hadn’t. “Do you think he’s taken off with her?”
“No, no. I just wondered how her friend Karl was dealing with the grief”.
“Ricky, I don’t think it’s a very good idea for you to hang around with Karl anymore”.
* * * * * * * *
It turns out that Karl’s older brother was part of the trio that burnt House of Reeves to a wasteland in the summer arson riots. He had been sentenced a petty three months jail time but before Suzie’s dad hung up, he told me from the last report that Karl’s older brother had died in his cell on Friday.
I hung up too, cycled down to the corner store and bought the Cortizone Gazette. I couldn’t wait until I got home to read it so I sat down on an empty bench in Main Street, surrounded by the fragmentary reconstruction of my town’s disaster.
I read that Mick Shaft investigated the post mortem examinations and concluded that his cause of death couldn’t have been suicide. The guards verified that Simon hadn’t been seen by anyone that day; that his cell hadn’t even been cleaned yet. This was understandable; nearly all the kids in Cortizone had been submitted to prison that month.
Mick Shaft described the injuries which Simon received as aggressive. He had discoloured bruises that wrapped around his neck like racked sausage links. The local police examined the prison 40 miles north of Cortizone to review cases of prison guard brutality, which they supposed was a catalyst for Simon’s death. The boy looked like he had been throttled, but the CCTV footage proved no evidence of forced entry by any staff or that guards had even visited him that day. On the tape, Simon’s feet could be seen shaking wildly. They dangled briefly and then his body collapsed to the floor. There was no rope around Simon’s neck and all that the local police retrieved from his cell was a painted shoebox. Initial viewers of the tape said that the footage sharply cut to black. When they tried to play it back, all the recordings had been wiped.
I blinked at the tight lettering on the page and felt dizzy. I held the newspaper at arm’s length and then brought it back up close to my face. I looked at the copy of the Cortizone Gazette until I couldn’t focus anymore and laid it on my lap. I tried to digest all the loopholes in the information. Suddenly my mind raced back to Suzie. She had obviously read the article and savoured it preciously, ready to defend something. Maybe Karl thought she had cursed Simon with her harmless ghost tale. Maybe Suzie never suspected it would end up like this. It was almost as if Karl was ashamed by the ghost story, and that probably kept him quiet about Simon’s death that night. Maybe Suzie felt bad too. Maybe they had talked about it.
I rubbed my temples of the sweat. There was someone real in the corner of my eye. A hand gripped my thigh with a superhuman force. A woman walked by vacantly with her baby in a stroller and a snarling Dachshund at her heels. She scowled at him and clipped him around the ear.
“There’s nothing there, Toby!” she said, and tugged on his leash.
I yelped in pain. There was an anachronistic man with grey hair and he was grinning at me. It looked like Suzie’s grin. The other hand was pointing a rigid, angry finger. I shook my head, thinking that I was having another lucid vision about Edwin Reeves. I fought with all my strength to be released from the stony grip. As much as I tried, I couldn’t move. The man whispered in my ear, a stale, gross breath filling the air.
“Curse of Reeves,” he chanted slowly, with a melancholy tone.
* * * * * * * * *
He was cursing us; punishing all the children in Cortizone for the damage to his beloved furniture store. Anybody who was involved was being haunted by the ghost of Edwin Reeves, whether we were involved through the direct act, or through the indulgence in word-of-mouth schadenfreude. Online forums speculated it everywhere and internet comment threads supported the rumours. Mostly it was just rotten kids trying to blow smoke for attention or phoneys patronising the more elaborate stories. I browsed through some more comments in relation to Mick Shaft’s article. As expected, there were mixed opinions. Some agreed there should have been further investigation with Simon’s suspicious death, whereas some thought the article was too graphic and emotional; the boy had clearly committed suicide and Shaft was unethical to glorify otherwise. But if Simon was to be released in three months, why would he want to kill himself?
The latest comment on the thread claimed to solve this debate. It was written by one of the officers who worked in the prison where Simon died. He introduced himself by saying that he was actually interviewed by Shaft, but his story wasn’t allowed to be printed as local news. It was too confidential a report. Deciphering from the internet conversations with my friends that a few of us lived in Cortizone, he felt obliged to share the missing evidence. The main comment had a photo attached to it and was titled “Baby’s First Visit”. Although the officer remained anonymous, he said that he was lucky to have found us and promised to provide some kind of closure to the ambiguous case of our friend, Simon.
“I remember Simon having a visitor just a few days before he died. He wasn’t expecting anyone, and wasn’t really allowed to see them without notice, but the guys and I all made an exception because this chick was in such a state to see him. She was pretty spaced out, but so adorable, man. Little petite blonde. She couldn’t have been older than 16, maybe 17. I’m talkin’ just about 5”4’ and no more than 100lbs. She was a lot younger and shorter than Simon and we had no idea who she was. She didn’t leave her name and we never asked her for it. She must have known him though, maybe lived in Cortizone too. I dunno how she got here. There was no car in the parking lot and the nearest town is a 30 min drive away from the complex. No public transport direct to us at the prison, so she must have walked it.
She said there was something really important she had to share with him. She was so rational and specific…I was hypnotised when she spoke, man. She said it wasn’t anythin’ to do with his the riots or the arson, but we recorded the conversation anyway as protocol. I dunno if she knew that, but we didn’t think she’d start any trouble; she had the face of an angel. But there was something about her smirk, playful on her pale pink lips that I knew there was something not quite right about her, you know? Very distracting.
She asked us if she could talk to him somewhere open, so we let them have a standard interview room down the hall. That way we could intervene if we needed to and it would give Simon some time outta that rotten cell. We put a table between two chairs to split them apart and when I escorted her down the corridor to the interview room she tried to sneak in this plastic carrier bag. She said it was a special gift. I told her it wasn’t allowed and would have to pass through security procedures before she could let him see the parcel. She said it wasn’t anything illegal but it was very private, in this real flirty tone… and I couldn’t resist. I peered inside the bag, not really looking at it, and saw a cardboard shoebox decorated with glitter and rainbows. For God sake, it looked like a kid’s arts and crafts project. Utterly harmless. I told her that as long as it wasn’t gonna hurt anyone then it was okay. I faked the search, told the superintendent it was just a bunch of homemade mix tapes and cookies.
When we got to the door, I could see thru the window that Simon was waiting for her, cuffed by his ankles to the chair. He knew someone was coming to visit but we didn’t have any identity of the girl so we didn’t tell him who she was. We didn’t even know how they knew each other, but when she strutted into the room, Simon shot up out of his seat and struggled against his cuffs, this look of terror and anxiety in his eyes. He recognised her for sure, but I don’t think he wanted to. He started stuttering. We hoped he would say her name but the girl smirked again and pressed a finger to her lips. She whispered something to him and we still can’t understand what she said. We keep playing the tape over and over and keep running tests on it but the frequency just won’t pick it up.
He sunk back down into the chair and she sat opposite him. She started chatting to him for a while about random stuff; various names and places were mentioned casually, most of them repeated by all of you on his forum base. That’s how I knew I hadn’t imagined it. It was all unforgettable shit up until now. Simon didn’t seem to cooperate with what she was talking about, and held this reluctance toward the conversation. Did any of you know how she might have known Simon? ‘Karl’ was mentioned quite a lot, and also ‘Arcadia’, some kind of campus? Anyway, he was pretty unresponsive and wanted to make us believe that he didn’t have an association with her. Maybe he thought it would protect him? I dunno… the guy was already in jail so what did it matter?
That was when she took the shoebox out of the plastic bag.
She put it calmly on the table and slid it forward over to him. She told him it was a present. He pulled the shoebox closer and smiled at her, but it was really more of a grimace now I think about it. We were all a bit cautious about what she was giving him, but we let the scene play out ‘cause we were standing by to pile in right away if we had to. Nobody would have expected this spirited little seraph to have snuck in something contraband.
He lifted the lid and looked into the box. I ain’t never seen a guy squeal so loud in his life. It sounded as if someone had cut off his wiener with a chainsaw, man. He flung himself so far backward off the chair that he broke the links of his cuffs. He scurried over to the corner of the room like some sort of rat, and started scratching at the concrete walls. All his nails were splitting and the skin on his fingers was peeling off.
She didn’t move the entire time as we surrounded her, as if Simon’s reaction was irrational or illogical or somethin’. She stayed in her chair, watching as Simon was circled to be sedated. I ran over to the sparkly shoebox on the table. We got out our pistols and aimed at it, expecting there to be a bomb or a weapon inside. There was a colourful post-it note stuck to the side:
“He came to visit Daddy
Four days later, Simon was dead”.
I never did bring myself to open the photo attachment.
Credit To – Veronica Hope