She won’t be around much longer, pal, Ren’s father had told him earnestly. His Aunt Joan was dying.
Ren and his brother Bobby shared a room at the old hotel, his mother, father and little sister Elsie in the adjoining room. Bobby slept like the dead, but Ren had always been a light sleeper. Sometimes he stayed up all night, or most of it. His mother had worried about him.
It was the first night, Monday, when Ren knew something was wrong in the room of the old hotel. He didn’t see anything, but he could feel it. There are things that feel right and things that feel wrong. At that moment in the room, in the middle of the night, at two forty-six a.m., which he knew because the red light of the alarm was right next to his head, everything in the room felt wrong.
The next morning he was with his cousins. Ren had remembered them as kind of fun when they’d come down and had all met at the beach. Now their eyes registered recognition, understanding, but their spirit was gone, empty.
Tuesday night, Ren was sure he’d seen it – a ghost, a poltergeist, is what Bobby had called ghosts once. Ren wasn’t sure the difference. And when he woke up, cold, feeling out of place, disoriented, he could hear the word in his head, over and over.
Boy… boy… boy…
The next morning he asked his father if he could stay behind at the hotel. He had been very upset, he explained, at seeing his Aunt Joan the day before, which was only partly true.
He hated to lie to his father, and he hated more to lie to his mother, who, after a brief, quiet conference with his dad came over to him in the hotel lobby and gave him a silent, weepy kiss on the forehead. Of course, honey. Go back up to the room and wait for us there. Read some of your books.
Ren said he would.
He would not.
He waited for his family to drive off then walked out into the day. It was sunny but he heard a radio in a car parked nearby and the weatherman said storms were rolling in from the east. Ren walked down Main Street, hooked a left at Church Street, and went until he came to the library.
Ren spent the better part of the day there. He only left to walk back towards the hotel and eat at the bagel place across the street, using babysitting money to buy a bagel and a Coke.
He started with books on the history of Bethlehem, and worked his way to two on the hotel itself. It took more courage than he thought it might to begin to browse through the books that talked about the hotel being haunted.
A lot of it seemed pretty silly. Lady Hope, the singer. Daddy Thomas. Mrs. Landlord, the barefoot ghost. He breezed through much of it.
Then it got interesting. The hotel was built in 1922, before there were any significant child labor laws in the country. Turns out kids – kids Ren’s age – were pretty useful at building big buildings. They could squeeze into small spaces, do a lot of menial tasks… Get paid virtually nothing.
Ren left the library slightly horrified with his new knowledge of child labor, but with no more answers than he had before. One line he’d read in a book weirdly titled Understanding and Applications of Psychoanalytics of the Spiritual and Mystical had stuck with him: “In a preponderance of case studies, we note that apparitions who make themselves known or strive to ensure their presence is felt in this dimension in actuality do no more than simply declare their own embodiment as they were when they exited this world.”
Ren thought about that line a lot, what it might mean.
He beat his parents back to the hotel by around thirty minutes. They ate a quiet dinner in the room occupied by Ren’s parents, room service. Before he left his parent’s room for his own, he quietly asked his father about the line – recited it verbatim.
That was in a book you’re reading?
Okay, well. I think it means that most of the time, when there’s a ghost, all the ghost really does or wants to do is just tell you who the ghost was when the ghost was, you know, alive.
Yeah. That’s what I thought.
Hey, you okay, pal?
You know, you’re Aunt Jane isn’t doing real well. We may be here… longer. I’m sorry, pal.
That night, sleep came hard. Ren lay against the starch-white pillow, thinking until he finally drifted into a fitful sleep.
Two forty-six a.m. This time he saw it. Saw him. Ren sat up in his bed hard and fast. His breath was drawing in quick, but he felt like he couldn’t expel it. When he did, it came out in short, wheezy huffs. It was so cold he could see the white clouds of vapor.
The foot of his bed. A boy his age but with a blue tint, like out of an old movie, broadcast over sinister airwaves, or a sun-bleached picture. The boy flickered, was hard to focus on. He looked dirty, ragged – wore old coveralls, and his hair, falling in his face, seemed streaked with grease or oil. The boy had hollow eyes, just faded white light. Ren tried to breath slower. Couldn’t. Couldn’t move, though he was aware of every muscle. He ached from the tension.
The boy at the foot of the bed seemed to open his non-eyes wider. He raised his arm and pointed one finger at Ren.
Lightning flashed. Ren heard the thunder and the skies opened up above them.
The apparition at the foot of the bed spoke as he faded into the smell of the ozone, faded against the crashing flash of lightning outside.
Boy… boy… boy…
© 2013 by Benjamin J. Kirby
All rights reserved.
Originally published at terribleminds for a flash fiction challenge.