This story is paired with “The True Sweetheart” from Children’s and Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
The campus gives up here. The bridge from the building to the hill. Concrete echoes with each step like a hundred feet were falling, instead of just a pair. And there are only two ways to go: the hill which every day becomes steeper in its consistent denial of the laws of physics or the vast corridors of the building where the only way to reach the rooms is down stairwells that dip and twirl into darkness and the outside of it is just these labyrinthine pathways of cold concrete and graffiti-ed walls. So it is no wonder that this is where they choose to meet. This is where they meet to spin their tales and wait for others to hear the whispers.
* * *
Lee didn’t hear about the group until he was a senior. It was his kind of luck to miss out on things until the very last possible chance. He was majoring in English with an emphasis on literature and he planned to go to grad school and write his thesis on the evolution of the ghost in British novels. He had always felt that people didn’t respect ghost stories enough. They tossed them aside as some kind of word rollercoaster, something you read for the thrill and not for the emotional merit. But ghost stories weren’t about thrills or even really about scaring people. Not really. They were about giving shape to the dark; they were ways of gaining knowledge to fight away the shadows. He always thought that ghost stories were his versions of religious texts; they were something that said Hey, look, it’s alright, it doesn’t end just yet. Of course, this may have had something to do with how his mother used to read them to him and his sister. And then, after that day, just to him. She had never told the scary ones. She instead would spin tales of the telephone pole which falls on a gravestone and lets the dead have one last call with their loved ones or about the spirits who lead children out of the darkness that lurks in the woods.
He was at one of the million cafés that were located within walking distance of campus and was reading a collection of M.R. James when a girl walked up to him. He was enough of the shy but good-looking type that this wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Males majoring in English had some sort of instant cachet with women as if all English majors were deeply sensitive souls. Lee knew enough male English majors that he wondered if the exact opposite wasn’t true. He had never met a bigger bunch of jerks. The girl was smiling at him and she had a sort of something that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. A certain presence. She moved like a tree in a breeze might; there was a gentle swaying to her body as she walked as if she had music pulsing through her bloodstream.
“You like James?” She asked; a voice deeper than her frame should have allowed.
“Yeah. Actually he’s one of my favorite authors.” Lee said surprising himself; usually he kept that fact secret. English majors weren’t supposed to love genre authors.
“Mine too. There are few that are creepier. May I sit down?” She motioned to the chair across from him and Lee nodded. She sat down elegantly like a queen might take her throne. In fact, she didn’t even disturb the tranquility of the table which, in predictable campus café fashion, wobbled if anyone breathed within three feet of it. “I’m Marie.”
“Lee. Are you a student here?”
“Yeah. For a while now,” she said.
“I’m a senior. So I know how you feel.” Lee smiled. There was something about Marie that was making him feel the need to smile every few moments. He had seen this behavior in others before and had always pegged them for the obnoxiously besotted which he didn’t feel that he was or could ever be.
“So, have you ever been to one of the ghost meetings?” Marie said this as if it were the most natural thing in the world to say; something along the lines of I like coffee, too or I’m doing well and yourself.
“The what meetings?”
“The ghost meetings. It’s a club that meets up to tell ghost stories every Saturday night. I bet you’d like it.” Marie looked him in the eyes.
“That sounds like…Well yeah I’d love to go…Where is it at?” Lee tried not to show how excited he was but failed miserably. English majors lacked the genes for calmness, cohesion, and cool.
“We meet at the base of the bridge between Humanities and the hill at around 11. There are some benches there and a light post. It’s really fun but you have to have a story to tell.”
“I’ll be there. Maybe.” Lee replied trying to sound as if he just might not show up.
Marie smiled wide showing all her teeth, “I’ll see you, then.” And she got up and walked away without a backwards glance. Lee watched her walk out the café door and disappear into the crowd of passing students. He watched all of the passing people for a second. He knew someone who once said that it always made her sad to look at people walking by; she said it reminded her that there were millions of people out there who she would never like.
It was only Wednesday and so Lee began to tick the days off in his head with growing excitement. A club for telling ghost stories on this campus? Finally something that he could join without feeling like a fool. If Lee knew anything well it was ghost stories. He still remembered the first one that he had ever heard with his sister once—about a little girl who becomes lost out in the woods and eventually comes to haunt them. Her wails could be heard whenever the wind whistled through the pine needles, quiet screams. That had been his gateway drug: the wonderful feeling of being scared but still able to crawl into your own bed with the knowledge that the ghosts are safely locked away in words. His sister had sensed how much he had loved the story and so she made a habit of tracking down ghost stories to tell him. She liked the obscure ones that people rarely knew. Her favorite was about a woman who was murdered. The woman’s body was buried beneath a tree where her flesh eventually changed to dust and bones. One day a young man found one of her bones. It was jutting up from the earth, smooth and white. The young man took the bone and carved it into a flute. He did all of this gently and maybe that was why it happened the way it did. The young man tried to play the flute and out came the most beautiful song, but instead of being the tune he meant to play, it was instead the details of the woman’s death. Lee couldn’t remember how the story ended or if that was the ending. This song playing out a sadness that no one would ever realize the meaning of. He always wondered about his sister falling in love with that story of all possible stories. If he believed in omens then he would still be searching the ground for bones.
On Thursday he began to pour through old collections of tales trying to find one that the others weren’t likely to have heard. Lee brought a pile of possibilities with him to the café and rifled through their pages as he drank a latte. He got more than a couple raised eyebrows. His friend John wandered up to him and shook his head, “You know that they’ll never let you write a thesis on genre. Why don’t you become obsessed with something reasonable? Like the works of the Bröntes or some shit like that. The girls love Brönte scholars.”
“Yeah, yeah. Fuck you, John. You’re a music major, what do you know?” Lee replied.
John laughed, “About girls? More than some sissy guy who spends his day finding symbolism in flowers.”
“Yeah, but you know what they say: music majors do it with minors.”
“Well played.” John smiled, “Do you have plans on Saturday? ‘Cuz I’m planning on going to see that new zombie movie.”
“The one where the zombies have back stories? That’s when you know horror has been killed.”
“Whatever. You wanna go?”
“Can’t. I’m—“And here Lee cut himself off. He suddenly realized that he didn’t want to tell John about the club. It was odd because John was his best friend and there had never been anything they hadn’t been able to make fun of each other about. So he lied, “I’m writing a huge paper.”
“Alright. Next time, then.” John left, though he turned once to wave exuberantly. This had always been his idea of a good exit.
That night Lee dreamed that there was a vast tunnel built beneath the city. The tunnel was filled up with bodies and no one was allowed inside anymore. The bodies were of people who were looking for something but no one was allowed to say what that was. Any time that someone tried to say, their tongues would split in two. In the dream, Lee’s sister was the only one who made it out of the tunnel and he smiled when he saw her. She looked so much older than she ever would get to be. Her face had been hurt in the tunnel and parts had been replaced with broken stained glass. Her eyes were still her eyes though. Lee kept trying to ask her why she had gone. But she would just look at him and the only words she could say were, “It’s in the telling. It’s in the telling. It’s in the telling.” Lee woke up and discovered that he had bitten his tongue while he slept and blood was caked onto his chin.
By Friday, Lee had narrowed his choices down to three. They were each perfect in their own way but he decided to see what sort of stories the others would tell before making his choice. One of the stories was his favorite of the ones that his sister had told to him. Or at least he remembers that it was she. He feels guilty that there wasn’t certainty left in his mind about her; a scent of Cinnamon Bundt cake, a momentary memory of the feel of her hair brushing against his arm in the car once, and the sound of her voice telling him a story in which a little girl must save her brother from a pack of demons by telling them stories until the sun rises.
Saturday night came around faster than he expected it to. He dressed in jeans and a padded hoodie. It wasn’t exceptionally cold but it was that time in early spring where the weather could still turn on you without warning. He lived just off of campus and so he walked the few blocks to the humanities building. It was ten to eleven when he got there and people were already seated on the benches. There were four of the benches and they were set up in a square almost as if they were designed just for the purpose of telling stories in a group. The seated people weren’t talking to one another. They each had their gazes pointed at the ground, as still as statues. As Lee stepped amongst them, though, they all looked up at once. Lee saw Marie and took a seat next to her. She grinned at him and whispered, “I’m so glad that you could make it.” He smiled back.
One of the people that sat across from him stood up. He was a tall guy with shoulder-length hair that looked like it had been really well groomed and then purposefully messed up afterwards. “So, we’re all here and it’s time again for telling tales. We have a new member. Marie invited him. His name is Lee.”
Lee gave a shy wave and everyone smiled at him—many toothy grins. The guy continued, “Lee will be sharing a story later. But for now I think we should begin with Alice. She’ll give him a real taste of what this club is all about.”
A willowy blonde glanced around the group and then began to speak in a voice that was melodious in the way that a broken music box might be, almost on key, almost lovely, but just a little wrong. “This happened to someone I used to know…” And so her tale began:
“I had this friend who worked at one of the libraries on campus. She was a lovely person. Always the first to laugh at someone’s jokes. She loved working at that library. It was the perfect place for her: quiet but always with something to do. She never liked to sit still for too long. I remember that in lectures, her foot would sometimes start to tap against the ground without her even realizing it, always along with the rhythm of the professor’s voice. Well, one time she was working a night shift and thought she heard something coming from the stairwell. It was winter and outside it was snowing. She probably glanced out the front doors as she walked to the stairs and saw the perfect crystals coming down and thought that the world would soon be covered in beautiful blankness. She opened the heavy door that separated her from the stairs and stepped inside. She wasn’t ever seen again. Although, some people have thought that they have heard laughter in the stairwells. But who can say if it is hers?”
Alice looked around and everyone applauded; even Lee, although it hadn’t been exactly what he was expecting. A tiny red haired guy next to Alice then looked up. “Hey, Lee. I’m Jordan. And I’ll be going next.”
Lee nodded at him and Jordan continued, “So this story is a little less lyrical then Alice’s. We can’t all be beautiful craftsmen.”
“So there was a girl I used to go out with. Let’s call her Caroline or Carla or something else starting with a C. But, seriously, she wasn’t so bad. Except she had this really annoying habit of chewing her hair. But that’s beside the point. It doesn’t come up later at all. So, really, I don’t know why I told you all that. Have any of you noticed how in J-Horror films there’s always a girl with long hair doing something creepy? Okay, never mind that, I’m getting completely off track. So, anyways—Caroline. She had this cousin who lived alone. The cousin was a strange bird. I met her once. A little off. There was something tragic in her background I guess. I never asked. I don’t like tragedies. Not even when Shakespeare writes them. I know I’m throwing out some blasphemous statements here. Anyways, the cousin was babysitting for this kid in this grand old house out on one of those streets where all the yippies live. You all know who I’m talking about. The fur coats and co-op shopping crowd. Anyways, so the cousin is babysitting and the kid, I’m picturing some gothic looking little boy with eyes too big for his head, starts going on and on about how there is a room in the house that doesn’t belong. And the cousin is all like, What the hell is this kid talking about? And then finally she asks him to show this almost-room to her. She just wants him to shut up. You know, a little tender moment of, Look kiddo, no freaking room, now go to bed. So they go down this long hallway and there’s a door at the end. And the cousin starts freaking out, right? But she’s trying to not let on because she doesn’t want the kid to get scared. So she goes up to the door and she takes hold of the door knob and it’s super cold like it had been in the freezer or something, and then she turns it really slowly and her heart is beating in her chest and her mind is telling her to run, just run. But she the door clicks and she pulls it open and….There’s just a wall there. The door opens onto nothing. So she turns around and looks at the little kid and he looks up at her and smiles, really big, a huge smile really that takes up the entire bottom half of his face, and he says, ‘The room is only there if you don’t need it to be.’ The end.”
Jordan sat down and smirked at everyone. Everyone applauded again, although Lee wasn’t exactly sure why. It had seemed like only half of a ghost story. It was like when someone tried to retell a story that they remembered. They would get the general parts but some small yet key component would be missing. His sister had told him to never trust someone who couldn’t bother to tell the whole story. A dark haired guy who was sitting on the other side of Marie sat forward slightly, “So, I’m Ryan. And here’s my story. It’s a short one.
“There was this guy in one of my classes who was always telling us about the weird things that he would notice on campus. Little things that he thought were strange or creepy. A light that wouldn’t stay turned on. Small stuff that could have been caused by anything. I guess that’s why we didn’t believe him when he started telling stories about the lake. He said that he kept seeing this guy walking along the shore. A guy with eyes the color of hot chocolate who would stop ever few feet and pick up a pebble from the shore. Then he would drop it. Just like that. Over and over again. And he was there every day and always at dusk. So, the guy I knew went up to him one day. He was curious. It was in his nature. And he asked the pebble guy, ‘What are you looking for?’ and the guy looked up and opened his mouth and out poured water. No sound. Just water. The clearest water. Or at least that’s what I heard happened. The guy I knew ended up in an asylum. So I’m not sure that he’s a reliable source.”
Ryan shrugged and sat back in his seat allowing the shadows to once again overtake his face. Lee noticed, then, how he couldn’t really see the faces of any of them when they weren’t speaking. It was as if their voices were what caused the shadows to retreat.
The guy with fancy hair stood back up and looked at Lee, “So, now it’s your turn. But, of course, there are some rules. The story must be new. Nothing told or written before and it must be true.”
Lee laughed. He looked up assuming that this was a joke but everyone was looking at him expectantly and seriously, “True? I thought we were telling ghost stories?”
“We are. Haven’t you been on this campus long enough to know what’s real?” Ryan asked.
Lee was confused and suddenly nervous. He wondered if John had orchestrated some gigantic prank. He wondered if these people were insane. “But I don’t know any true ghost stories. That’s ridiculous.”
There was a moment of stunned silence and then Marie looked at him, “But, Lee you have to know one. That’s the rule. I told you that everyone has to tell a story. That’s the only way to leave.”
“Wait, what?” Lee stared at her. It had to be a joke. But they were all looking at him with eyes like stones.
“Lee. Don’t keep us waiting.” Alice said. They were all leaning forward in their seats and they were all grinning with smiles that took up too much of their faces. Lee tried to remember every story like this that he had ever read. There was always a way out—the hero just needed to think. Then he tried to remember every story that he was ever told. He thought of cinnamon Bundt cake, warm from the oven and steam escaping from it as she cut it with a knife. He thought of the way her hair, always so soft, had tickled his arm and he had giggled before he could stop himself. He thought of her voice as she whispered a story filled with instructions to keep back the darkness. Lee smiled and said, “Okay. I’ve got one.”
“The campus gives up here. The bridge from the building to the hill…”
Chloe N. Clark is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing & Environment. Her work has appeared such places as Rosebud, Sleet, Booth, Menacing Hedge, and more. She can be followed on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.