Ghost-Watching (Short Story)

'The ghost haunting the Jones family appeared during breakfast.'

Short story, entry for the 'Movellas Writing Talent Competition!', hope you enjoy!

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 The ghost haunting the Jones family appeared during breakfast.

 That wasn’t the beginning of the haunting, not by any measure. Each of the family had felt its creeping effects: the glimpse of something behind you in the mirrored door of the bathroom cabinet, gone when you look again; the whisper of movement behind you in an empty room; the darker shape at the end of your bed when you wake up in the night before you rush to turn on the light, revealing nothing there.

 Louie had only just begun to sleep in his own room the whole night through, but now refused to because of the monsters under the bed. Zara used to relish the horror movies she wasn’t old to be watching yet and had vampires and werewolves plastered all over her walls - now the same movies made her sick with fright, and she quietly swapped her posters for ones with less eyes and teeth. She didn’t even complain when Louie would climb under her duvet in the middle of the night with his frozen feet, glad to not be alone.

 The ‘watched’ feeling in the house took a toll on their parents too. Harvey was worse off, being home alone all day working on his paintings; his curly hair began to stick out wilder than usual as he developed a nervous habit of running his hand through it, and more and more the movement of air against the back of his neck or a noise beneath the tunes of his playlist made his startle during the detail work of an illustration, though when he turned around his studio was always still and empty with the pale light of the Welsh seaside filtering through the blinds.

 Prisha rolled her eyes as her husband began to read poorly-formatted websites about bad energies and ‘presences’, and lumps of crystal and sticks of smelly herbal incense started to mysteriously appear around the house and then mysteriously find their way into the bin. She certainly didn’t let him catch her in her routine of checking the locks and the curtains at night, or getting someone in whilst Harvey was out shopping to check the house for gas leaks.

 Despite the pervasion of this unquantifiable Feeling through their daily lives, the only way the Joneses half-acknowledged it to each other was through jokes about Saucer, their bug-eyed and scraggly ginger rescue cat. His fixed and agog stares were those of one who could see into the nether dimensions, Harvey and Zara would argue, whilst a scathing Prisha would point out a slightly higher likelihood of a stray cat acquiring a degree of brain damage. No, see, now he’s watching a stately Victorian lady behind you - ‘Shut up’ Prisha would reply, and steadfastly not check.

 Prisha and Harvey had even cautiously broached the topic of moving, excusing it without making themselves feel crazy by saying that it might be nice to have more room as Zara and Louie got older, despite how long it had taken them to find this house which was close to good schools and Prisha’s hospital and the coast for Harvey’s art.

 Despite the unease which settled over the household like a layer of dust, they held up admirably under the strain of the haunting, mostly through the power of denial. Afterward the event, Zara came across a blog about the horror genre which suggested ‘the monster you can’t quite see is eerier than the one you can quantify’. Thinking back to those days of unease, her parents said they might agree - but that “if you’d told me that on the first morning I would have laughed in your face”.

***

 Louie was the first one to notice the ghost.

 They were all tired, that morning, run down by a string of poor sleeps from Louie’s night terrors. Louie himself was eating his porridge, getting more on his face than in his mouth. Harvey attempted to mitigate the mess as Prisha rested her head on the table, complaining about the A&E shifts, and Zara ironed her fringe into submission with the straighteners as Saucer stared insistently at them in turn in his wait for food to be put down.

 “-if Karen has me covering her shift every time one of her cousins has a baby shower I may as well just move into the break room-”

 “Can you pick me up from Olive’s tonight, Dad? We’re going to listen to the new Flaming Death Sword album on her mum’s good speakers.”

 “-they multiply like mushrooms, I don’t know how she keeps up with them all-”

 “Sure, remind me to pick up more potatoes on the way back, I’m going to use up the mince and make shepherd’s pie- Louie?”

 Harvey found himself being prodded by a porridge-covered spoon, which then made its way over to point towards the back door of the kitchen.

 “There’s a girl.”

 Mouths snapped closed as all turned. There was indeed what appeared, cursorily, to be a girl. She stood in the alcove of the door to the back garden, despite there having been no way in excluding the rather-too-small cat flap. She was in silhouette against the backlight of the early winter morning, but it was clear that she was young, wearing a dress, and with a large profusion of untidy black hair sprouting from her head.

 The Joneses were not immediately afraid; there were many reasonable explanations yet to exhaust.

 “Are you... Zara, is this one of your friends?”

 “They’re not /all/ goths Mum, God. Hey, do you have the wrong house or something, you there? Can you talk?”

 “Are you alright, sweetheart? Can you tell me your name? Do you need some kind of help?”

 The girl had no discernable reaction to any of this and continued to look in a floorward direction, so their questions trailed after a few seconds. There was another beat, during which no-one took their eyes off the girl, waiting for a cue of how to react to such an extremely bizarre event as her unexplained appearance.

 Things subsequently got a little more bizarre.

 The girl - the ghost, of course, as we already know her - began to move. She leaned and then glided forwards, as if gently pushed on rollerskates. This didn’t pass any kind of ‘cue’ threshold for the Joneses, who continued to sit and stare, with the exception of Louie tightening his grip on his spoon.

 She continued to float forwards at a steady pace and then made a right angle, coming to stand at the head of the kitchen table. The increased light revealed her to be wearing a shapeless mass of what /could/ be described as a dress, and leathery boots which were so foot-fitting as to almost look like an extension of her skin. Her head rose up and wobbled on its neck, then listed over to the side, the action revealing her face from behind its sheaf of clumped black hair.

 For those of you who are familiar with the concept of the Uncanny Valley, it will be enough for me to say that she encapsulated this. Those of you who are not will benefit from the following similies in understanding the phenomenon:

 ‘like a photorealistic rubber mask stuck on top of someone’s actual face’

 ‘like a plastic doll sporting lifelike teeth and watery, bloodshot eyeballs’

 ‘like the wide, happy smile of a 1988 CGI baby’

 It was not necessarily that the features themselves were off, rather, their arrangement; the anchor points of the face’s structure seemed to swim in relation to each other, features drifting around off into the matt of hair surrounding the face and back.

 The girl raised her hand out in front of her, towards the horrified family - this was all getting a bit much - and suddenly cranked back her head, leaving her jaw gaping exaggeratedly wide, no hint of a tongue or the roof of a mouth within. The outstretched arm began to rotate at the elbow a perfect 360 degrees, around and around, like a boneless propellor on the nose of an aeroplane.

 From her black mouth, or rather, from the room around them, issued a barely comprehensible chorus of many simultaneous pitches and screeching interference in the shape of

 “H... h... h-hell......”

 This was quite enough.

 “Alright time to go,” said Harvey in a very high voice, and he grabbed Louie from his chair just as the dam of stiff horror on the boy’s face broke and he began to wail, as well as Prisha’s shellshocked hand, and barrelled them all out through the living room and the hallway, knocking over coffee table and the coat rack in their flight.

 Zara looked back just long enough to see the girl... the, Thing, its head still thrown back and arm still windmilling, continue moving forwards and glitch slowly through the dining table, passing through but pulling with it the tablecloth and knocking a path of destruction through the crockery. Zara gaped and stumbled backwards after the rest of them out of the front door.

 Harvey made an attempt to barricade the front door from the outside with the coat rack before realising he had no idea how and giving in to Zara’s screams of “CAR KEYS, DAD, THE CAR KEYS”.

 He fumbled to unlock the icy locks of the car as Zara yelled to hurry inches from his ear. Once he’d managed it Prisha dazedly strapped a panicking Louie into his booster seat before piling in the front herself. Harvey had rammed the keys into the ignition and was about to reverse wildly out onto the frost-sparkling tarmac of their quiet road before Prisha reached out to stop him.

 “Wait,” she said, regaining her voice for the first time in the rather traumatic last two minutes, “wait.”

 Harvey and Zara waited for a split second, thrumming with impatience, then both exclaimed at once, “What?!”

 She looked between them with a dawning expression, as if they were very stupid. “What am I doing. This is ridiculous.” She shook her head, reached for the door handle.

 “Prish? PRISH! What are you doing?” Harvey leaned over to try and stop her but she opened the door.

 “This is... a dream. No, wait, it’s a prank. Of course it is. A ridiculous prank. A prank? A prank. Yes.” She stepped out, straightened up. “I’m going back inside. This is. Ridiculous. Ridiculous.”

 “Mummy!” Louie wailed

 "I'm not willing to take that chance, Prish!" exclaimed Harvey.

 “Are you an idiot? Have you never seen a horror movie??" added Zara.

 It was at that moment that the ghost emerged through the front wall of the house. Prisha stopped in her tracks, even more colour draining from her face.

 “H-hell,” they could hear it saying. “H-hell.”

 “GET IN THE CAR,” those in the car hollered.

 “Ok,” she replied, and hurled herself back into her seat. “Drive, please?”

 Lacy curtains twitched along the close as Harvey performed the fastest three-point turn recorded in that borough of Wales and proceeded to drive.

***

 There was quite an awkward silence in the car - apparition of a ghost is not an experience you’d think would make for awkward silences, but nonetheless.

 “So, uh,” Zara broke the silence, “either, we’ve gone collectively insane. Someone’s pulling our collective chain. Or we’re going to be able to cash in a lot of nice cheques for proving the existance of ghosts.” Prisha flinched and turned around to glare at her, “And then we’ll be able to. Make it rain?”

 Harvey let out a stifled, very high-pitched giggle, before the glare was turned on him too. Louie wasn;t very amused either and sat with snot all over his still-crumpled face. His mum rummaged in the compartment and handed him a tissue. “This is no laughing matter. We need to find out what’s going on, who’s doing this to us. We’re missing work because of this.”

 Harvey choke-snorted on another hysterical giggle, “Those are your priorities? What are you going to do, claim the pay back? ‘The appearance of a ghost caused great loss of productivity’??” Zara gave a wheeze of laughter in the backseat, which set Louie off crying again.

 “I’m serious. Take the second exit at the roundabout at the bottom, we’re going to the polic station, where the kids will be safe.”

 “What, you think they’re going to hit a ghost with - with a truncheon?” Zara had tears coming from her eyes, and Harvey hit the steering wheel trying to keep the laughter in, face bright red.

 “You insufferable little - and don’t you start saying anything like ‘I told you so’ about those stupid crystals until we know what’s going on!” Prish’s voice rose, but then they saw something that sobered them all up;

 The Thing was stood on the central island of the roundabout, not quite touching the ground. It rotated to watch them pass, face hidden by hair again. The stress-laughter faded from the car and Harvey set his mouth in a grim line, and followed the sign for ‘Police Station’.

 

 At the station, I’m afraid to say that the policemen didn’t quite take the matter seriously, to Prish’s growing rage; not until the Thing passed straight through two walls and a front desk officer, leaving her unharmed but covered in coffee and extremely upset.

 Due to lack of exits, they were forced to make a beneficial dicovery; the Thing seemed now to be keeping a set distance from them, floating slightly to the left of a potted plant. They experimented splitting up, but it showed no interest in haunting any particulat one of them, switching between at points in space with a flicker, a continuous quiet static screeching eminating from it.

 “Guess we all somehow peeved the thing off,” commented Zara.

 The officers who didn’t immediatly get as far from them as possible were really rather good at dealing with this enexpected situation. Constable Howe, a round man with a friendly, scrubbed red face, seemed to understand that they were all equally frightened and confused by ‘this prrretty business’, and even attempted to interrogate ‘floaty rrrogue’. He received the same treatment of blank silence followed by a cranking open of the Thing’s maw and a 'H... Hell.....' and so quickly retreated, rather paler-looking, busily making notes in his notebook.

 “To be honest with you, Mrs. Jones, we’re not quite sure who to call in your case,” he levelled with Prisha after several hours of tense waiting, “just to be sure we’ve called everyone we can think of.”

 By this point a couple of the sergeants were beginning to investigate the Thing. It looked a bit less threatening under the fluorescent lighting, floating to the left of a potted Schefflera, Zena whispered to her dad, than it had done menacing up their small, dark kitchen.

 Their first order of call was disproving that there were any wires holding up. They waved hands above and below it, until it turned its head completely around to look down on the people behind it. Then it was discovered that things thrown at it passed through it with differing success; paper balls bounced off pretty reliably, but one intrepid training sergeant threw a stapler and took cover, only for the stapler to be absorbed into the Thing’s body, not to be seen again.

 The sight of a challenge like this waged against the thing that had ruined her morning lent Zara a little reckless bravery, and to her parents’ dismay she joined the impromptu group of experimenters and reported back her findings on their tormentor.

 “It kind of repeats what you say to it, listen: Cheese. Puffs.”

 There was a jump in the static coming from the thing, then an indistinct response: “Hell. Heese. Pussssss.”

 “I. Am. Dumb.”

 “Hell. Iam. Dummm.”

 “Weird ghost, huh?” Zara stared it down, crossing her arms. “You don’t scare me.”

 “Hell. Yudon scaremee.”

 That was about when ‘special forces’ arrived.

 The thing was, it took rather longer for any of the big agencies to get agents all the way out to that small coastal police station, even after they verified they weren’t just the victims of a hoax call. The people on the scene, therefore, were of a very local scale.

  “Hands up! ...Who’s the suspect?!” yelled a young man brandishing a handweapon as he barged through the door.

 “Take it easy, Franke. Put that tazer away,” said the older man who followed him. “I take it that the unexplained phenomenon, and-or, possible threat phonecall we received, was about the personage over there, who is now floating above the ground?” He blinked placidly around at the onlookers. “Agent Barker, at your service.”

 “Yes, that is surely what we called about,” said Constable Howe, eyeing Agent Franke who was gawking at the Thing. “But, sorry my man, who did you say you work for?”

 “Welsh Intelligence!” interjected Franke.

 “Welsh Intelligence,” said Barker, “it may be that we are not the most qualified to deal with a situation of this nature, but we will take up, with all due deference to the law, our responsibility as first on the scene, to coordinate this investigation.” Prisha and Harvey, a finally-sleeping Louie across their knees, looked to the Constable in bemusement about the supremely unrattled demenour of their newest arrival. Howe made a shrug-face back.

 “Then take it away, Agent Barker.”

 “Hm.” He nodded in agreement. “Franke, take out your notebook. First heading: potential risks to Health and Safety.”

 “y-yes boss!”

 “Then,” he continued and stopped to stare at the Thing, floating there, paperclips now in its hair. He blinked six slow blinks. “Call a priest of some kind.”

***

 There were priests, and then there were other, more secret-agent seeming secret agents, and then crowds of journalists and conspiracy theorists and mystics, and then cars with black-tinted windows. The Joneses discovered that they could distract the Thing by talking nonsense to it long enough for each other to go to the bathroom and change their clothes without it following. It was a very long day, but by the end of it, the Thing having trailed them all the way to a Super Top Secret Facility which Prisha deduced was just in Cardiff, the initial shock of finding themselves haunted had blunted. The Thing was still Uncanny to look at but its inactivity was reassuring to some extent; to Louie at least, who didn’t quite have the capacity yet to obsess over “But what does it want?” “Quiet, Prish, try to get some sleep.” “But what might it do?”

 There were a lot of long days after that one, a lot of testing and questioning; but the world’s best scientists in the world’s most advanced facilities all came to the same conclusion: there was nothing special in particular about the Jones family which warranted them being haunted.

 “Thanks a lot”, retorted Zara.

 Scientists were deciphering the ghost, wave by wave, particle by particle; the Joneses were allowed to move back into their home, albeit with scientists on call for any ghostly developments and armed protection against meddlers and obsessives.

 “It’s not like any of us ever get to be alone anymore anyway,” exclaimed Harvey as their team scientists carried equipment into the back garden shed. “Casper the Overfriendly Ghost sees to that.”

 The head scientist sighed, “Please don’t call the specimen that, there’s no evidence-”

 “-That it’s a dead human of any kind, yes I know, I’m not one of the ghoul nuts,” replied Harvey.

 "Hello," said the Ghost.

 Because, in the way of humans, they adapted to their circumstances, and began to become old news - a curiosity for physicists. The Joneses started used to their ghost, in the same way they got used to their cat Saucer when they first got him.

 The ghost lounged around rooms, increasingly doing its own inscrutable thing and going on its own trips, or watching them at their daily chores; occasionally an inconvenience, occasionally endearingly dumb, especially when it tried to copy their words and actions. Prisha proclaimed it to be much less trouble than Saucer, in terms of feeding and litter trays, and it was even easier to train to stay out of the bedrooms and bathrooms than the cat, with a bit of shouting and shooing. Harvey even swore he saw it staring at his face one day and then arranging its features a bit more regularly. This excited the scientists no end, but overall, neither the world nor the Joneses actually knew what their ghost was.

***

 “Ratings are better than ever, Braitsek.” Director Yondslob twirled his central bile-node in appreciation, “You’re a documentary genius. I don’t know how you do it.”

 Braitsek’s slimefringe quivered at the praise but he replied with modesty, “It’s all down to the anthropology team, really. Without their advances in spy-camera technology, their understanding of human behaviour, we’d never be able to get such good footage.”

 “It never ceased to amaze me how many people watch the show every lunar week.” Director Yondslob broadcast the taste of the viewer statistics onto Braitseks receptors.

 “They really are fascinating creatures. I think people like our series because they get attached to seeing the same colony each lunar week, and because they’re interested in seeing how these humans go about their lives without any interaction from us, so little of the galaxy if left as wild nature reserves these days. The spy camera technology just blends right in, we can observe true wild human behaviour.”

 The Director teleported in an ‘agreeing’ direction. “Yes, I’ve heard that with increased awareness of the negative impact that taking humans from their environments can have on them, the pet trade has decreased.”

 “I was sure to include the fact that even putting them back afterwards seems to have negative impacts on their integration into the colony. I sometimes think they’re more complex than they look.” Braitsek glowed a passionate colour, “I was glad to hear that the extremist ‘Earth resource-harvesting’ groups are holding less sway with the public these days. Really for such simple creatures, humans are even having positive impacts on our society.”

 “You said it.” Yondslob received a message on the breeze and began to phase through the floor as he wobbled vigorously in a polite ‘goodbye’. “Keep up the good work and you’ll have no problem getting funding for all the new spycams for the second season. Looks like a great project, really epic.” Yondslob sent a smell of optimism through the room as he finished wobbling his way through the floor. “In fact, keep it up and you’ll probably be able to replace the whole pet trade with personal spycams! Imagine, buying your spawn their own wild human colony for their birthday. Wouldn’t that be something.”

***

A/N: Thanks for reading! This was for a bit of fun so sorry for any technical mistakes, inspired by the Spy in the Wild documentaries where humans put spy cameras on robot animals to observe the animals, wondered how we'd perceive a spy-camera human sent by a more advanced species and concluded we'd probably be freaked out and think it was a zombie or a ghost or something because some of those animal spy cameras are a bit stiff-looking lmao

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