“Death Theory” by John D. Mimms
Death is the closest thing to omnipotence we will experience in our brief time on this planet. It is an all-encompassing power, binding everything, and providing a cold certainty to an otherwise uncertain existence. The firm grip of this assurance reaches much further than the extinguishment of life; it greedily claims the hope and happiness of those who remain. It is a definite ending, but is it also a provable beginning?
Linda Granger did not see death coming.
Sleep shielded her from the unfolding horror. The looming headlights and the panicked screams of her husband were beyond her conscious state. When her head shattered the windshield, the dream about her son ended, sending her into what’s next. Linda was gone before the car rolled seven times and wrapped around a large oak tree. Her husband, Stephen, was not as fortunate. He died two minutes later. Linda had fallen asleep from emotional exhaustion. She died with regrets.
Jeff’s sheets were drenched in sweat. He strained to hear because he wanted to continue the conversation he had been having. The bass drum of his pulse throbbed in his ears, making hearing impossible. He sat up and glanced about frantically. Where had she gone?
As sleep gave way to the waking world, dread filled him. He remembered the terrible truth. These muddled conversations with his mother had become nightly occurrences since his parents’ accident. The last words he shared with his mother were over the phone, and they were harsh. The next time he picked up the phone, mere hours later, it was the Missouri State Police asking him to come to the hospital. It has been over a year since the terrible night, yet the pain had not gone away. In some ways, it grew worse.
Jeff rolled on his side as tears streamed down his cheeks. In his dream, he told his mother he loved her. He wondered if she could hear him. Somehow, he believed it might be possible. His grieving heart longed for a way to communicate with his late parents.
Jeff rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. It was impossible. He eventually got up and opened the blinds. It rained last night and a steamy mist shielded the street from view. This was the perfect morning to stay in bed and he almost did if not for two things. His sheets were soaked and he was excited about today. Even though he needed extra sleep, since he would be staying up all night, he just couldn’t hold back the excitement of investigating with his fourth paranormal group in as many months. Missouri Spirit Seekers claim to do purely scientific investigations, but the three previous groups he joined did as well. He hoped this time would be different.
They would be investigating Pythian Castle tonight, the most ‘haunted’ location in Springfield, not too far from Jeff’s alma matter, Missouri State. The castle was a very cool historical site, but to Jeff, it was another opportunity to find answers for life’s greatest mystery -death.
Although the investigation was still twelve hours away, nervous anticipation consumed him. He hoped this was not another séance based, sage burning, ghost hunt like most of the others. His previous groups were as far away from science as one could get.
Jeff brewed a pot of coffee and microwaved a bowl of instant oatmeal, before sitting down to watch his recording of the show which started him on the path to paranormal investigation. He viewed it often, but it had become a ritual to watch on the day of an investigation. If Jeff were counting, this would be his eighty-third time to watch.
The show starred two men, who were electricians by trade, investigating haunted places using the scientific method. They gathered measurable scientific evidence in their investigations. In this particular episode, they were investigating the catacombs underneath an old church in Baltimore.
What peaked Jeff’s interest were the Electronic Voice Phenomenon the men captured on their digital recorders. He wondered if EVP’s are actually the voices of the dead. The guys on the show didn’t commit one way or the other, they just presented the recordings.
“You up above,” a disembodied voice said.
“The way through,” another one whispered.
The most eerie utterance of them all said, “Come down here among us.”
Jeff’s reaction was the same every time he watched; chills intermingled with hope and fear ran up his spine.
Jeff reached into a box under the coffee table and retrieved his digital recorder. He held it in his hands as if it were an object of holy veneration. Jeff recorded his own EVP one night several months earlier at the scene of his parent’s accident. Short, incredible, and heart-breaking; his mother seemed to call his name from beyond. The EVP was still on his recorder, even though he had backed it up to a dozen sources. He would never delete it from any device. Never.
A loud thud rattled the blinds on the front door. Jeff jumped, almost dropping the recorder. His alarm lasted only a moment when he recognized the sound of the newspaper carrier’s rattle-trap station wagon puttering up the street. He peeled back the blinds in time to see the tail lights disappear into the mist. Jeff was still in his underwear with a gaping fly, but he figured his rural setting, coupled with the fog, would spare him any indecent exposure charges.
Jeff scooped up the paper, almost losing his balance on the wet concrete, and then backed through the door. He plopped down on the sofa and began to unfold the massive log of news. He was heading straight for the sports section when an article caught his eye. The title read:
Springfield … the Most Haunted City in Missouri?
The Kansas City Royals box scores could wait. Jeff dove right into the article. The ghosts of Phelps Grove Park, Bass Country Inn, Drury University, Landers Theater, Springfield National Cemetery, University Plaza Hotel, and Pythian Castle were all mentioned prominently by the author. Jeff had investigated Phelps Grove Park with one of his previous groups. One of the members claimed he saw the infamous spectral bride near the bridge, but Jeff had no such luck. He never had success when it came to firsthand experiences. Either everyone else is lying or perhaps Jeff is walking ghost repellent. He didn’t think they were lying, at least not everyone who made a paranormal claim. His recording of his mother was enough to keep faith in the paranormal.
He read the claims of Drury University with great interest. There were allegedly several ghosts, in a few buildings, which had taken residence there since the school’s founding in 1873. The saddest one was a little girl who died in a fire. Her phantom laughter could be heard from time to time in one of the women’s dorms.
Jeff enjoyed a good ghost story since he was a kid, but these were more than merely a spectral yarn. Each story offered a small glimmer of hope.
He didn’t read about Pythian Castle; there was no need. He had spent so much time researching it the last couple of weeks, he could recite the history word for word. The shadow spirits who allegedly resided in the basement intrigued him the most. They had been reported so often over the years, there was little doubt that something unusual was occurring in the depths of the castle.
Jeff finally checked the box scores, lamenting another loss by his favorite team. He scanned the comics before tossing the paper on the floor. He trudged to the bathroom and took a long, hot shower. Afterward, he put on a fresh pair of boxers and a T-shirt before stretching out on the couch. He fell asleep watching Netflix. If he dreamed of his parents again, he did not remember.
Jeff arrived at Pythian Castle an hour before dusk. The rainy morning had given way to a perfectly clear early evening. The ghostly apparition of the full moon glowed in the eastern sky as the sun began to dip. The large tower on front of the castle cast a long shadow over his truck as he pulled in and parked. He ascended the stone steps onto an expansive porch where a very large woman with a mystical fashion sense met him at the front door.
“Hello … Jack?” she said.
“Jeff,” he corrected. “You must be Swoosie.”
Swoosie half-nodded and half-bowed. She reminded him of a fortune teller he visited one time, just for kicks.
“Would you like a charm for protection tonight?” Swoosie asked, reaching into a velvet bag and retrieving what appeared to be a tiny silk pillow.
“No, thanks … I’m good,” Jeff said. He couldn’t help smirking a little.
“Suit yourself,” she huffed. “Spirits can pick up on those less experienced in this field. They tend to prey more on them.”
“Good,” Jeff said. “Maybe I will get some good evidence.”
Swoosie narrowed her pudgy eyelids and motioned for a man who was milling about awkwardly, studying old pictures on the wall.
“Preston,” she called with a snap of her fingers.
He was a middle-aged man with a greasy ring of dark hair circling a large bald spot. His clothing was a mish mash of suit pants and a Molly Hatchett T-shirt. The shirt and pin stripe pants were riddled with stains.
“How are you?” Preston asked breathlessly. It seemed his pot belly was a strain for him to carry.
“Fine, Preston,” Jeff said. “Nice to meet you.”
“Oh … I think Mr. Leach is preferable,” Preston said. “I could be your daddy.”
“Not likely,” Jeff thought.
“I’m putting the two of you together tonight since you are both new to this,” Swoosie said. “You know … strength in numbers.”
Both men’s puzzled expressions testified their bewilderment of Swoosie’s logic as if to point out that it would make more sense to put them with an experienced investigator.
“I’m a fairly experienced investigator,” Jeff said. “Tonight, makes my twentieth investigation.”
Swoosie’s condescending smile let him know she still considered him a novice. She turned and then waddled over to a sofa in the foyer where her daughter and a couple of other men waited. Their familiar banter showed them to be a clique.
“Okay, Mr. Leach,” Jeff said. “Where should we start?”
This group didn’t set up night vision cameras or environmental equipment as he hoped. Each member was only armed with a flashlight, digital recorder, and maybe a camera. Jeff was sure most of them carried a silk charm pillow in their pocket.
“I think they want us to go the basement,” Mr. Leach said impatiently. “Didn’t you hear what Swoosie said?”
Swoosie was much larger than Mr. Leach, yet she seemed a bit more agile as he watched his partner shuffle down the corridor.
“Okay,” Jeff mumbled before following him down the stone stairs to the basement.
They picked a far corner in the dark, dingy basement, and then set their digital recorders on a wooden table. The musty smell of old buildings had become synonymous with ghosts in Jeff’s mind. Even though he knew better, he sometimes entertained the idea of it being a ‘ghost odor’.
The sun was beginning to set through one of the basement windows, so they agreed to wait until full dark before beginning their session.
“Hey … you know this used to hold POWs during World War Two?” Jeff said, nodding at the old cells across the room. The iron doors had been removed many years ago on all but one.
“It was an orphanage at one time, built by the Knights of Pythias,” Mr. Leach countered.
“Really?” Jeff said, a little confused at why an orphanage would be more interesting than a POW prison.
“Yeah, can you imagine how many kids died here?” Mr. Leach mused.
Jeff’s stomach twisted. His partner seemed a little too gleeful about dead children.
“Yeah,” Jeff said distantly. He watched the last rays of the sun disappear behind the shrubbery outside. When it was completely dark, he said, “Well, shall we get started?”
Jeff jumped when a flashlight beam flared in his eyes.
“Can I ask you something, Jeff?” Mr. Leach asked, lowering his flashlight.
“How did you get into paranormal stuff?” Mr. Leach asked.
“Curiosity,” Jeff began and then anger began to simmer. He didn’t know why the question upset him so, it was benign and practical. Perhaps it was his partner’s tone. “It’s really nobody’s business,” Jeff snapped.
“Fair enough,” Mr. Leach said. “What did your fiancée say about it?”
Jeff glared at Mr. Leach in the darkness. How did he know he had a fiancée?
“What makes you think I had a fiancée?” Jeff asked, pointedly.
“I know things,” Mr. Leach replied. His coy response echoing from the darkness sounded like the prelude to a horror movie.
Jeff was angry. Mr. Leach seemed to have no boundaries. Jeff’s fiancée was a sore spot. She had been a former fiancée for almost a year.
“Why don’t you tell me her name?” Jeff said, a little too loud. Shushes hissed from deep in the darkness as his voice echoed off the stone walls. It seemed the whole building heard his question.
There was a very long pause. Jeff almost thought he was alone until the answer startled him.
“I can’t see that,” Mr. Leach answered. “Only events and feelings.”
“What are you … some kinda Jedi Master?” Jeff asked.
“I’m psychic,” Mr. Leach wheezed. His last word echoed about the basement, bringing more shushes from around the building.
“Oh,” Jeff whispered. He had encountered these people before; every paranormal group seemed to have them. Out of the dozen or so self-proclaimed psychics Jeff had known in his life, there was only one he believed legitimate. An old shut-in, who he delivered prescriptions to while in college, told him some interesting things about his life that came to pass a short time later.
“So, where is my fiancée?” Jeff asked.
There was a long silence before Mr. Leach replied flatly. “With another man, I’m afraid.”
Jeff didn’t say anything. He knew she was with another man now. Lurid images filled his head as to what they may be doing right now. Acid boiled in his guts and his heart began to pound. He didn’t expect this answer; he was looking for more of a geographical location. She had been with this schmuck for six months, two weeks, and three days, but he wasn’t counting.
“Does that shock you?” Mr. Leach whispered.
“You’re the psychic … you tell me,” Jeff barked. “Look, I just want to focus on the investigation, can we do that now?”
More shushes ensued followed by a booming female voice asking them to be quiet. Swoosie had some lungs.
They were so engrossed in their argument, neither man noticed the single cell door slowly swing open and a black shadow dart down the passageway. The air grew thick and uncomfortable, but both men thought it was from their awkward conversation.
Mr. Leach didn’t answer. A moment later, Jeff heard the beep of a digital recorder turning on. The small red recording light resembled a one-eyed demon in the complete darkness. Jeff knew he hurt the guy’s feelings, but he didn’t care. Mr. Leach had trodden on areas of Jeff’s life where he wasn’t welcome. In fact, no one was welcome. His fiancée had been the last living member of anything resembling family for Jeff. She had tried to get him to see a shrink to cope with his parent’s death, but he refused. Thus, the wedge between them was forged.
On the surface, Jeff seemed to recover. He tried to move on with his life. His preacher once told him that time is a river, washing away all pains and transgressions. Yet, for those who grieve, time is often an ocean. It ebbs and flows, sometimes exposing the pain lurking beneath the surface of our consciousness with each experience.
“Truth,” Jeff thought.
He finally turned on his digital recorder and began to alternate questions with Mr. Leach.
“Is anyone with us?”
“Are you angry?”
“What is your name?”
“How old are you?”
“Why are you here?”
“When did you die?”
They repeated this process several times in different areas of the building. They never heard anything. Hopefully, there would be some evidence on the recording.
Jeff found it difficult to focus. Of course, he was tired, yet it was much more than fatigue. Mr. Leach had upset him, there was no denying it. The thing bothering him the most was the image running through his head; His fiancée and some faceless man with a Chippendale’s body were in bed together. He tried to push it aside and focus on the reason he was here. When he turned his thoughts to his parents, it did not help. He kept seeing the make-shift white cross memorial at the site of his parents’ crash. The same cross where he had recorded his mother’s voice. It wasn’t only the mental image distracting him. His mother’s one-word response echoed in his head after every EVP question – “Jeff”. A few times he thought he heard her voice coming from the darkness – “Jeff”.
Jeff knew it was fatigue, it had to be. If not, Mr. Leach would have heard something.
Jeff left Sunday morning frustrated. He sat in his truck and watched the last act unfold in what had been an all-night circus. Swoosie, her daughter, Mr. Leach, and a few other men sat in folding chairs arranged in a circle on the front lawn. They had asked Jeff to join them, but he respectfully declined. They burned sage while performing a cleansing ritual.
“We can’t have any spirits following us home,” Swoosie’s daughter proclaimed. “This’ll keep ‘em put.”
The obese Swoosie sat with her back to him. Her butt dangled on either side of the stressed chair as the legs sank into the soft and dewy sod. She swung a burning leaf around her head, making her resemble an elephant trying to douse the flames of a burning tree.
Jeff realized the only way he would get anywhere is starting his own team. He turned the ignition, causing his lights to fall on the group. They turned and glowered as if he farted and belched in church. He smiled and waved as he shifted the truck into gear.
Missouri Spirit Seekers,” Jeff muttered as he left the gate, “seems more like shit seekers.”