Thursday, March 12, 2009
Window Ledge: a True Ghost Story
During the early spring of my junior year in college, I took a spontaneous road trip with my boyfriend John, our perpetually self-medicated and wild-haired friend Iain, and our mentally unbalanced usually manic acquaintance, Andrew Wellstood*. We were a motley band, ready for adventure, as we set out that morning from our campus in suburban Philadelphia, crammed into Andrew's car, cigarettes, stash, and tunes at the ready, unsure of where we were headed but certain it would be grand.
Andrew drove, and the closed car filled with smoke of the more fragrant variety. The contact high alone was epic. In the midst of the good times, Andrew had a brainstorm: we would go all the way to Connecticut, to a rocky little beach he knew of, and then from there to his family manse which was at the moment uninhabited and ready for us to infiltrate.
I knew that Andrew was wealthy, very wealthy, and very very crazy, very intelligent, and came from a troubled family background. I imagined that his house of origin would be suitably eccentric, and so was quite game to catch a glimpse of it. Although had we not been game, it was useless to protest: Andrew had a plan, and by God he would follow through on this plan come hell or high water; that's the form his extreme mania took. He would have been scary, but for an odd sort of affability that balanced his less pleasant tendencies. Besides, I was with John and Iain, and although they were sort of ineffectual as men, well, I reasoned that there were three of us relatively stable sorts and only one of Andrew.
As we wove the roads, stopping occasionally for snacks and gas, tumbling out of the car in a thick cloud of sweet smoke like a scene from a bad college road trip movie (which was in fact apt), we learned more and more, in bits and pieces, of Andrew's background. It became rapidly apparent that his family was not just troubled in the usual way, but was in fact completely insane, Gothic, with more than a touch of the macabre.
He was open about the rampant alcoholism, paranoid schizophrenia, out and out psychosis, the anger and violence and darkness, broken trust and ultimately multiple suicides, that plagued the generations of his family. I, not entirely a stranger to dark family closets, was only a little put out; more fascinated than anything. But I will admit that looks began to pass between me, John, and Iain...just little glances, but there was a creeping unease, even as we drove through the cheerful daylight hours...
In the late afternoon, after much detouring, we were finally in Connecticut, arrived at the grey little beach as promised, and we left the car and stood for a moment to admire its bleak and eerie bay. For a half hour or so, we walked gingerly over its rocky shore, John stooping now and again for some bits of sea glass to make into earrings for me, should we ever return home; it had begun to feel a bit dreamlike, a long way from the silly bustle and jocularity of the campus. We were all rather quiet, even Andrew. As we walked aimlessly, a damp and insistent fog crept in, and the air was chilly although I wore John's sweater, and soon the warmth of the car seemed much preferable...
It was a quick, silent trip to the Wellstood House; as we pulled into the rounded driveway, it stood before us, large in stature and effect; not a friendly house, I had the distinct feeling that the peculiarly animate centuries-old stone was giving me the once-over, eyeing me from the tops of its proverbial tortoise-shell eyeglasses, and finding me unsuitable.
Andrew pointed out landmarks around the house, as one would show off one's rose bushes or the pretty paving-stones one had set just the summer before--or even the path where one's little sister had taken her first steps--"Here's the well, see this, where Uncle jumped in one night and drowned...and there, right up there, is the window Father threw himself out of, twice, but he didn't die either time, I suppose the drop wasn't far enough...but here's the tree, he hung himself from this tree and died that time, we saw him swinging..."
Unconsciously, I gripped John's cold hand with my own...Andrew was an enthusiastic and almost spritely story-teller, and it was difficult to know at the time just what was fact and what embellished fact and what outright fiction. However, I came to know later, much to my horror, that most of it was simple truth or something very close.
We were all feeling a bit giddy as Andrew led us into the house; I had no initial impression beyond its subdued grandeur and anachronism--here was a house out of time, and we had left the modern world, at this point rather dragging our feet. Andrew led us up the curving central staircase, past rows of enormous portraits of 18th- and 19th-century Wellstoods; I tried my best not to make eye contact with them. He showed us to our rooms, saying cryptically, "Granny is away, so it will be all right for us to stay here tonight." I supposed it wouldn't be all right were she there--although the house was enormous--
The house appeared to be a maze of rooms, enormous and tiny and seemingly nothing in between, long hallways, back staircases, and so very very many windows, long windows everywhere, peering out into late dusk. Everything was both dusty and incredibly clean at the same time, if you can imagine such a strange dichotomy. It was immaculate and gloomy, silently disapproving of our offending adolescent presence within its walls.
After the tour, of sorts, we settled in a long living room downstairs, appointed with a stiff, unyielding horsehair-and-velvet couch and rows of straight velvet-upholstered chairs, rigid sentries against the dark wainscoting. Andrew lit a fire for the chill, and it flickered dismally, the little flames dwarfed by the enormity of their stone prison. We ate something we'd brought along--like refugees--I don't remember what it could have been, perhaps Pringles and beef jerky and I must have had a bottle of my ubiquitous Diet Coke?--and made valiant small talk, our natural co-ed exuberance and laughter quelled in the somber atmosphere. The darkness pressed in all around us, an unwonted suitor caressing my hair and ankles and making me more and more jumpy until I suggested that perhaps it was time to retire--but I wasn't sure at this point which would be the worse scenario, lying awake in the grim bedroom, alone with John for dubious protection, or shivering in the dour living room with ground-floor windows staring in at us.
When Andrew brought us back to our room, it looked dreadful, lit by two tiny wall sconces that cast a trembling and sickly yellow pallor over the heavy rugs and furnishings, the ornate bed with the scratchy mattress and insufficient decorative bedcovers...Andrew turned to me and smiled in the half-light, and pointed to a corner window near the bed--"see, there's the window I showed you, the one my father jumped from, twice."
And with that, unceremoniously, he retired. I remember that John and I made for the bed, fully dressed, and pulled the coverlet around us, and lay for what seemed an eternity, stiff with cold and fear, not talking much. But eventually, John fell asleep, that traitor, leaving me wide awake as the room pressed in around me.
The next moments in that still, still room were long, and I was scared, and then I was terrified. Something compelled me to glance at the corner window, had it been closed? It was now open, just a bit, enough to let in a chilly breeze that stirred the curtains, drawn back to either side, a light breeze that carried not an early spring freshness but something else...and then I saw it, clearly even in the dim light--
two hands, the fingers long and alive, hooked over the side of the window sill, clutching the ledge.
Immediately I buried my face in John's warm back, he grunted and shifted in his sleep, and then, I turned again to look at that window ledge--they were there, those hands, clutching, clutching...I squeezed my eyes shut and when I looked for a third time, they were gone, and the window was closed, the curtain pulled back but completely motionless, the room quiet but for the hitch in my breathing.
It was an eternity of minutes, maybe it was a second or maybe it was an hour, but at last I heard a light tapping on our door, and someone--it was Andrew--poked his head in and hissed at me, "Granny has returned unexpectedly from her trip--you'd best be as quiet as possible, I don't want her to know we're here--we'll leave in the morning before she's awake--"
"What?!?" I squeaked trying to contain myself.
"Don't worry," said Andrew. "She's mostly deaf and quite a bit blind, so it shouldn't be too difficult. She never comes into this room anyway."
It was true, Granny had returned. She spent the better part of an hour walking the halls by our room; I could see the shadow of her little feet, crossing back and forth, back and forth. Whether she was putting away her luggage, or simply pacing the halls, watching and waiting with a sort of a sense that people were in her house who shouldn't be there, I just don't know. I do know, however, that even after she settled down and the footsteps stopped, I did not sleep that night, not for one instant.
In the morning, just after dawn, Andrew hurriedly rounded us up and, groggily, silently, we exited the Wellstood House, ran to the car, and hot-footed it back to our college.
John, Iain, and I often spoke of that night in the following months, and it became much easier to laugh about it when we were well away from there; it came to seem miserably funny, even. But I never mentioned the hands at the window ledge. After all, who really knows whether it was a trick of the light, or of my already overtaxed nerves and imagination...still, I know what I saw there, even though I'm not sure why I saw it.
Several years later, Andrew Wellstood committed suicide. To this day I can see him clearly, smiling as he told his stories of ghastly tragedy.
*some names have been changed, for reasons quite obvious.
Photo: "Moonlight Escape" by McBeth (from Flickr Creative Commons)