The familiar thud, thud echoed from outside my flat door. I barely noticed, but Paul shifted nervously in his chair. “What’s that?”
Thud…thud…then silence. I replied without thinking. “It’s my ghost.”
“My ghost.” This time I said the words defensively.
“Are you kidding? It’ll be pipes.”
“It’s probably pipes,” I agreed.
“Are you having me on?”
I shook my head, not knowing what to say. I’d been in the flat for three months, and this was the first time someone else had heard the mysterious knocking. “That’s just how I think about it. I went out to look once. The sound seems to be coming from over to the left, from behind the wall. So probably, yeah, it’s pipes or the building’s settling or something. I just decided it was a ghost the first time I heard it. Stupid, I know.”
“Why would you decide that?”
“Don’t you think there’s something about it? Like it’s trying to get your attention? I don’t know, I guess a ghost’s better company than pipes.”
Paul’s face broke into a grin. “Man, we really need to get you laid.” He caught himself, seeing my expression. “Hey, I’m sorry. I know it’s too soon.” Abruptly, he cocked an ear towards the doorway. “Now it’s stopped.”
“I guess even ghosts have to rest sometimes,” I said.
It struck me afterwards that Paul must have thought I was talking about Sam. No wonder I’d freaked him out: ‘Yeah, that’s just my dead girlfriend walking around.’ But Sam haunts me in altogether different ways. No, I’d always figured my ghost was male–though I only realised that after Paul left. I didn’t know much else about him. I’d imagined him to be young, late teens or early twenties. I’d no idea where the image had come from, and that was all there was: a youthful shadow, devoid of features. I went to sleep that night, a little groggy from the Glenmorangie, wondering anxiously what his face might look like.
At first, I think there’s no light.
I feel constricted, walls tight around me, against my back and shoulders–rough and cold, brick maybe. Something tells me that if I reach out I could touch the far walls too. I don’t dare. I don’t dare because I’d rather not know–and because I’m not alone.
There’s light, a glimmer from above. He’s just an outline, black against deepest grey. I don’t think he even knows I’m here, though we’re so close that if I just stretched my fingers–but I can’t, I won’t. Why am I scared? Would he hurt me? No, there’s no anger left in him, not even fear anymore.
He couldn’t hurt me, wouldn’t anyway, somehow I understand that. If he knew I was here, though…
If he knew, he might look at me.
I didn’t remember at first. When I woke, the dream was just a constriction in my chest. The hour was early, before dawn. I got up anyway, tried to watch TV.
I thought about the last night, what I’d said to Paul. The truth was that I lived with two ghosts. I sat watching the glow of a drab dawn breaking around the balcony and didn’t feel alone. Sam kept me company; or, more truthfully, the ache of losing her did. Months ago, just before I’d moved into the flat, Paul had asked me cautiously when I planned to go back to work. I’d said ‘soon’. What I’d meant was, when the ache goes away. Paul had been tactful; I’d seen his disapproval, though, the question barely less obvious for being unasked. Was this what Sam would have wanted?
Of course it wasn’t. She wouldn’t have wanted me to forget, either, and I couldn’t see any other way to move on. Leaving our home had been enough of a betrayal. The passing of six months had done nothing to numb the hurt. I didn’t believe at that point that any amount of time could hope to.
Yet, sitting there watching muted TV and the creep of early morning light, I realised I didn’t have to carry around another ghost as well. The first real sense of my dream came back to me then–claustrophobia, a dim shape barely a hand’s breadth away–and I shuddered. Who was he? No one I knew. No one I was responsible for.
I made strong coffee to bring myself round, turned on my computer. I searched for the name of my block of flats. None of the results looked interesting, so I added ‘death’, and, when that didn’t help, ‘murder’, then ‘suicide’, ‘tragedy’, and anything I could think of in a similar vein. There was nothing.
I was sure my logic was sound. The building couldn’t be more than five years old, I was on the fourth floor, and if the place really was haunted then its phantom tenant must be a recent acquisition. There was also Paul’s pipes theory, of course, and the possibility that I was being crazy. After an hour of fruitless searching, that seemed far more convincing.
Still, I wasn’t quite ready to give up. Paul was indirectly response for starting my obsession, so perhaps he could help finish it. I went back into the bedroom, grabbed the phone.
The voice at the other end was barely recognisable as Paul’s. “Do you know what the time is?” he grunted.
“It’s half six, man.”
No wonder he sounded groggy. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t think. I need a favour, that’s all.”
“If I say yes, can I go back to sleep? I don’t have to be up for another hour.”
“Sure, I’m sorry. I just wondered … if there’d been a suspicious death where I live, you’d have some record of that, right?”
“Murder, suicide? Some weird accident, I don’t know.”
There was a long pause. “Are you asking me to check police records to hunt for your ghost?”
An even longer pause. “I’m not about to abuse police resources for you. But there’s a guy on the Evening Mail I could ask.”
“I’d appreciate it.”
“Hey,” Paul said, “I’m glad you’re taking an interest in something, even if it’s an insane something. I’ll ring if I have any news, okay?”
And he hung up.
Funnily, someone telling me how early it was had brought the fact home, because suddenly my tiredness caught up. Paul was right, though: for the first time in ages I felt absorbed in a subject that wasn’t myself and my memories of Sam, bizarre though that subject might be.
I shrugged off my gown and lay down. But my head was whirling, fragments of my dream slipping back into consciousness, struggling against the tiredness.
I thought for a while that the waking thoughts would win out. Then the two started to muddle, and blackness closed down around me.
It’s not quite dark, late evening or early morning. Time means nothing here, though, not to him. He’s a hair’s breadth away, slumped against the rough brick, that’s stained a deeper shade where he leans his hands and head. His face–thank God!–is turned away.
Somewhere, a bell rings.
My heart clenches. Has he heard? Will he move?
He’s heard. He tries to move his hands first, to reach up. They just lie limply against the wall, like two dead birds.
He’s going to look at me. A shudder of effort runs through him: first his back, the muscles twitching, and then his neck. His face begins to turn…
For a moment the dream stayed real, though I was sat bolt upright, my breath arriving in sharp tugs, the phone in my hand.
A disgruntled sound came from the receiver. “Hey, are you there? Don’t muck me around.”
I brought my strangled breathing under control. “Paul?”
“I fell asleep. Just a bad dream.”
“It’s after lunch. You keep strange hours, man.”
I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to explain. “Have you got something?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, “maybe. Not what you asked for, but it’s the only remotely strange thing to happen where you are in, like, twenty years.”
“It’s just that one of the builders of your flats went missing … homeless guy called Billy Sunderland. Not that weird, really, I guess it was a slow news week.”
“It’s something,” I said.
“Well, if you really want to do this, I’ve got the address of the shelter he was in. Just try not to upset anyone. And whatever you do, don’t mention my name, okay?”
The Meadowbeck Refuge took some finding, and when I finally managed it, didn’t look like much: a modern building of red brick and grey tiles, oppressive in its lack of character, set back behind high wrought-iron fences and an unlocked gate. When I rang the bell, a petite blonde woman in her late twenties answered, wearing an expression of fraught surprise. I gave my name and told her why I was there.
“Are you from the paper?”
“No,” I said, “nothing like that.”
“Look, I’m not a reporter, I’m not some ghoul, and it would mean a lot to me to know what happened to Billy Sunderland. But it’s personal, and the reasons would sound crazy.”
Unexpectedly, she smiled. “There’s a girl upstairs who’s convinced amphetamines let her talk to Jesus. Would it sound crazier than that?”
“Maybe not,” I admitted.
She stared at me for a long moment with frank appraisal. Then she said, “My name’s Caroline. I can spare you five minutes.”
I thanked her and let her lead me inside. The place brought back memories of my student lodgings, only reeking of antiseptic and without a single poster or picture anywhere. Down a passage and across a hall, she opened a door and ushered me through. There was a large room beyond, apparently a communal lounge, complete with ancient sofas and an antique television. No one was in there though. She pointed me to a chair, sat opposite, and said, “There’s not much I can tell you.”
“Anything would be a start.”
“Well, part of what we do here is finding jobs for our residents. Billy had experience working on a construction site, so we managed to pair him with a local firm. From their point of view he was good, cheap labour. And Billy was happy doing it–at first.”
“After a couple of weeks,” she said, “he started coming back hurt. Bruises, nasty cuts, one time a burn on his arm. All we managed to get out him was that he’d had accidents. We complained to the site manager, but nothing happened. Then one Friday he just didn’t come back.”
“Were the police involved?” I asked.
“We contacted them, but what could we say? Even if he’d been bullied, the most likely explanation was that he’d had enough and left. So what if I had a bad feeling? They weren’t about to investigate because of that.”
Cruelly, I felt disappointed. What did this have to do with my ghost? A homeless brickie, who’d been pushed about and had drifted on? “Why were you so sure someone was hurting him?” I asked.
Maybe I sounded flippant, because suddenly Caroline was defensive. “Billy really wanted to settle down, too much to just drop everything. And I know all too well that there are people who’ll hate someone, really hate them, just because they’re different.”
I started. “Different?”
“You mean you didn’t know? Billy Sunderland was deaf-mute.”
I moved out of my flat three days later–after my neighbour found me unconscious, curled in the hallway, face pressed against the plasterboard. I stayed with Paul for a while, on his insistence, before I looked for somewhere else. I felt cowardly doing it, as if I was betraying Billy. Of course, I didn’t know anything. I had no proof. All I had were dreams, and theories.
Had it been an accident? A prank that went far too far? It would only have taken a group of them, competing, pushing the bar of cruelty higher each time. Some of the stories Paul’s told me, cases he’s seen–horrific things can happen when there’s no one brave enough to say stop.
I checked the blueprints. There wasn’t so much as a cavity outside my flat, which leads me to think it was deliberate–that someone made that place just for him. Maybe they’d planned to let him out. Maybe they’d realised when they returned that they’d done something too terrible to take back.
I have ideas. I’ll never know the truth. The only evidence I have comes from that last night, and means nothing to anyone but me. Paul told me in no uncertain terms: what I saw isn’t admissible in any court of law.
Still, I look back on that night a lot–most days. Part of me has no difficulty accepting some temporary breakdown on my part. But another part asks, stubbornly, what is a ghost? Could it be a stain, of sorts? Like the darker red of blood on brick?
It was about nine o’clock when the knocking began again, the first time I’d heard the sound since the incident with Paul. I stood paralysed in my kitchen for five long minutes, waiting for that steady beat to end. It didn’t. I began to understand, somehow, that it wouldn’t.
When finally I moved, I did so through sheer force of will. I walked to my front door, stepped into the hall. The noise was much louder there, loud enough that I wondered why others hadn’t come to investigate. As before, it seemed to be coming from the wall to my left. I turned that way, reached out my hands–and dizziness hit me like a hammer-blow, pressing me forward…
He isn’t looking at me.
Still, his face is moving, changing through ever paler shades of grey, and where the light catches, the wetness is brighter. I want to look away. I can’t. How could I?
I know that for a long time he beat against the wall. Eventually his hands just wouldn’t work anymore. By then they were a mess of torn skin and gore that adhered to the rough bricks as though they were a spider’s web. He was beyond hungry by then, beyond thirsty. Even the pain had grown distant.
Now, nothing seems real. He no longer imagines he’ll be rescued, that’ll he’ll ever be free. He just wants to be heard. Nothing else matters.
He leans his head back. For an instant, I see the ruin that was his face–the dripping mask.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
David Tallerman is the author of the comic fantasy novels Giant Thief, Crown Thief and Prince Thief, the absurdist steampunk graphic novel Endangered Weapon B: Mechanimal Science and The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, a collection of pulp-styled horror and dark fantasy fiction. His short fantasy, science fiction and horror stories have appeared in around seventy markets, including Clarkesworld, Nightmare, Lightspeed and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and his genre-bending debut novella Patchwerk is due from Tor.com in early 2016. David can be found online at davidtallerman.co.uk and davidtallerman.blogspot.com.