Vivian has been writing as long as she’s been reading (“Longer than you think!” as Stephen King once put it). She has previously published a short story in a small literary magazine, Our Country, Our People. Her first novel will be released early in 2019. Vivian’s fascination with the macabre began when she was a young child in the sixties. She and her siblings would watch The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone with their mother. She has been writing ghost stories ever since.
CAN YOU SEE IT?
“Can you see it?”
I have never wanted to lie to my brother as much as I did in that moment. We were standing in a crowded corridor in the medical center, outside the psychiatrist’s office that Paul had just come from. People were walking busily up and down the hall. Some of them carried cell phones and others held folders and paperwork. Some people in the hall were medical types, others clearly civilians.
Paul was in a straitjacket. I’d never seen him so miserable. He looked ten years older than his actual age of 33.
I tried to avoid looking into his eyes and the strangers hurrying about their unknown lives proved a great temporary distraction.
My brother and I had grown up with very detached and distracted parents. Often left to our own devices, we played together constantly as kids. We were only two years apart in age and were never very far apart geographically, even after we grew up and went on to our adult lives.
Paul got married a while back, but it didn’t last very long. He had chosen a woman who turned out to be as distant and cold as our parents had been. He married a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad. I guess I should have seen that coming, but I didn’t. I stayed close enough to help him pick up the pieces when it was over.
When he was single again, we started to regain our youthful closeness. Which meant that it wasn’t out of character for him to call me in this, his hour of great distress.
This hospital is the regional trauma center where the critically injured, suicidal, and newly insane are brought first. I suppose the first responders to Paul’s workplace had judged him to be of this latter type.
Now he stood looking at me with such abject terror, I knew I had to give him an answer. And, much as I wanted to, I didn’t lie.
“Yes, I can see her,” I said. I refrained from using the pronoun, “it,” as he had done, because if she was not a hallucination as his doctors believed, then she was most definitely a she.
Paul seemed so relieved by my admission, but it didn’t last. “If you can see it, then I’m not crazy,” he said. “It’s really there. What does it want?”
The “it” he referred to was an apparition, a ghost. Specifically, the ghost of a young woman and she was on fire. Her gaze never left him, even when I spoke, although I knew she was aware of my presence.
She stood very close to him and if she hadn’t been incorporeal, he would have felt the heat. I could practically feel it. She was transparent, but I could also see every detail of her. She was wearing jeans and what appeared to be a leather jacket. She had tattoos and piercings here and there. The expression on her face was odd. I put it somewhere between anger and sadness; maybe with a little surprise thrown in.
Did I mention she was on fire? Because she was, literally. The woman-who-wasn’t-there was completely engulfed in flames. I could see her hair melting along with her clothes. The pain in her face didn’t seem to come from the fire, though. It looked deeper than that. It was an emotional anguish so intense that I wanted to pity her. But why was she haunting my brother?
She gave off a fetid, smoked meat smell that was offensive on so many levels, not the least of which was that it smelled kind of good, like roast pork.
“You tell me,” I said. “I don’t know who she is. I’ve never seen her before.”
“Well neither have I!” He was getting upset again and I didn’t believe him.
“Ghosts don’t just show up to stare at you, all burning up by the way, if you don’t know who they are, Paul! If she’s here, you know who she is. Tell me. Otherwise, we are not likely to see the end of her any time soon.”
He looked at his feet. “Can’t you just ask her?” he mumbled.
I tried not to roll my eyes. “What did the doctor say?” I asked, hoping a slight change of subject would soothe him a little. He kept stealing glances at the apparition. I wished whatever medication they’d given him would kick in soon.
“He said I’m having some kind of breakdown brought on by guilt,” Paul said. But if you can see her, then she’s really there and I’m not crazy!”
He wasn’t surprised that I could see her, only relieved. “No, you’re not crazy,” I assured him.
Her melting seemed to continue unabated, as did the flames. Yet she never stopped having hair to burn or clothes to melt. She was a horrifying presence and I knew he had to be more terrified now that he knew she was not a hallucination.
“Paul, what did you do?” I asked. The spirit looked at me then. So he had done something to her! She was recently deceased, this I knew also. Oh my god, had Paul somehow killed this woman? It couldn’t be! And yet, here she was.
Two men came and positioned themselves on either side of Paul. So help me, they were wearing white coats. “Let’s go to your room now, Mr. Havens,” one of them said. He gently put a hand on Paul’s elbow and began steering him down the hall.
“Talk to the doctor,” Paul pleaded with me as they left. “Tell him I’m not crazy! And please tell it to go away!” He stole one last glance at the burning woman before surrendering to his escort. The specter followed.
As they walked away, I saw a middle-aged man in a suit leaning against the door jamb of the office my brother had just exited. I surmised that this was the doctor in question and went over to him.
“And you are?” he asked. He smiled a knowing smile and I knew he had been watching me talk to Paul.
“I’m Paul’s sister, Anna,” I said. “This is so not like him. I can’t believe what’s going on. It’s just so damned weird!”
He extended his hand to shake, but I didn’t take it. He looked momentarily confused, then regained his composure.
“I’m Dr. Drake,” he said. “Come into my office for a moment, won’t you?” What was it with his tone that I found so condescending?
I followed him into his office and took a seat in front of the desk that dominated the dark room. I assumed he was going to tell me what had set my brother off, or worse, what kind of crazy he had diagnosed in my brother. Before he sat in the oversized leather chair behind his impressive desk, he started the brew cycle for a cup of coffee from a Keurig® machine that was sitting on the bookshelf to the right of the desk. When it was finished brewing, he held it out to me.
“Do you take cream and sugar?” he asked.
“No coffee, thank you.
He nodded and kept it for himself, taking a sip of the black brew as he sat.
I looked around and found the office charming in a cliché sort of way. The furniture was big, expensive-looking, and made of dark wood. The doctor’s desk was enormous and matching bookcases and tables stood about the room lending an authoritative air. A brass lamp with a green glass shade stood on one corner of the desk. On one side of the room was the obligatory couch. Next to it, facing, was a worn leather chair, completing the effect.
The blinds were closed, giving the room a muted, closed-in atmosphere.
The walls were paneled with the same dark wood as the furniture. Framed degrees (Johns Hopkins, no less), honors and magazine covers displaying his likeness adorned those walls. It would seem that Dr. Drake was something of a celebrity in the psychiatric community. My brother was in the best possible hands. That should have been a relief, but it was then that I decided to have a little fun with the good doctor.
“He says he can see a woman staring at him. She’s on fire,” he said. I didn’t want to respond right away. I just stayed where I was, listening. After a few moments, I answered as he seemed to be waiting for me to react to his revelation.
“Yes, he told me as much,” I said. His eyes searched mine. I guess he expected me to look shocked or frightened, but because I knew the flaming spirit was actually present, I didn’t give him any satisfaction.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it a breakdown,” Drake continued. “I believe his hallucination is brought on by Post Traumatic Stress and associated guilt.”
“PTSD? Guilt from what?” I asked. Now he had my attention. My conviction that Paul must have killed this woman was gnawing at me. Surely it was an accident?
“Your brother admitted to me that last night he’d had a few drinks before going home. He was not entirely sober. It was quite late, after one in the morning. He said he was stopped at a light and there was no other traffic. There was an alley near the intersection and when he looked over that way, he saw a young woman being attacked by two men.
“He sat in his car watching while they doused her with some liquid and then set her on fire. He said he was so horrified by the sight that he just took off and never looked back.
“He told me that the burning image he’s seeing is that same woman,” he finished.
I thought about it for a moment. It all sounded so plausible, so rational, coming from this psychiatrist. It also explained the apparition’s sudden appearance. But I knew, even if he was in a slightly inebriated state, my brother would never have left someone to die. I said as much to Dr. Drake.
“That’s the story he told me,” he said. “You may draw your own conclusions.”
I knew I had to hear it from Paul. He may have been afraid of confronting the two attackers, certainly, but at a minimum he would have called the police. Knowing my brother as I do, I just could not accept this narrative at face value.
I wondered if he had tried to rescue her and failed. Had he known her before and that was adding to his guilt? Did he really kill her? I had to find out.
“Paul said he went home and then this morning he went to work as usual,” Dr. Drake went on. He told me he was sitting at his computer working and not really thinking about anything else. All of a sudden the hallucination, this flaming woman, appeared. He started screaming and ran from his office. It followed him. He was asking for help, for anyone in the office to help him, but they all sat staring at him and didn’t react to what he was seeing.
“He kept asking if anyone could see it. He was pointing and crying and begging for help. His superiors came out of their offices and tried to comfort him. They tried to find out what was going on, but he was panicked and completely out of reach of reason by that point.
“Someone must have called 911, because not long after Paul fled his office, the EMTs showed up. They brought him here and I was called down to the ER. I assessed his state and decided he wasn’t a danger to anyone, nor to himself. But he was in such a state of panic that I thought it best to admit him if only temporarily.
“After he was sedated and acting calmer, I brought him up here to my office where we could speak in private.”
He paused and I decided this was a good time to drop the bomb. “What would you say if I told you that I can see her too?” I asked. I crossed my arms, feeling smug. I smiled and sat back in the chair. I hoped he could really feel the depth of my sincerity.
“I’d say that you are either trying to defend your brother, or that you two are so close that you perceive his hallucination because you can’t accept that he could be having a mental break.”
“Wow! That’s a pretty convenient conclusion, shot from the hip! Good for you, doc.
“But I’m telling you the truth. I can see her. I’ll tell you something else: I can describe her to you. I know you were listening from your office door here so you know that Paul did not tell me exactly what he was looking at. He just asked me if I could see it. Did he describe her to you in detail, Doctor?”
“Good. I saw a young woman with tattoos and piercings,” I said. “She had her hair dyed that ridiculous shade of blue all the young girls affect these days. She was wearing jeans and had on a t-shirt under a leather jacket. She was on fire and her hair, clothing, and skin appeared to be melting. She was staring directly at Paul.”
“I see,” he said. “What are you saying? Do you believe you’ve seen a ghost?” he asked.
“What else could she be?”
“I just told you, a hallucination. You must understand that I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“You will now,” I said, smiling.
“I beg your pardon?”
A voice over the PA started yelling, “Code blue, Room 522!” The psychiatrist leapt from his desk chair and ran down the hall. I followed. We arrived at Room 522 in time to see doctors and nurses working feverishly over Paul. He was lying on the bed, still wearing the straightjacket, and appeared to be unconscious.
Dr. Drake asked me to leave. I did as instructed, but not before gesturing to the flaming woman who stood off to one side. Her interest in Paul seemed to have waned. She saw me jerk my head in the direction of the door and followed me through it. Someone closed it and we were alone in the hallway.
“All right. You know what I am, you know I can see you, so let’s cut the crap. Who are you and what do you think you are doing haunting my brother?” I asked her. If any of the people walking up and down that hall noticed us, they gave no indication.
She sighed and for the first time, turned off the flames. She looked so young, no more than a teenager. It seemed a shame she’d lost her life. She sat in a chair that was against the wall adjacent the door to Paul’s room. I sat down next to her.
“He’s only telling a very small part of the story,” she said. The voice she offered in my mind was soft, not ravaged by burned and tortured vocal chords or anything as physically mundane as that.
“So I gathered. You know I’ve heard what he told the shrink. Why don’t you tell me the rest?”
She sighed again and looked at her partially melted hands, which lay in her lap. The roast meat smell had gone away with the flames and now I only noticed the pungent, antiseptic smell of a hospital.
“We dated a few times,” she said. She must have noted my surprised look.
“I know what you are thinking, but I was a professional,” she said.
“Well, if you must use that term, sure. Anyway, Paul was looking for me last night. He had been drinking, quite a bit more than he told you or that doctor. That is the only reason he would have been in my neighborhood. He was an easy client. He didn’t demand anything weird, always paid on time, sometimes would tip me. Nice guy. Not like the usual customers. A clean cut, regular guy who was lonely, that’s all. That’s what he was.”
She shrugged. “I met up with that other John a little earlier. Had I known Paul was cruising for me, I never would have. But this John got rough very quick. I was able to get out of his car and ran to that alley. His friend was there. It was as if they had planned it ahead of time. They both took turns, there in the dark behind the dumpsters.” She shook her head and her pretty blue locks fell out in ashy clumps, trailed by a wisp of smoke.
“I know people like you think that working girls like me can’t be raped, but that’s what it was. They were rough and uncaring and I wasn’t going to get paid for taking that. But I was more afraid of these guys. You see, there has been a John out there killing the girls on the street. The cops are calling him a serial killer, but since he’s picking on us, they aren’t busting their asses to catch him, you know?”
As she spoke, I noticed she became more substantial. For a moment, I almost forgot she was a ghost. “I know about that,” I told her. Considering what I am, it wasn’t hard for me to know about the recently deceased prostitutes that had been cropping up all over the city.
The blue-haired girl looked at me. “Yeah. So that’s who I thought these guys were, you know? I thought they had reeled me in and now they were going to kill me. But then Paul drove by. I was so relieved. I screamed at him and waved my arms. He saw me. He looked me right in the eyes and I knew he would save me.” She paused.
“Clearly he didn’t,” I said.
“Well, no. Not exactly. See, he did save me from those guys. He pulled over and jumped out of his car and he had a gun. They saw that he was armed and they dropped me and ran out of there, back to their car. He didn’t go after them, he came to see how I was. I was so relieved!” she said again. “He picked me up and I started to get dressed. I asked him if he would take me home and he said, “No. Not tonight, sweetheart.”
“Seriously?” I asked. “Are you telling me he expected you to perform for him after what you had just gone through? That doesn’t sound like the Paul I know.”
“I don’t think you know your brother as well as you think you know him,” she answered. She brushed absently at the pile of ash that had formed on her jeans. Instead of falling to the floor as physical ash would have, the little pile just dissipated, taking some of her hand with it.
She looked up from her lap and met my eyes. “Paul is the serial killer that the cops have been half-heartedly looking for,” she said.
“I don’t believe it!” I got up and went across the hall. Still, no one paid any attention to us.
“I’m dead,” she said flatly. “You know we don’t lie.” She left it at that.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I’d been aware of some of the other dead prostitutes, but Paul killed them? How could he? What could have happened to send him so utterly sideways?
But then suddenly, the pieces began to fall into place for me. I recalled the dead birds that used to appear out of nowhere when we were kids. I remembered my kitten that had drowned in the pond behind the house. He blamed that one on the dog, but the dog had loved that kitten. Paul’s lifelong fascination with true crime stories, especially unsolved murders came back to me then. I turned to her.
“Why did he set fire to you? I don’t think the others were burned.”
“They weren’t,” she said. “He raped me, there in that alley, just as the other two men had earlier. Then he shot me in the head, execution style, as he had done with the others. When I was dead, he went back to his car and got a gas can. He poured it all over me and lit my body on fire. He took the gas can, his lighter, and everything else that might tie him to the crime and got back in his car and left. I think he burned me because he just happened upon me in that situation. He wasn’t planning to kill me. At least not last night. I suppose he would have eventually, though.
“But he was telling the truth about one thing. I was watching him go, leaving me there to burn.
“Do you know how frustrating it’s been that only he could see me?” she asked. “I wanted so badly to make someone, anyone, see me so they would know what he did! Then you came today. I was glad because I knew finally someone would hear my story. I wasn’t content with just driving him crazy, although there is a great deal of satisfaction in it. But really, he was mad to begin with, wasn’t he? I wanted to kill him. I tried to. But I’m not as good at affecting the physical as I’d like to be. I did try.
“How do you do it, anyway?” She asked suddenly. “Just how do you make them see. . ?”
But before she could finish the question, Dr. Drake opened the door and emerged from my brother’s room. He looked aggrieved.
“We can’t save him,” he said.
“What?” I said. “But how? He was disturbed, not dying!” I brushed past him into the room and looked down at a very pale Paul, motionless on the bed. There were dark bruises on his throat. The doctors and nurses were working hard over his body performing CPR, but could not revive him.
“I’m calling it,” one of them said. The others ceased their frantic attempts. Paul was dead.
I turned, not surprised to see him standing next to me. He looked ecstatic. Death becomes him.
“Did she do this to you?” I asked him.
He nodded and pointed to his body’s bruised throat. Sometime between Paul being led here to this private room and the doctor being called up here on a code blue, the flaming woman had extracted her vengeance after all. She must have thought they would be able to revive him and that’s why she told me her story. So that I could call him on it. She wanted me to know what he was.
But now he was dead, and a serial killer no longer. Her story, while shocking, was moot. I looked over toward the window. She was there, smiling at us and once again burning away.
“You want to maybe turn the fire off now?” I asked. She winked and blew me a kiss, then flipped off Paul. Then she stepped through the fifth story window and was gone. A little on the theatrical side considering, but hey, to each her own.
I looked at him. “How did you keep it from me all these years?”
He shrugged. “Does it matter now?” He looked around the room. “Can we get out of here, this place gives me the creeps.” He laughed and faded from my view.
Then Dr. Drake looked at me. I think he wanted to say, “I’m sorry,” but I didn’t let him get past opening his mouth.
I smiled at him. “Remember in your office when you told me that you don’t believe in ghosts?”
“Yes,” he said. “Don’t tell me that you can see Paul now?” he asked.
“Well yes, as a matter of fact, I can. But that’s not what I want you to know. When we met an hour ago I told you that I’m Paul’s sister. What I didn’t tell you is that I’ve been dead for over three years.”
Slowly I began to fade until he saw nothing in front of him but empty space. I laughed and made damn sure he heard me, too. That shrink looked as though he’d seen a ghost.