Not Your Average Ghost Story
by Seldes Katne
Dennis Ackerly, dressed in a wizard's robe and hat, glanced over his shoulder at the four people backstage in the school auditorium. "Is everyone ready?"
A brown-haired girl, wearing a witch's robe with a black school gown and a pointed black hat, nodded nervously. She was clutching a set of papers in her right hand. Behind her was a lean man dressed in a plain shirt and pants; he also nodded. An older man and a thin woman lurked behind a rear curtain that shielded the back entrance to the stage. The woman, who had been introduced as Calandra Saint-Saëns, held a pad of paper and a pen; she kept peering at the tip of the pen as if she'd never seen one before. Considering that the woman was really a witch who usually wrote with a quill and inkbottle, Dennis thought, she had every right to stare. The old man, dressed in dark clothes and seated on a tall stool, had a leather patch over one eye. The good eye flickered to the stagehand, the only one not in on the plot, then back to Dennis. The old man nodded.
"Okay," Dennis said to the girl. "Let's go."
The girl slid out from behind the curtain and stepped up to the stage's microphone. "The Forgotten Ghost," she read from the paper in front of her. "A story by Dennis Ackerly." Then she glanced off-stage to her right and added, "With research help by Lisa Thurber."
"Hey!" came Dennis's protest.
"Well, it's true," Lisa replied over her shoulder in an undertone.
The older man's voice growled, "All right, you two. Lisa, read. You --" this to the stagehand holding the ropes, "--open the curtains."
The thick red drapes parted to reveal a darkened stage, with a few piles of dead leaves scattered about, and a trio of cardboard trees in the background. The leaves hid the boxes that held the old man's "stage lights" and "fog machine". Actually, the boxes were completely empty. The true source of the special effects was a wand, tucked up the old man's dark sleeve.
A moment later, tendrils of mist began to curl around the stage, and dim light cast shadows behind the trees. Dennis walked out onto the stage, wand in hand. A point of light winked from his spectacle lenses. He scanned the faces as best he could and found his parents and aunt sitting in the visitors' section of the auditorium. He didn't quite dare wave to them.
"Once there was a boy named Ainsley Mooreland," Lisa read. The sound system projected her words perfectly, and Dennis breathed a sigh of relief as he stood on his stage mark. Mr. Moody hadn't been sure if the magic would disrupt the electrical equipment or not. But as he'd said to Dennis, the spells wouldn't be very strong -- just enough to create a bit of fog and some lights.
Dennis grinned inwardly. He'd always liked watching the annual Halloween programs done by the older students in his school; this year, for the first time, he was actually presenting one instead. Mrs. Marsham, his teacher, had been more than a little surprised at the old man Dennis had brought to school to help with the skit. "Oh! Uh, Dennis, i-is this your grand-father?" she'd stammered.
"No, ma'am," Dennis had replied. "This is Mr. Moody. He lives up the road." Then he'd added, dead-pan, "He's a special effects wizard."
"Ainsley was born with magical abilities," Lisa was continuing. Dennis flourished his wand to underscore her words. A shower of sparks shot out of the end, and he almost dropped it; that hadn't happened in either of the practices. The audience murmured in appreciation.
Dennis walked off the stage and stood where he could both watch the play and peek around the curtain at the audience. He wanted to see their reactions.
Lisa continued, "Ainsley became a respected member of his community, although he never told anyone he was a wizard." Dennis carefully eased the curtain aside enough for him to see the audience.
A girl in the third row saw it first.
She gasped and pointed, and the people around her suddenly stared at the center of the stage. Dennis glanced to his right. On the darkened stage, a figure was materializing in the wispy fog, a man wearing a neck ruff and close-fitting clothes. Dennis had made it a point to call him "Sir Nicholas", since the man had seemed miffed when Lisa had introduced him as "Nearly-Headless Nick".
Sir Nicholas, playing Ainsley Mooreland, bowed to the audience. Two more forms were materializing, a man with a woman on his arm; behind them a pair of ghostly children winked into sight. As they passed Ainsley, the specter doffed his hat to the lady and the girl child behind her, and the family smiled back, floating across the stage and vanishing as they passed the curtain.
"Ainsley liked to help his neighbors, especially the children," Lisa read, and on stage the two children scampered back to Ainsley, who drew out his wand and waved it over their hands, causing a pair of spectral sugarplums to appear. Grinning, the children bobbed their thanks and ran after their parents.
"Ainsley, of course, wanted to have children of his own," the narrator continued, "and at last he met a beautiful woman who agreed to marry him." A tall, stately ghost with a long gown and a regal bearing appeared at Ainsley's side, and suddenly a plump man in friar's robes popped into being in front of them.
The audience jumped; behind the curtain, Dennis grinned.
The Friar gestured to end the ceremony, then snapped his book closed and waved the newly-weds across the stage. He winked at the audience and vanished. By now some of the audience members were murmuring.
"All was well for many years," Lisa said. "Ainsley and his wife lived happily and had several children. But one day a terrible storm swept across the valley and its town. Heavy rains poured down, day after day. Rivers and streams rose. Roads were flooded." On stage, the lights flickered and died; a rumble of thunder rolled through the darkened auditorium, and the lights flashed off and on like lightning. The mist coalesced into a single cloud that flowed into one corner of the stage and took on the form of waves, building higher and higher. The feeble lights returned. The ghostly family, the Friar, the stately lady, and a handful of other dim forms materialized in front of the waves, arms raised as if to ward off the water.
"Ainsley knew that the time had come to use his magic to save his townsfolk," Lisa read. On the stage, Ainsley bounded through the crowd (literally passing through a couple of people) and halted before the water, striking a dramatic pose, wand raised. The rest of the ghosts turned and ran offstage, except for the Friar, who stood his ground behind Ainsley with his fists raised. The stately lady rematerialized behind him, snagged him by the hood of his robe, and dragged him off. A chuckle ran through the audience. Dennis thought he heard a growl from Moody.
"Ainsley cast spell after spell at the water," Lisa continued, and Ainsley waved his wand dramatically at the mist, which plunged and rose like a flood. "The waters were high, and the storm was powerful, but at last Ainsley managed to block the waters and turn them away from the town." Two of the cardboard trees suddenly flung themselves in front of the mist water, which swirled and foamed, but remained contained.
"But a last great gust of wind brought a massive tree crashing down upon Ainsley's head, killing him." The third cardboard tree toppled over and fell through Ainsley; for a moment the ghost froze, then clutched his head and staggered about the stage for nearly a minute. Dennis heard Moody's stage whisper. "Nick! We haven't got all afternoon -- die already!" The ghost glared in Moody's general direction, then collapsed on the stage and vanished.
"From that day forward, Ainsley's ghost wandered the countryside," Lisa read. On the stage, a different figure appeared, this one dressed in tattered robes, a long bandage wrapped around his head, moving with a shuffling gait back and forth across the stage, each hand clutching the opposite arm. The audience, who had chuckled over Ainsley's demise, fell silent as the specter limped back and forth. "Because of the blow to his head, Ainsley's ghost couldn't remember what had happened to him, or anything about his past. He was doomed to wander the countryside as a spirit, until someone could tell him about his life and how he had died."
The figure came to the edge of the stage and stood peering into the audience as if searching for a familiar face. Then he turned to stare at Lisa, who offered him a smile and said, "That's the story of Ainsley Mooreland."
The figure, still facing Lisa, blinked several times. A timid patter of applause began, then died away. Ainsley's ghost looked back over his shoulder at the dimly lit stage, then at the audience, and back to the girl in the witch's robes. His mouth moved.
"I -- remember," the ghost whispered. "I... I remember! That was right! That's what happened! I REMEMBER!" And with a cry, he rose into the air and winked out of sight.
For a moment the audience sat in stunned surprise; then they burst into applause and a babble of voices. Lisa, grinning, stepped out from the behind the microphone and bowed. As the clapping continued, the ghosts materialized on the stage in a group, linked arms to form a line, and bowed (a little raggedly). Sir Nicholas came strolling from backstage and waved so enthusiastically that his head began to flop to one side. The stately lady stepped forward and caught his hair before things went too far; Dennis didn't think anyone in the audience had noticed.
"Don't just sit there, my lad," came the Friar's voice in his ear. The ghost had materialized beside him. "Get onstage and take your bow." Dennis stepped onto the stage; the ghosts, applauding with the audience, parted to give him room, bowed once more, and then vanished. He was left alone on stage with Lisa, who grinned at him.
"It worked!" she yelled over the clapping.
"I guess so!" he shouted back. "Let's go make sure!" But even he couldn't resist taking one more bow.
As they slipped out the stage door, Mrs. Marsham stopped them. "Dennis! That was amazing! I've never seen such real effects! Do you have any idea how your friend did all those ghosts?"
"I'm not sure," Dennis answered. "He said it was hardly any work for him at all." Behind him Lisa uttered something that sounded like a cough.
"Well, I must talk to him about them," Mrs. Marsham said, pulling the stage door open. "I wonder if we could get him to help us do the ghosts for A Christmas Carol this year...." The door closed behind her. Dennis and Lisa looked at each other and grinned.
"C'mon," Dennis said. "Let's go find everyone else."
The exit to the parking lot was at the end of the hall. From there it was a short walk to the cemetery down the block. The tall witch was seated on a gravestone in a secluded corner of the cemetery, waving the pen at the Friar. "Amazing," she was saying, "what Muggles can do, even without magic." The Friar nodded politely and turned to smile at Dennis and Lisa.
"Well, well! Excellent work!" he exclaimed, beaming. In a moment the rest of the ghosts had appeared and either sat or stood around them.
"Yes, yes, a masterful performance, if I do say so myself," Sir Nicholas drawled.
"Which you will no doubt do," the stately Grey Lady remarked dryly, "probably for years to come."
"Now, now," the Friar began.
As the ghosts continued their discussion, Dennis turned to Saint-Saëns. "What about Mr. Mooreland?"
She smiled. "I think your idea worked," she replied. "While we were waiting for you, he began pointing to the different hills and parts of the town we could see, and saying things like, 'I remember when that building used to be the tanner's house', and 'that flat land used to be corn fields', and such. I'm curious, young man -- how did you find out the story of what happened to him?"
The ghosts had all stopped their discussions to listen. "When we first found him wandering around Mr. Moody's property this past summer, all he could remember was his first name," Dennis said. "So Mr. Moody owled the Ghost Liaison Office."
"And we couldn't find anything," the witch supplied. "Records from that time and place are sketchy. Go on."
"We thought he must have come from around here," Dennis said.
"Because I asked the school ghosts, and they said usually a ghost doesn't wander far from the place of his death, especially not in Mr. Mooreland's condition," Lisa added.
Dennis nodded; with the play successfully completed, he was more than willing to share the credit with this cousin. "So I made a sketch of his clothes, and I went to the library. We have a whole section of local history books, and one of the librarians studies it as a hobby. Once she figured out the time period of the clothes I had drawn, I looked through the books until I found the name 'Ainsley'. It's not a very common name. And I found an account of how a man named Ainsley Mooreland was credited with saving a whole town from a flood, but disappeared afterward. His neighbors said he was a good man, but rather odd in some ways -- he always seemed to have what someone needed, and always had treats to give children, and kept odd pets."
"And the play, depicting his life?" Saint-Saëns asked.
"Every year, my form in school puts on Halloween presentations for the younger kids," Dennis said. "So I thought we could make a play about Ainsley, and let him watch it, and see if that helped his memory."
"Dennis wrote to me about it," Lisa added. "And when I asked the ghosts if they thought it would work, they wanted to be part of it. Some of them are old enough to remember that time, and they all wanted to help. I think they get tired of being around the school all the time."
"So we worked out a skit that would include ghosts, and I told my teacher that I knew someone who could make the ghosts seem real." Dennis smiled. "On Halloween, lots of people want to believe in ghosts and fairies and magic."
Dennis didn't add that the project had also drawn Mr. Moody out of the depression that had surrounded him when he'd returned from the year at the magical school of Hogwarts. Dennis didn't know exactly what had happened, but he did know that the old man had spent this past summer and early autumn alternating between bouts of weariness and anger. Mooreland's problems and the play had given the old wizard something to focus on besides cleaning up the mess of his home.
Dennis turned his attention back to the conversation around him as the Friar said cheerfully, "It's been great fun!"
"I don't suppose we could make this an annual event?" Sir Nicholas asked hopefully. "We could do my life story next year for my Deathday anniversary--"
Before Dennis could open his mouth, the Grey Lady snapped, "Enough! We must go -- they'll be expecting us at Hogwarts tonight for the Halloween Feast." All of the ghosts perked up at that, and offered Dennis a chorus of "Good-bye!" and "Thank you!" before fading away, leaving only Lisa and the Ghost Liaison witch behind.
"Well, we must be going, too," the witch said, rising. "I'll drop Lisa off at Hogwarts, and then I'll have to go to the office and write up my report." She smiled at Dennis. "Thank you, Mr. Ackerly. While my department works primarily with the ghosts who choose to linger, we also try to help any of those that seek to move on. You've done Ainsley Mooreland a great service. If he does seem ready to move on, we'll be sure to let you know." She offered him the pen back. "I believe this belongs to you. Thank you for the loan."
Dennis almost laughed. "Please keep it, Ms. Saint-Saëns. I have another one at home." Actually, his father had a box of them stashed in his desk.
The witch's face lit up. "Oh! Well, I really shouldn't.... I mean, it's a Muggle item.... If you're sure? Well, thank you very much." She beamed as she handed the pen to the air; the pen disappeared.
In contrast, Lisa's face took on a mournful expression. "I'm sorry you can't come to the feast," she said. "I really wish you'd been accepted at Hogwarts too!"
Dennis shrugged. "Well, I got to be a wizard for a little while, anyway," he said finally, trying not to sound too disappointed. After finding out last year that his young cousin Jeremy had magic, at the same time he'd met Mr. Moody, Dennis had hoped that he too might have the gift, but no owl had appeared at his house; unlike Lisa and, someday, Jeremy, Dennis was an ordinary Muggle.
"I know," Lisa said suddenly. "I'll save some of the treats from tonight, and owl them to you! It's not Halloween without candy!" She grinned mischievously. "And just wait until you see what I'm getting you for Christmas!"
Five minutes later, Dennis let himself back through the stage door, to find Moody stacking the last of the "prop boxes" while the stagehand coiled electrical cord. Mrs. Marsham was saying, "Are you sure you don't need any help with those?"
"No, ma'am, it's all under control," Moody replied, giving Dennis a Significant Look, followed by a rolling of his good eye and a scowl. Dennis grinned.
"Well, I can't thank you enough," Mrs. Marsham continued. "Those were the most amazing effects...."
"I'll say," the stagehand remarked dryly. "He brought all these electrical cords, and didn't plug a single one in!"
Moody, in the process of handing Dennis a stack of boxes, froze. "Unh," the old wizard muttered. "I'd better take care of this." He straightened up and drew his wand. "Or I'll be stuck here doing some sort of Christmas play, too." Dennis backed through the stage door with the boxes as Moody turned to deal with the stagehand and Mrs. Marsham.
A few minutes later he joined Dennis in the parking lot, where Dennis was piling the boxes into the trunk of his parents' car. "Got them out of the way," Moody rumbled, and Dennis nodded. They worked in silence for a few minutes before Moody remarked, "That was a good job on the play, by the way."
"Thanks." Dennis sighed. "But it didn't go exactly the way I planned. I think some of the ghosts got a little carried away. And you did all the special effects."
"Of course they got carried away. This is the first time in years most of 'em have done anything like this, and they didn't even get to rehearse here," Moody growled. "They got a little over-excited, is all. And if I hadn't done the fog and lights, you would have found some other way to make the play work, without using a shred of magic. Don't be too hard on yourself -- the play got done, it helped Mooreland, and everything had the blessing of the Ghost Liaison Office. That's got to be a first in the annals of magic -- real ghosts in a magical play put on for Muggles. Plus your audience got a bit of local history along with its Halloween celebration, even if a couple of people needed to have their memories adjusted a bit afterwards." He grinned and shook his head. Dennis laughed.
"Believe me, when I think of what could have gone wrong, but didn't..."
"Like what?" Dennis asked.
"You could have given your characters dialog," Moody replied, glancing around the parking lot to see if anyone was watching. Seeing no one, he gave a flick of his wand, and the rest of the boxes floated into the air and stacked themselves neatly in the trunk. "Just imagine Sir Nicholas de Mimsey-Porpington having to speak actual lines.... Now that would have been downright scary!"
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
-- Arthur C. Clarke (scientist and science fiction author)
"Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology!"
--Tannim (from Mercedes Lackey's novel Born to Run)
Author's Note: all recognizable characters from the Harry Potter books, include Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody and the various ghosts, as well as the concept of the Ghost Liaison Office, belong to author J.K. Rowling. They have been borrowed here without permission, and no monetary compensation was gained for the writing of this story. Many thanks to the incomparable Zsenya, for beta-reading this in its raw form, and to Yen, who helped with a bit of tweaking.
The full story of how Dennis Ackerly, Lisa Thurber, and Lisa's younger brother Jeremy met a strange old man who turned out to be a wizard is told in the story If It Hadn't Been for the Owl, which is lurking about the SQ site somewhere. I don't think you need to have read that story to understand this one, but I'm not above advertising my own work occasionally... ;-)
Speaking of advertising, there are a number of excellent Harry Potter Halloween stories now posted at http://www.sugarquill.net as part of our Halloween Challenge. The link is at the bottom of the main screen. It's well worth the trip.
During the editing process, a question came up: what unfinished business would children have that caused them to become ghosts? Having done a little reading on the subject, I ran across a couple of possibilities. One account told of a ghost so young that he hadn't even been named; finally, after several people had seen the ghost, a man addressed him as "short hoggers" (a local phrase meaning "baby booties"); the child accepted it as a name, and vanished. There are a couple of other stories about what unfinished business a child might have, but they're just too gruesome to mention here. Brrr..... I hope the children who are ghosts at Hogwarts have a more innocent reason for staying on. (If anyone would like to see those untold stories, though, they're found in The Enchanted World: Ghosts, published by Time-Life Books.)
Anyone familiar with classical music will probably recognize the surname of the GLO witch. Camille Saint-Saëns composed two of my favorite pieces of music: Carnival of the Animals, and Danse Macabre; I thought the latter in particular qualified his name for a story like this. Danse Macabre would also provide excellent background music for reading the SQ Halloween fics….along with Night on Bald Mountain (Mussorgsky), Devil's Dance (from John Williams's The Witches of Eastwick), the Hooked on Classics version of Dance of the Furies (Gluck)/Summer (from Vivaldi's Four Seasons), and In the Hall of the Mountain King (Grieg). There's actually an entire CD entitled Devil's Dance, performed by Gil Shaham and Jonathan Feldman, which features 13 (yes, really!) pieces relating to devils, ghosts, and other Halloween-ish concepts.