Christopher Lee Kneram
The clock struck midnight and I was still hard at work in the bistro. We had closed hours before, but the paperwork involved was tremendous, and this was neither the first nor the last night I would be there so late. A silence had descended upon the place, broken only by the scratch of my pen, the turn of a page, and a gentle swish-swish as time I had allocated for sleep vanished into the night.
The restaurant was dark. An intermittent, unreliable light streaked through the front window, the half-hearted work of our defective streetlamp. Each burst of light cast monstrous shadows upon the wall — only the chairs, upturned onto the tables. Only the salt shakers and the pepper grinders. Only the —
A man was outside the door. I glanced upon him only briefly and from a distance, for my office offered a poor view of the front of the house. I put down my pen and went to see who it could have been. The floorboards creaked slightly.
At the front I found nothing. No one. The street was abandoned in both directions. The pub to our right was silent, near empty at this hour, the music store to our left closed and vacant. Across the street, the graveyard peered out from within its envelope of darkness, watching quietly, unmoving. Outside, the sign of the Sleeping Duck groaned in the breeze.
I closed the shades and checked the door to make sure it was locked.
KNOCK. My heart seized, my stomach churned, my blood froze. Impossible! I had been looking out the window only seconds before. For someone to have come up to the door so quickly and quietly was —
KNOCK. Hand trembling, I opened the door a crack.
“Hello?” I called out, head tilted down, eyes averted. “Can I — can I help you?”
“Hello my good sir might I inquire about a drink?” A voice, pleasant but slurred, came through the crack. A friendly neighborhood drunk, nothing more. I opened the door wider.
It was a ghost. He was a rather disheveled man, past middle age but not elderly, unlike any other man walking the Earth. He was at once translucent and incandescent, and the eyes beneath his sooty bowler hat glowed blue-white. He was dressed for an occasion, though his suit had seen better days and a handful of worms crawled slowly in his waistcoat pocket. He carried a neatly folded newspaper under one arm and clutched a tattered umbrella in his hand. Despite the heavy chains draped and wrapped around his body, he floated neatly half a foot off the ground.
“Er…Maybe you want the pub next door,” I said. “We do sort of a rustic continental menu here.”
Chains jingled as the spirit floated past me into the restaurant. He seemed to shuffle lazily despite not really having to move his feet. “Many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese, toasted mostly,” he said with a hiccup. “And I think, I think, maybe you didn’t neither. Where’s my hat? Have you taken my hat? I were buried with it an’ I’d like to keep it with me if only the, the…You know. Where are we on that cheese?”
I was glued to the spot by the door. It was ludicrous to think that I might choose to be alone in the dark with this specter, yet his slurred speech and the way he wobbled slightly as he moved evoked feelings of pity. Also, I couldn’t shake a feeling of familiarity, as though this ghost were known to me somehow. The apparition continued on straight through a table and chairs and then after three or four attempts sat at the counter. I stuck my head out the door and looked each way. Nothing out there but the slight pitter-patter of the rain as it started to fall. I shuddered involuntarily and shut the door.
My stomach growled.
“I suppose I could do us up a little fondue. I haven’t had a bite to eat all day,” I said.
“There’s a good lad. What’ve we got to drink around here?” the ghost said, waving an arm and a chain.
He began to sing as I went in the back, though what song it was I hope I’ll never know. It was horrible, discordant, hellish, but at the same time not really well-coordinated or even well-remembered, seemingly. I rubbed the goosebumps from my arms and grabbed a bottle each of Neuchatel wine and brandy, a couple of chunks of cheese and a head of garlic.
“Here,” I said, taking a place behind the counter, where there was a row of burners. I opened the brandy and poured a glass, then gave him the rest of the bottle.
“There’s a good, a good, a… there’s a worm in my pocket have you met him?” The ghost let out a quiet burp. “That’s the ticket,” he said, holding up the bottle and squinting at it with one bright white-blue eye.
“So what brings you to, er, the mortal realm?” I asked by way of small talk as I busied myself grating the cheeses.
“’S all about the haunting,” he said. “Can’t go about not haunting things my good man, Lord, that’s fine brandy.” The ghost drained half the bottle. I wondered where the drink was actually going. “I reckon life wasn’t all that, all that, you know what? You know, you work hard, all your life, only to fall off a pier an’ drown, like some…what kind of a pub is this?” He glanced about, his glowing eyes casting an eerie light wherever he looked.
I poured some of the wine into a pot to boil and chanced a look up. I could see straight through him, all the way through the bistro. If I were a drinking man it would have been a great opportunity for a large whiskey.
“This isn’t a pub, it’s a bistro. Like a cafe.”
“Ah, a ristorante. Back when I was young and fit I used to like a little place like this. Toasted cheese, like they say, it warms you up — ” he stopped to hiccup. “It warms, it…because sometimes it’s so cold on the other side. People think it’s hot, but what do they know anyway? They don’t know, they don’t…because of the cold.”
I selected a nice loaf of Tessiner bread, Swiss, very authentic, and started to cut it up.
“And they just let you come back here any time you want?”
“Well,” the spirit said with a wobble, “’s not that easy. You have to have, to have business, you know I really miss the legs, women have such nice legs, and sometimes on the other side everyone jus’ floats around, you never see the legs. Unfinished. That’s the business. Have to have some reason to wanna haunt a place. Usually if you wanna haunt a place it has to be you haunted it when you were living, you know?” He chuckled, a warm, jovial, ominous, hellish sound.
“Excuse my saying then, sir, but I’ve never seen you here before,” I said.
“No, no.” The ghost finished the bottle, and his chains clinked as he tossed it aside. I only just managed to catch it as he continued. “But yes! I come to this pub all the time! It’s, well, the decor has changed, but how long have I been gone? Ha! I’m always gone, you know. Gone right now. ‘S the only way to forget. Where can I find some nice legs this time of night?”
The bread went into the oven to toast and I started to add handfuls of cheese to the wine. “I think you’re haunting the wrong place, sir. The pub’s next door.”
“Is there? What has happened to my hat and to the brandy? Have you met my worm? I think he’s around here somewhere…” Chains rattling, he looked around. “I had dreams, you know. Mostly of trying to give a speech while in my underwear.”
I popped a bit of Gruyere in my mouth. “So what’s your unfinished business?”
“Dunno, never finished it. Could be I wanted one last drink, could be I — you know, it was all going fine until it stopped. Started I mean. Started with the drinking, that was the problem. Any of that wine left over?”
There was still half a bottle of Neuchatel. “Here you go,” I said as the specter unfolded his newspaper.
“Looks like market’s taking another bloody dive,” he said.
“Er…I think this is about ready,” I said. “Let me just finish it off.” All it took was a dash of brandy and a quick stir. I took the bread out of the oven and put it into a bowl, then retrieved two fondue forks from the back. Sliding the bread and the cheese to his side of the counter, I sat down next to him.
“En guete,” I said. “It won’t stay melted for long.” The ghost folded up his newspaper and speared a bread cube.
“You’re out of wine again,” he said. “An’ I don’t reckon I like the way that salt shaker is looking at me. I mean, you work, an’ you work, an’ you… for what? It all falls apart, and you never have time to talk to that woman, what was her name? She had a graceful what-do-you-call-it, neck…”
We ate in silence for a moment, the pure cheesy goodness of the fondue overwhelming the last remnants of my terror, which had mostly been chased away by the spirit’s easy demeanor.
“I had it, used to be I had it all once you know,” the ghost said. “And this cheese is really, is really good. You’re great. The food is terrible on the other side. ‘S all eye of newt an’ tail of bat an’ wing of dog. Lemme ask you this,” he took a grimy and decayed handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped the corners of his mouth. “Did you ever have a bacon sandwich that was ether — that was see-through? Or a haunted leg of lamb? Had a, a, a nice job. An’ a income. But what did I spend it all on you ask well I’ll tell you it was booze. An’ cheese now an’ then, have you priced a good Sbrinz lately? It’s criminal.”
Sbrinz. My favorite. My mouth was suddenly very dry. I got a glass and turned my back to the ghost to fill it up at the tap.
“Yeah,” he said, “I had a good ol’ time running the place. But then it all started it all went downhill. Lost everything. Had half my liver stolen by the mob, took a beating from the mayor, an’ in front of everybody that one. Spent a couple o’ years in a third world prison cell and never did wind up feeling up a really good pair of, pair of…where’s my drink?”
“I’m afraid,” I said, a knot growing in the pit of my stomach, “well, I’m afraid of many things at the moment, but chiefly I’m afraid it’s time to cut you off. How about a hot cup of coffee?”
The ghost looked around. “I say man, this isn’t the pub. Supposed to be haunting a pub, do you know where I can find a pub?” He dug through the pocket of his waistcoat, dislodging a number of ghastly translucent worms, which hit the ground and faded into nonexistence. A grubby scrap of paper, as insubstantial as thought itself, drifted from his pocket and landed on the stool next to him.
“There’s a pub next door, sir, I think you mean to be haunting them.”
The ghost finally succeeded in taking his watch from his pocket. “Ah, yes, I’ve always loved the pub next door. Started going there roundabouts when I was your age. Speaking of haunting, I think I’m a bit early,” he said, squinting at the watch. “Quite a bit early, now I look, nigh on fifteen years! Why’ve been haunting the wrong place and the wrong time.” He hiccupped again and wobbled to his feet. Lifting his hat, he said, “Good day to you my fine sir.” Under the glow, there was a look in his eyes which I recognized, having seen it in my father’s eyes, and in my grandfather’s eyes.
The apparition, booze-addled and sad in all the wrong ways, dragged his chains back through the restaurant and straight through the front door without stopping. I glanced at the scrap of paper; even as it began to fade I could make out the writing on it.
It was a to-do list. Among other things (howl at the night, lament a life of regret, endure an eternity of torment), there was this one item: “look up tombstone inscription: SUM QUOD ERIS.”
More than scared, or frightened, or terrified, I was stricken, completely immobilized in both mind and body. The terrible implications of the spirit’s existence pummeled, crippled my nervous system. My extremities were pins and needles, my stomach a tiny ball of fear.
Glancing out the window, I could see that the pub next door was still open.
I needed a drink.
CHRISTOPHER LEE KNERAM is much like you, but from Ohio. In his spare time he reads, he takes walks, and he teaches underprivileged children to speak Chinese, which is something they don’t really need, and hate doing, besides. When no one is looking he pens absurd fiction, some of which can be found around the internet.