16 March 2012

#fridayflash: the haunted atheist

Mark Leslie Lefebvre's "Spirits" short story inspired me to write down this true(ish) tale that happened about twenty years ago. His fictional tale of a not-quite-a-ghost is a great example of "single serving" e-reading — I read it over lunch at work and got a nice break all in one go. The e-book version also contains a worthwhile afterword.

the haunted atheist

Once upon a time there was a woman who was an arts major, who read the newspaper horoscopes every day for fun, and who hated doing math in her head. When asked if she was religious, she would always say she was an agnostic, but that she felt it was important to study world mythologies since they informed so much modern literature.

The woman was dating a man who was a physicist, who declared that fiction was an inferior art form, and who could do rather complex math in his head. He was an atheist, and very proud of it.

Perhaps this makes it odder that he was the one who wound up haunted. Perhaps it is only poetic justice.

One day the man's place of work was burned down by an arsonist, and the business owner made the then-radical request that the employees work from home until he could find another suitable office space.

The atheist agreed, and set up a workspace in the living room of his small apartment. He spent all his daylight hours working in his living room. He spent all his evening hours as he always had, relaxing in his living room. He spent all his meal-times eating on the living room couch, because although there was a kitchen table in his small apartment, it was used as storage space and never had enough room to set a plate of food down on it.

So it went for months, and still the man's employer had not found a suitable office space.

One evening, when the woman had come over to have dinner with the man, he shakily asked if she believed in ghosts. She said she believed that ghosts were simply a natural phenomenon not yet scientifically explained.

The man swallowed. "Well, I think I've seen a ghost." He pointed towards the living room entrance that led to the hallway. "It was walking along there."

"When?" said the woman.

"Two nights ago."

"Ah." And she changed the subject.

The woman stayed over that night. About halfway between midnight and dawn, she was woken up by the man, who was sitting up in bed and trembling.

"It's here! It's back! Can't you hear it?"

The woman listened carefully. "No," she said. "I don't hear anything."

"Maybe it's a burglar, and now that he's heard us he's stopped moving."

"Maybe, but if it is, he's either going to leave or attack us, and if he's going to leave he's going to have to leave by the door, because none of the windows open far enough to let a person get out."

"Good point," said the man, and he gingerly got out of bed and picked up a baseball bat he'd got to threaten intruders with. "Follow me."

"But I don't have anything to defend myself against —" the woman started, and then realised that she already knew there was no burglar there. She got up and followed the man down the hall.

"Can you hear it?" the man whispered when they were halfway down the hall.

"No, nothing."

"There it is! It just went by, this white light..."

"I didn't see anything."

They reached the entrance to the living room. "It's moving around the room, very fast," the man said.

"I still can't see anything," the woman said.

The man stuck his hand into the living room. "The air is colder here," he said. "That's one sign of a ghost, right? Cold spots?"

"Yes," the woman said, "but on the other hand, we're standing close together in a narrow hallway, reaching into an open room. The air is bound to be colder in the room than it is in this part of the hallway."

The man was upset that the woman had come up with an analysis of the local heat sources and exchanges when he was the one who was good at physics. "That makes sense," he said with as much authority as he could muster.

He watched the ghost whiz around the room for another minute or two while the woman waited with him. "It's fading now," he announced.

"Tell you what," said the woman. "I'm falling asleep on my feet."

"How can you be, when we just saw a ghost?"

"You saw the ghost, not me. As I was saying, tell you what — let's go to the kitchen and have a nightcap, then try to get back to sleep. The ghost or whatever it is doesn't seem to be in a hurry to harm anyone."

She took one step back to reach the kitchen entrance and flicked on the light. "Let me pour the drinks," she said. "You're still all shaking and freaked out."

The man agreed and followed her into the kitchen. The woman was getting the bottle of whisky down from the top shelf when the man cried out.

"Is it back?" said the woman.

"That's what it looked like!" said the man, pointing at the uncurtained kitchen window.

The woman turned and saw the man's reflection in the glass. She thought it over while she got the drinks ready. Meanwhile the man decided that "what it meant" was that he was actually dead. Obviously all of this was taking place in his dying brain. Really he had died at some point, probably recently, although it was hard to tell because all of his observations were being interpreted by his dead or dying brain.

"That means you're not real," he said, turning to the woman. The woman gave him one of the drinks and clinked his glass with hers.

"I think you've made an echo," she said, taking a sip. "The path you said the ghost was taking — it was moving from the stereo to the computer desk to the couch, then back to the stereo again, right?"

"Very quickly," said the man, gulping at his drink. "It was almost a blur."

The woman nodded. "But that's what you do every day," she said. "You work at the desk, you relax and eat on the couch, and you play music constantly."

"An echo," the man said.

"That's the way I see it. Much more logical than telling me I'm dead or nonexistent."

"It's one explanation," the man said. He stared into his drink and didn't seem very happy with the implications.

The woman shrugged, finished her drink, and went back to bed. The atheist did as well.

He never mentioned this or any other ghost ever again.


  1. I had to laugh at this — cute, clever, and consistent. A thing of ectoplasmic beauty!

    1. Thank you! Whatever happened to ectoplasm, anyhow? It was such a big deal in Victorian and Edwardian times, right through to the 1920s with Topper, and then the last time I remember it mentioned in popular culture was in Ghostbusters.

  2. I like this, it works well. It reminds me of the theory that a ghost follows the path they used to in life, hence walking through walls just happens where doors used to be. Maybe it isn't their spirit, but an echo of their life, and if so, why should that not happen while the person is still alive..?

    Food for thought anyway. Good story. =)

    1. Thank you! Yeah, I've always liked that theory. It also goes with the "observation" that ghosts tend to fade over time. There's the ghost of a lady that started off looking like the living person, then she faded to white, and then just sounds in the night.

  3. The self-awarensss is very winning! I grinned at the pause to say it was appropriate he was the one haunted.

    1. Well, you know, it's one thing to want to experience the world objectively and rationally, but it's another to refuse to acknowledge that sometimes shit happens...

  4. This was good and entertaining. I liked the echo theory as I have experienced a ghost as a blue print of an event - it just kept playing it over and over.

    (Your blogger comments is missing its subscribe to comments by email button - I'll have to come back to read your response.)

    1. "Blue print of an event" -- that's an interesting way of putting it. But there was only one ghost?

      I fixed the subscribe by e-mail settings! It lets me write replies specific to each comment too. I'm a little miffed at where Blogger hid it -- if I'd known how it changed the features I would have done it ages ago. Thank you for keeping on about it!

    2. Yes it was only one. I worked in an old mansion type house that was converted to an old peoples home. Checking the very old wing one night, the hall light switch wouldn't work and so it meant me walking the length past the bathroom to the other switch. Out of the bathroom came a smoky figure of an old man with a zimmer frame. He just stood in the door way. When I asked others who had worked longer, they told me the story about him hanging himself in that bathroom.

    3. PS thanks for finding the button! ^__^

    4. That's sad about the old man.

  5. I don't think life can be much fun for "The man who haunted himself"
    The poor guy can't even run away from it, can he?

    I like the theorising and explanations involved in this story, I don't know if there is any truth in them, but they make for good reading. :)

    1. Yeah, well, remember, this is a mostly-true story... what I learned from the experience was that it's healthy to allow yourself to be silly and irrational, or else it just sort of builds and you wind up experiencing stuff that your ultra-rational mind just can't handle.

  6. I have these sorts of experiences on ghost hunts! Wonderful story.

    1. Ah, interesting. You mean where one person is experiencing something and freaking out and someone else isn't perceiving anything?

  7. I like the way you introduced this story and that it was the dreamer who found the rational answer. Lovely turn of events. Neat explanation too.

    1. Thank you! I'm glad that got across. It's one thing to approach the world rationally, but it's another thing to expect the world to be rational in return.


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