Ghost of a wrongly executed convict searches for the love of his life – and supposed victim – in this North Carolina ghost story written by Richard J. Paracka.
My eyelids closed and darkness took me. Lights out, dead-end, Taps; you name it – the show was over.
Beyond the viewing window in the next room members of a small audience began to leave in ones and twos. Despite the beginning of a new day twenty-one minutes before, everyone looked tired and worn out. Every face was devoid of emotion. A man dressed in black with a thin white-collar around his neck was the last to leave. He mumbled quietly to himself, turned and headed down a long empty corridor. As the echo of his footsteps died a uniformed guard looked around the room to make sure it was empty, then closed and locked the door; the sound of its metallic latch snapping with a grim finality.
On the other side of the window, in a tiny chamber with pea green walls, a hollow body lay on a narrow table. A steel door opened and two figures dressed in green surgical gowns entered. One filled out forms on a clipboard and the other disconnected tubes and wires from the body. When each member of the team completed their appointed tasks they wheeled the table and its pale rider to the loading dock in the rear of the building where a small vehicle waited. Its driver stood nearby shivering in the cold night air, a cup of hot coffee steaming in his hand.
That’s the way it happened. I can tell you that with a certainty because I was there. Saw the whole thing. Well, most of it anyway. I remember my eyes closing and the next thing I knew I was over there in the next room with the audience. I was a little confused at first until I realized what they were looking at. They were staring at my dead body back in the execution chamber.
I didn’t do it, but what do you care? What difference did it make to anyone at that point? The circus trial was over, appeals made and lost, and I’d had a lethal dose of the state’s best killer cocktail pumped into my veins. I hadn’t been a saint, but I wasn’t a criminal or a hypocrite either and I hadn’t lived a very long life before they took it away from me.
It had been a good-looking body at one time and I admit that I enjoyed using it. Now it lay beneath a red velvet blanket all full of poison, empty and still. Strangers now owned what had once been mine. I hovered over it, watching as they loaded it into the back of the vehicle like cast off furniture. If I’d had tears I would’ve cried a river. The green team finished transferring the body, the driver signed the release forms and minutes later the vehicle passed through the prison gate heading out along a lonely stretch of state highway. It’s destination, my hometown in Snow Hill, North Carolina.
The two men in green turned and headed back into the warm bowels of the building. One of them held the clipboard with the last records of my life etched in blue ink on its pages. I surged toward him and knocked it out of his hand with all the pent-up frustration and anger I could muster.
“Clumsy,” his partner said. The first man wasn’t so sure, having felt the energy of an unseen hand as it forced the clipboard from his grip. He stooped to pick it up and looked around. Seeing nothing he retrieved his paperwork and continued on into the building.
“Feel better?” a voice asked.
“No I don’t,” I said as I sailed off into the night in pursuit of the only body I’d ever had.
I stood next to the mortician and watched as he pumped the fluid out of my body, washed and dressed it for burial. He did a real good job. When he was done, the remnants of my earthly presence looked nearly as good as it ever had. I heard Aunt Ethel say so when she and Mom came to see it during viewing hours. Late at night when no one was around I tried to get back into it, but it was no good. I couldn’t ‘get beneath’ it. There was nothing to grab onto, to hold me in. I can’t describe it any other way. It was like trying to get a grip on running water. Later on I did manage to move it a couple of times, just a little and from the outside, like the clipboard.
None of my family or friends came to visit, only Mom and Aunt Et. Poor Mom had to hire six guys to carry the casket to the cemetery, but before that happened I had a little fun. Ida Framer, that was her real name, came to gloat the last day that daylight fell on my cold pale face. She was a local TV journalist and had single-handedly encouraged the feeding frenzy that railroaded me into prison and that date with the executioner. She lived up to her name.
Nobody came to the funeral except Mom and Aunt Et. They were sitting together waiting for the minister to arrive when Ida sailed through the door and marched over to the casket. She stood there looking down at my body like a vulture about to dine on road kill. That’s when I decided to wipe the self-satisfied smile off her face. I passed through her, positioning myself between her and the casket. The movement gave her a chill. She shuddered and glanced about as if to discover the nature of the disturbance.
“Don’t do it,” a voice said.
I didn’t care. Mom was weeping and Aunt Et was holding her hand in consolation. Neither of them saw what I did next. Ida turned back for a look at the body and when she did I moved its right hand. The idea was to make it wave at her, but it was too stiff. I only succeeded in creating a little jerk or spasm. It was good enough. Ida saw it, gasped and put her hand over her mouth. It caused a massive emotional reaction. I knew it because I could see the veins standing out on her neck, throbbing like crazy. Little beads of sweat appeared on her forehead. One more ought to do it, I thought.
The minister arrived and his entrance startled her. She acknowledged the man with a nervous nod. I could see that she was shaking visibly and when she turned back to look at my face I provided the coup de grace. I opened the eyes of the corpse. God almighty it was beautiful, a real piece of work. Ida wet her pants, screamed and passed out cold on the floor. If I could have laughed I would have.
Because of Ida I nearly died a happy man; nearly, but not quite. I was still incomplete somehow, something still undone, a piece unmade. An unseen hole inside the invisible me allowed no peace. Aunt Et and the minister rushed to Ida’s side and as I looked down at her lying there on the floor I knew that although I would miss my body at least I’d given it a good send off.
I was pretty restless and after the funeral I hung around the grave for a while. They say that the spirits of the dead inhabit a cemetery, but it turned out to be a pretty lonely place. Every once in a while I thought I saw another ghost out by the hillside, but I could never be quite sure who it was. I didn’t know what to do or where to go, so I just floated around. I had no sense of the passage of time, but it must have been a while because I remember when the leaves fell in the fall and when the snow covered the ground. It was a peaceful place, but there was still a hole in me somewhere and I couldn’t appreciate the beauty around me. The snow came and went many times.
The leaves fell again, and one night during a full moon some kids came by to challenge their own fear and the shadows of the night. I had a mind to put a scare into them, but I heard a voice tell me to leave them alone and so I did. Winter arrived and I was still drifting around all alone among the tombstones when I spotted a familiar name carved into a slab. It was the name of the girl I had been accused of murdering; Samantha Taupin. Hers was the ghost that kids dared to glimpse. Hers was the story they told.
When the moon waxes full
and the evening is still,
in a long satin dress
she’ll glide o’er the hill.
They called her Lady Samantha.
Sam and I grew up together in that little town. She was the first girl I’d ever kissed and the only one I can say I ever really loved. We were joined at the hip in a manner of speaking. People used to joke with us and ask us in a comical way to be sure to remember them on our wedding list. We used to like to go out to the hill by the cemetery together. It was pretty and it was private and it was all our own whenever we were there. That’s where I got Samantha pregnant.
That was also about the time Ida rolled into town. One of her first big pieces was a story about teen pregnancies. She even mentioned Sam in her story. Not by name mind you, but after she put Sam’s picture on the TV everyone in six counties knew what had happened and who she was. Sam’s family was mortified and persuaded her to get an abortion. She nearly died from the procedure. Of course everyone blamed me for it, including Ida who did another story with my picture out there for God and everybody to see.
They wouldn’t let us see each other. Not ever and not at all. Someone was always with Sam and if we happened to bump into each other out in town, they would say nasty things to me and lead her away. We did manage to see each other though, after a fashion. As often as I dared, I’d sneak out at night and go over to her house. I’d toss a pebble against her window, she’d open it and we’d talk quietly for a long time. She didn’t blame me for the trouble, probably the only person on earth that didn’t besides Mom and Aunt Et.
The night-time visits worked for a while until her father caught me. Next day he fixed her window so she couldn’t open it. After that I’d go over there and toss a pebble at the window just like before. She’d just stand there and look out at me. I’d sit on the ground down below and look up at her. There wasn’t much else we could do. It was sad, really. When it was time to go I’d blow her a kiss and walk away. Even from a distance I would look back and see her standing there in the window. I don’t know if she saw me or not.
The night of the murder I made my usual quiet approach to Samantha’s window. Sam’s father and a deputy sheriff were waiting in the shadows. There was a big scene out in the yard, lots of screaming and yelling. Accusations and foul names flew back and forth. Sam was there crying and pleading on my behalf. Her father threatened my life. The deputy just took notes. Sam’s mother came out and threw last year’s Christmas present in my face. It was a long satin dress that I’d given to Sam in happier times and it fell into the mud at my feet.
I ran away, nearly twenty years old and crying like a baby. I ran. I was quite fit in those days and I ran miles before a side stitch made me stop. I climbed the hill below the cemetery and rested near our favorite spot. The moon was full and in the distance I could see Sam’s house. The light was on in her bedroom and I thought I could just barely make out her form in the window. I watched for a long time until the light went out. Hours passed. The night was warm and quiet and I fell asleep watering the grass with my tears. When I woke up the sun was in my face.
My stomach was empty and growling as I made my way home. I couldn’t think of anything except Sam and plotted in my mind how many ways we could escape the town together. When I arrived I found the place surrounded by police cars, a TV van, angry confused neighbors, the sheriff and Ida. The next thing I knew I was spending my last days on death row.
Samantha had been killed that night and it was my fault. Ida told them how she thought it went down and the jury bought it. The only ones who believed in my innocence were Mom and Aunt Ethel and they both took a lot of flak for their faith in me. I didn’t know if there was a hell, but if there was I wanted to be there to stoke the blaze for Ida’s arrival.
When I discovered Sam’s grave it brought me back like an old song on the radio. I realized that the angry pitiful hole at the core of my being was actually a missing part, the part of me that should have belonged to her. Life had deprived both of us the satisfaction of completing the spirit in one another. All that remained were jagged shadows of naked tree limbs cast upon rows of ice capped headstones up on Cemetery Hill. I couldn’t weep, for I had no tears and I couldn’t wail for I had no voice. Cold lifeless winter winds blew across the hill and I couldn’t even feel that. I had no heart, but I felt its broken pain. Samantha and I and had been true soul mates and now there was nothing left except a single wandering soul, alone and without purpose.
My dwelling became the hillside where Samantha and I had spent so many precious hours together. Somehow it felt better to be there instead of up top among the lonely markers and leafless winter-dead trees. Spring came and the snow ran away down the hill. The valley below blossomed with new life. In the distance I could see Sam’s old home. Flowers and crops sprouted and the moon waxed full above the green hillside once again.
In the silver light of a warm spring evening, Samantha came to me. Gliding over the hill, dressed in that long satin dress that I’d given her so many Christmases ago, she looked as wholesome and gracious and lovely as ever I’d remembered her.
“Where have you been?” I asked, too happy to really care for an answer.
“With you always,” she said. “I was with you in prison when your eyes closed in death, when you knocked the clipboard out of the technician’s hand and when you frightened Ida at the funeral.”
“Why didn’t I see you?”
“You did once or twice, but you weren’t really ready to find me then.”
“But we’re together now, aren’t we?”
“Yes we are,” Sam said. “Nothing and no one can separate us now.”
Our laughing and singing and celebrating lasted all night. Sometimes we playfully chased each other through the trees and sometimes we danced around the hillside as we had once done in life. We talked and laughed and took all the time we wanted to appreciate the view and one another’s company. Spring breezes blew across the hill and carried away last year’s leaves along with the remnants of our worldly pain. The two lonely ghosts became one and knew peace.
In the years that followed, a town legend said that anyone who ventured to walk upon that hillside would hear laughing and soft whispers even in the daytime. The ground itself seemed to always feel warm and restful and every now and then some adventurous kids would dare to climb Cemetery Hill to catch a glimpse of Lady Samantha and her young man waltzing in the moonlight.