The Ghost of Joseph Gagnon

By Mike Siemasz

wen grasped a patinated handle of the black chest he had discovered in the lightless, grotto-like alcove under the basement staircase. The chest scraped across the concrete floor as the kid pulled it into the yellow light of a single bulb above. The floor above creaked where his sister, Sable, ambulated around in the burnishing mid-morning light pouring through the kitchen window. She was unpacking and obstreperously stacking dishware into various cupboards at the new house.

Owen unlatched the chest lid and opened it to the stale smell of age. Inside were old Army dress blues folded under a stack of notebooks beside a photo album on which sat a peaked cap. The album lay beside the folded canvass of a pitch tent upon which sat several inconsequential items—a necklace of animal fangs; a club of black, petrified wood; a snake skull; a lidded Mason jar containing a black, desiccated spider on its back with constricted legs; a canteen, a compass, a knit cap, a skillet, a rucksack. The chest was a reliquary of forgotten things, pieces of someone’s history. It was a museum of ordinaries arrayed in an unordinary context.

Owen pushed aside the items and flipped through the photo album. In the back, he found suctioned between two plastic sheets a black and white portrait of a young soldier. He flipped the page over and read the name on the back of the photo in messy cursive: “Joseph Gagnon.” Owen set the album down on the concrete floor and went for the dress blues. He flapped the stiffness out of the uniform and put it on, after which he chose the two most intriguing articles in the chest to carry upstairs to show Sable.

Owen slogged up the stairs in the baggy uniform, tripping over the blue slacks sagging below his little ass and covering his shoes. The shirt hung to his knees. Its sleeves were an arm longer than his own. Every few steps he pushed up the blue cap falling down his forehead and covering his eyes. He shuffled to the kitchen doorway and stood there about ready to burst with laughter. “Hey!” he shouted at Sable. She gasped and turned around. He held the snake skull in one hand, in the other the spider-occupied Mason jar. Her eyes shrunk back down from their wide glare into an inquisitive gaze and she turned back to stacking dishes.

“Where did you find that crap?” Sable said.

“Down there.”

“The basement? What’s down there?”

“A haunted black box with cool stuff in it.” He ran out of the kitchen, tripping on the blues and stumbling a little, and back down the basement steps. The unfinished basement was damp and concrete, its corners shadowy and pale with demented, blotchy light refracted through thick block windows near the ceiling. Sable came down the stairs after Owen and discovered him on his knees rummaging through the chest.

“It’s not kind to go through others’ things,” she said.

“Whose?”

“Someone who owned that box I guess.”

“Is he dead?”

“Who?”

“The man who collected all this stuff.”

“I don’t know. Maybe?”

“Probably, because he was in a war.”

She picked up a notebook. “Joseph Gagnon” was written on the inside cover. She flipped to the middle. Sable shut the thing and tossed it into the chest as though it were on fire. “What in the hell?” she said. It’s a witch book, or something, an evil thing, she thought. She felt a cold breath on her nape, though she knew it was a draft leaking out from somewhere in the basement. She had smoked something strong earlier, a parting gift from Sally, that pothead, before they piled into the car with Mom, Dad driving the big moving truck, and drove off to the new home, and the pot totally made her think this is such a drafty, evil basement, like it’s haunted or something, maybe Owen’s right. That would be so funny, though, to pretend I’m possessed or something, and that would totally be good practice for acting, given my aspirations to play a major role in the fall musical at the new high school.

It was decided, then.

Sable whipped her head around at Owen with such violence her neck cracked. That was a bad idea, she thought, I might have some pain tomorrow, but it’s dedication that makes good acting, even sacrifice of health sometimes, okay? She covered her mouth with one hand and began laughing with a heinous cackle. You have to be so high to do this, she thought. Owen stood stupefied and stupid looking in the baggy dress blues with his head tilted back because that big cap still hung too low over his little face.

“Would you like me to save this man’s spirit divided among lonesome nightmares?” she said. Wow, where did that come from? That was good. Sable could see Owen felt uneasy about how she was acting. Kids can be so intuitive, she thought, they pick up on aberrant behavior without a hitch.

“I’ll grab some garbage bags and get rid of it,” Owen said. With her best demonic smile, Sable stood glaring at Owen, glaring through him, her imagined sinuous fingers wriggling and snapping.

“Be right back. Promise,” Owen said after Sable didn’t respond. He didn’t want to upset her. He put down the jar and skull and fled upstairs. She was still staring at the place where he stood under the stairs after he had run off, just to keep the effect in place. Don’t want to upset the fictitious environment I’m creating, she thought. The thing she pretended to have inside her burned. Her face looked white and green, she hoped. Her eyes were red and dry maybe. Her tongue was purple and sharp in this role. She held it tight between her front teeth imagining all of this would be her true countenance when Owen came back.

Upstairs, Owen thought about calling the cops but the cops would think Sable’s crazy, and Mom and Dad wouldn’t appreciate coming home to discover I shipped her off to an insane asylum, he thought. Can’t we trust you with anything, Owen James? One quick trip to the sub shop for lunch and you send your sister off to a nuthouse?

Owen went back downstairs with the garbage bags. “Halt,” Sable said. Owen froze. In the upper left corner of the entrance to the lightless space, an orb weaver was perched halcyon and motionless in its awkward, ineptly spun web. Sable reached over, ew! can’t believe I’m doing this, she thought, you have to be so high to do this. The spider crawled onto her finger. She brought it up to her eyes as it crawled over her hand. “Let me tell you the story of Joseph Gagnon. I’ve just heard it myself,” she said.

“Don’t you want me to clean this stuff up?” Owen said.

She glared at him in anger and he shook his head. The orb weaver still crawled along her hand, ok can’t take this anymore, she thought and flicked it off, ok broke character a little there. She opened Joseph’s notebook. She threw her shoulders back and stood straight and stoic and began to read in an incantatory drawl as though someone else was speaking through her. She was as unprepared for the content as Owen, though he believed she somehow was privy to its meaning without having read any of the sentences yet. She was, after all, empowered by dark forces at this point.

She read.

March 16, 1967

Yesterday, woke up in the medical unit. Dale’s dead. She maybe ate him. Maybe almost ate me. They won’t tell me where his body’s at; just make stoic faces when I ask. They say, who? What’s he look like? Big black dude, I say, like Frederick Douglass without the hair and beard. Frederick Douglass? they say. Forget it, I say. We were many miles out from Saigon where they found me.

Before that:

That way, Dale whispers.

How you know it’s that way? I say.

We been walking straight toward nothing for hours.

Walking through the jungle. One hundred degrees. M16s above our heads. Sharp grass lacerating our necks and cheeks. Far echoes of exotic birds screeching in the trees. Morning light. Stale air. Sweaty. Ache from sleeping on hard ground. Out here we feel watched. Can’t sleep well for fear of vicious beasts tearing us apart, or bullets or a knife.

I stop in the tall grass and shut my eyes. I smell the swampy heat. I listen to the jungle. I look at my broken compass. Let’s go this way, I say. Should have listened to Dale. We cut right and continue walking. The grass ends and we walk until we come to a dark, cool place. It’s preternatural in the middle of the blazing and muggy jungle. I stop to analyze the change in temperature and make some notes. We stand there for a few minutes while I note-take.

I don’t like this, Joe, Dale says.

Relax, I say. I put away the notebook and take a few steps forward and hear the thud of Dale’s body against the jungle ground. I turn around, see a long bamboo spear thrust through his chest. I sweep the jungle with my M16. The gun shakes in my hands. The clip empties. No one comes out. Loading another clip, something pricks me in the leg. I black out.

Wake up in the evening on a sheet of canvass beside a smoldering fire. Quiet, same cool temperature as when she killed Dale. She has me tied up. Some indigenous campsite with bamboo sticks in the dirt, vines strung between them and laced through a sampling of animal skull eye sockets. On a log sit in a line a number of cloudy, unrelated jars with large insects crawling around in them trying to escape. A sickening smell like burnt feces lingers despite a constant and unnatural zephyr.

She comes out of a small hut on the other side of the fire toward the edge of the campsite. Skinny, shirtless, native woman with piercings, wearing a tattered green skirt fashioned out of Dale’s T-shirt. Stringy, black hair hangs long over her shoulders and down her back. Eyes are black coins. Walks toward me with a scimitar in hand pointing towards the ground.

Degar? Degar? I say. I try to get up. My ankles are tied too. Degar? American. Friends. Good. Here to help. War. Saigon. She stares at me and continues walking toward me. My stomach tightens as I prepare for the abdominal pain of puncture.

She stands over me with the whet-anew blade dangling beside her. I spit at her feet. Last moment of pride. She starts mumbling something and holds out her fist, opens it, blows on a small pile of orange powder. It fills the air like talcum. She closes her eyes and begins mumbling something again. A heavy sleep overtakes me.

There’s a nurse at my bedside. Says some farmers found me naked and passed out next to a rice field. You wouldn’t wake up, like comatose, she says. You’re lucky the farmers told us. They said they wouldn’t bring you in like the other soldiers they’ve helped. They said we shouldn’t either because you’re cursed. The nurse looks askance at me. They took your gun and went through your pack, she says. They found some peculiar things in there, things a witch would carry they said. I’m staring at the snowy mountain peaks at the end of the bed where my feet stick straight up under the white bed sheet. I’ll leave you alone now, she says. She smiles and walks away.

Ill at night. Vomiting a black, putrid substance. I grab the hand mirror beside my bed and gaze in disbelief at the pallor of my face, the sluggish purple of my lips, the devilish red of my eyes. The doctors, I can sense, do not want to treat me. I’m ugly. Something evil is boiling within me. Others around me are sleeping. I sit propped up against my pillow wheezing, feeling my teeth with my tongue. They hum for something I can’t sink them into.. Each incisor, cuspid, bicuspid has a stomach of its own. The doctors stand in a corner at the end of the unit speaking in low, concerned voices. One looks back at me and I see the horror on his face.

Not horror at me, not horror at all. Tenseness as he regards the medic they’ve recruited to sneak up on my left side and jab a needle into my thigh. It prompts my sleep.

My dream is maybe drug-induced, vivid regardless of its provenance. The jungle woman appears. She speaks in a bygone ghostly tongue. I understand while remaining conscious of my unfamiliarity with it. She is bringing me a message.. I wake and recall the information without labor in my own language:

The night hag proclaims her shadow gathers princes’ souls to dwell in repose within her thorn-and-thistle haunt. The monsters assemble in her castle of cries to share the spirits they possess forever. All generations are her beasts for gathering from their overgrown desert briar abodes. There, all are gone wild and missing, lacking food and rest, mouths and minds. They shall be marked and ordered under her shadows of jackals for eternity.

“What’s going on down there?” The basement light flickered on and off. Their dad was toggling the switch at the top of the stairs.

“Just exploring,” Sable said.

“Come up for subs.”

Sable looked at Owen and brought back her demented countenance. “We’ll finish this later.” She slammed the notebook shut. Owen took off the old clothes and hat and put them away.

*     *     *     *     *

Owen observed Sable throughout the day as they unpacked boxes and put things away in the new home. She seemed normal now, but it could be a ruse to keep their parents from discovering her possession, either by Joseph Gagnon or the witch who cursed him or the demonic spirit that inhabited or empowered her, Owen thought. By end of day, he hadn’t noted anything else peculiar about her behavior. Still, he was wary of her earlier transmogrification, her seeming understanding of Joseph Gagnon’s notebook and other obscure items in the chest. He thought it would be best to sleep with his hand-carved hardwood tribal dagger, which some former missionaries to Africa who lived around the block from the old house had allowed him to purchase for ten dollars at their garage sale last month. It was very dull, but it was his only weapon. He wished he could trust Sable, but she wasn’t herself. It was a messy situation for her to get caught up in.

By midnight, Owen had fallen asleep, dagger enclosed in his right hand beneath the covers. When Sable crept into his room, the floorboards creaked. Owen stirred but stayed asleep. She walked to his bedside and knelt. This’ll be so good, she thought trying not to laugh and blow her operation. She put her hand around his neck, not a tight grip, and in her most infernal, guttural voice told him to wake up. And he did. His eyes shot open and, as he had been prepared, he threw the covers off, screaming, and smacked Sable above her ear with the blunt, wooden dagger. It was a poor attempt at a stab or a jab. Sable fell back screaming and holding her head. The hallway light came on.

“What the hell’s going on?” their dad stampeded down the hall like a pachyderm. He turned on the light. “What is this?” Sable was on her back pretending to cry. Owen sat confused and frightened in bed holding the dagger.

“She’s possessed!” Owen said.

“He stabbed me, he stabbed me,” Sable said.

“What?” Their dad saw the dagger. “Give me that. Where’d you get it?”

“Garage sale,” Owen said with his head down.

“But why? Why? You might have seriously injured her. This could kill someone!”

“She’s a witch!”

“A what? A witch? Owen James. What is wrong with you? You’re done. You’re done for a month at least. Grounded, I mean. I don’t even know what to say about this. This is just, evil. Absurd. Can I even trust you? Do I need to somehow padlock your door so you don’t come murder us all?”

Sable had stopped fake crying. Now Owen was truly on the verge. Sable stood. “I forgive you,” she said. She walked to bed. Their dad still stood over Owen.

“Don’t even think about pulling anything else tonight. We’ll talk tomorrow,” he said. He turned off the light and walked out.

No one will believe me, Owen thought, I should have figured that out hours ago, I’ll always be on my own with this. He lay in bed awake, wondering if he was crazy or if everyone else was too stupid to see the danger in Sable, who was there again, in the doorway, a still, breathless silhouette moving. Owen stared at her motionless, afraid to breathe himself; afraid she might eviscerate him with some vicious, punitive spell she had learned. He waited for her to move in on him again. He didn’t have his dagger now, or any other means of defending himself, so he waited. She stood there for half an hour, and then left. He sighed with relief and closed his eyes for just a moment. When he opened them, she was in front of him, having crawled along the floor beneath his line of vision, and was putting her hands around his throat again. And in that hoarse, horrible voice: “Gotcha.

___

Mike Siemasz lives near Detroit and works in corporate communications. He has a B.S. in Written Communication. His fiction has been published in Mulberry Fork Review. Twitter: @mike_siemasz.


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