The tour group clusters in a semicircle around Rick, breathing on their fingers and eyeballing the poorly lit parking lot between a dentist’s office and the Olde Tyme Portrait Studio with skepticism. Most of the tourists are fat, as they usually are in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the Obesity Capital of the South, the promised land of fat-marbled bratwurst slowly rolling under a heat lamp. Their huddled layers and marshmallow jackets make them look even fatter, their fleshy faces pressed between their hats and scarves like pale dough squeezed in a fist. Some of them are gasping for breath after their short walk up the hill, their open-mouthed foggy wheezes the only thing remotely ghostly in the parking lot, which over 150 years ago supposedly held the log cabin of a murdered man, who supposedly now haunts the parking lot. You wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at it.
Rick’s tourists raise their eyebrows at each other in a way that says, “Really?” Rick doesn’t blame them. Their previous stop was the back of the Motorlodge, near the dumpsters, the sweetish odor of leaky garbage wrinkling their noses as Rick tried to move them with a tale of love and betrayal and bloody revenge—and then Warren’s fucking tour group had walked by just when he was getting to the part about the husband bursting into the motel room (“with eyes full of tears and rage!”). Fucking Warren, walking uphill backwards as he regaled his group with stories that aren’t even true—it says so on their brochure: “local legends, history, folk tales, and fiction” (emphasis Rick’s)—and yet the tourists eat it up faster than a funnel cake, every eye rapt on Warren’s cloaked figure with his black robes and white face paint and chunky costume jewelry, swinging a hooded lantern, and the heads of Rick’s tourists all swiveled like so many Linda Blairs towards that vision of lies in a cape, and Warren looked over and waved.
Rick slows his breath back to normal (yes, he was out of breath, too), surveys his group, all of whom are probably wishing they had chosen Deadwalk instead of GhostHaunt, theater over truth. He takes a long sip from his Coke bottle, to which he added a few fingers of whiskey (well, a hand’s breadth of whiskey) before he left home. Rick wants to prove them wrong, wants to with a passion and vigor that flares his acid reflux. He swallows it down with another swig of Coke and opens his binder with “GhostHaunt” printed in drippy green letters on the front.
“This photograph was taken right here, where we now stand, on one of these very ghost tours!” Rick says to the group, displaying with a flourish a laminated computer printout. On it is the parking lot, with some fog in it.
“You’re thinking it’s just fog, right? Wrong! This was taken on a clear night, no fog or mist, no one even smoking a cigarette! And the thing is, no one saw this with the naked eye. No! It only appeared on the camera. We can therefore conclude that this mist is what paranormal scientists call ‘ectoplasm.’ But it gets better! Look closely and tell me what you see.”
He walks in front of the group, holding the photo near their noses. The tourists look confused.
“There’s a face!” Rick says. “Who can see the face?”
There is no face. At least not that Rick has ever been able to find, or Barry or Cynthia, the other two guides at GhostHaunt. But suggestion is a powerful thing. If you imply that there’s a face, someone will see a face. People have seen a man, a woman, a face with glasses, long flowing hair, a moustache, a smile, a frown, the open gape of a scream. It’s like a ghost Rorschach. Rick takes another pull from his Coke.
Rick has never seen a ghost, but he still believes. That’s what faith is, his mother said to him when she was dying. Believing even though you don’t have a reason to. Believing without proof.
Rick tried this argument nine days ago when his girlfriend Stacey left him after three years. “Don’t you have any faith in me?” he asked. “No, I don’t,” she said, and rolled her suitcase out the door.
Right now, Stacey is at Rick’s house, retrieving the rest of her things. They arranged this by voicemail. She thought it would be easier on both of them if Rick wasn’t there while she moved out. She had been planning this for a while. When she broke up with him, she already had an apartment rented.
Rick takes another swig from his Coke as the tourists squint at the low-quality printout and assume a look of great concentration, like they’re trying to do one of those Magic Eyes where the 3D unicorn pops out of the fuzz if you cross your eyes enough.
A woman in an electric blue marshmallow jacket declares that she sees the face. She points to a misty area near the top and says she sees a woman, which is problematic, since the parking lot is supposed to be haunted by a man. Rick glosses over this and launches into the story.
“Two hundred years ago,” Rick says in his suspense voice, which is deeper than his normal voice, “in this very parking lot where we now stand, there was a lush field where a man named Vern Barth built a log cabin with his own two hands, preparing it for his family that was waiting to join him from Virginia. It took him almost a year of stacking every log, whittling every bed and table himself through bitter winter and sweltering summer, but the thought of his wife and five children kept him going. When he finally finished, he sent for them immediately. But when they arrived in the valley after many months of traveling over the mountains, it was only to find the new cabin burned to the ground with him inside of it!”
Someone shifts their weight from one foot to the other, the scratchy swish of nylon chafing between thighs. A person to the left coughs. A man in the back with his arm around a blond twenty-something actually chuckles. Rick takes another sip of Coke.
The group was jovial fifteen minutes ago when they left the tour agency’s booth between traffic lights #4 and #5 (of ten total in the whole town), many of them with neon to-go drinks in one hand and a funnel cake in the other. But always around the third haunted location, they start to lose interest. They start to regret that they spent fifteen dollars apiece on this disappointingly un-scary ghost tour, and it doesn’t help when Warren walks past swishing his cloak, his tour group following him as if hypnotized, like he’s the fucking pied piper, always leading away Rick’s rats.
Rick can see their disillusionment as a physical movement, a slouch of the shoulders, necks receding into scarves, hands slumping heavier into pockets. He wonders if it would make a difference if he was wearing a cloak.
This is the midnight tour group, the last of the three he leads every night of the week except Sunday, which he has been doing for five years. By this point, the stories are so ingrained in his mind that he imagines them as a bloody, physical furrow in his brain, like an axe wound. The words are automatic now, as thoughtless and leached of meaning as the Lord’s Prayer, as the Pledge of Allegiance, as the rote exchange of How are you doing today? Fine, thanks, and you? Sometimes Rick actually skips words, whole words, and doesn’t even notice. His manager Carl pointed it out during his last non-stellar review; otherwise, he’d still have no idea.
Rick has been trying to pay more attention, put on a better show, but it’s hard. If he pays too much attention, the words cease being logical units of meaning and become unintelligible sounds. His mouth keeps making the words from muscle memory, but his mind can’t interpret them. It’s like he’s speaking in tongues.
The story is taking too long. Two people are actually sitting on the ground now, fleshy chins propped in dimpled hands. A boy in the back with acne thick as poison ivy on his cheeks is doing something on his cell phone. One man in a red flannel jacket has walked away from the group to smoke a cigarette.
At the staff meeting last week, two days after Stacey broke up with Rick, Carl told their four-person staff gathered around a card table jammed in Carl’s windowless eight-by-ten office that GhostHaunt Tours was taking a new approach to storytelling. They would be revising the manual to make the ghost stories more interesting. “Breathe some life into them,” Carl said, obviously proud of his joke, and he’d like everyone’s creative input. “What do you mean, ‘creative,’” Rick asked. “I mean use your imagination,” Carl said. “We need to make these ghost stories good.”
Rick knew what that meant. It meant they were giving up, selling their souls to the devil. The devil, in this scenario, being fiction.
Rick pointed an accusatory finger at Carl. “You’re making us into Deadwalk,” he said, spitting the word like a curse.
“Am I going to have to wear a corset?” asked Cynthia.
“We can discuss that,” said Carl.
At this point, Rick stormed out of the room and spent the afternoon at Belly of the Bear, drinking whiskey and complaining to anyone who listened about the masses desensitized by cinema blood, requiring new heights of torture and dismemberment for a thrill, only entertained by poltergeists that throw 200-pound men across rooms and turn on wood chippers and possess children who then murder their parents.
Fucking Warren. Warren knows nothing about ghosts. The whole thing is theater to him—in fact, one of Deadwalk’s draws is that Warren once got his throat ripped out by a zombie during the opening credits of Brains II: Back for Seconds. Deadwalk featured that bit of info in their brochure, alongside a movie still of Warren with partially de-fleshed zombie claws at his throat.
Rick has more integrity than that. He told as much to Carl when he returned for his shift that night. “These are real people!” Rick said. “Real people who died actual deaths! We can’t just make stuff up about them! Do we not promise our customers the truth? Do we not owe it to the deceased? Do we not have a code of ethics?”
Carl stopped dusting the skeleton in the top hat beside the front door, turned to Rick, and said, “They’re just ghost stories, Rick. Are you drunk?”
Rick told him to stop trying to change the subject. Carl told him to go home and only come back tomorrow if he’s sober. Rick told him Fine, he’d go home, but there was no way Carl was ever getting him to wear eyeliner.
“And now the lonely, heartsick ghost of Vern Barth wanders the black asphalt of this parking lot,” says Rick to his tour group, “searching for his cabin, the cabin he worked so hard to build for his loved ones, the cabin dispersed in ash on the wind, always searching and searching, and finding nothing.”
Fifteen sets of eyes stare back at him, dark and small like mouse droppings in a chewed-through sack of flour. The boy in the back starts whistling the Joni Mitchell song about paving paradise and putting up a parking lot. Rick takes a swig of Coke.
“And now, if you’ll follow me to our next location, the miniature golf course,” Rick says. “Great story there. Stay on the sidewalk, folks. Watch for cars.”
In early summer, Rick took Stacey to a medium for a séance. Stacey had been badgering him about his career in ghost tours lately, had been trying to convince him there was no future in it, and that he took it too seriously, besides. Formerly, she had allowed his belief in ghosts with a fond roll of her eyes, had explained him to her friends as “spiritual.” But now she was agitated. She wouldn’t accept the photos of mists and orbs as proof. She said, in fact, “You’ve got to be shitting me.” Rick wanted to make her believe by putting her in touch with a spirit, a spirit she would know—the spirit of her aunt, who had recently and unexpectedly died while condo hunting. She had stepped onto a rotten third floor balcony, which proceeded to open up under her feet, dropping her and the realtor to the parking lot below. “How does that happen?” Stacey kept saying. “Think of it—you could be checking out a view and then BAM! Lights out. That’s not right.”
Rick was barely able to get her inside. She screamed at him on the sidewalk in front of the windows advertising palm and Tarot readings, making exactly the kind of spectacle Rick hates. Rick had thought that the medium could give her some closure, help her understand that her aunt was fine now—while also proving him right. Stacey didn’t see it that way.
“What’s wrong with you?” she screamed. “I don’t want to talk to her! She’s dead!”
Rick apologized for his presumptuousness until she calmed down, and then he asked her to come inside and just sit with the medium. He already paid for the session, he explained, and he would ask her to contact his own mother first. Stacey could watch, see how it works, and then ask about her aunt if she wanted to. “Just give it a chance,” Rick said.
“You really believe in this?” said Stacey, glaring at the neon third eye in the window like she was in a staring contest.
“I do,” Rick said.
“Fine,” she said, and stomped into the shop, setting the wind chimes over the door ringing.
Stacey didn’t ask about her aunt. She sat with her lips flatlined, holding Rick’s and the medium’s hands with fingers stiff as rigor mortis. She only moved once, a squirm when the medium said Rick’s mother was present and Rick said, “Mom? Hi, I want you to meet my girlfriend, Stacey.”
Rick tried to convince her that he was joking, that he knew that was weird and creepy and was just messing with her. But Stacey still refused to talk to him on the ride home. She slept so far on the other side of the bed that Rick wanted to wrap his arms around her to keep her from falling off. But his touch was obviously the last thing she wanted, so Rick moved to the couch. He lay awake on the scratchy upholstery under Stacey’s green afghan and thought about his mother, what she looked like in the hospital all those years ago. He could see the death in her then, in the foggy translucence of her skin that seemed to be already lifting away from her body, its substance slowly evaporating into the air. She was calm and wistful near the end, but Rick ground his teeth so far down that he had to have a root canal three weeks after her funeral, at the age of thirteen. All that money they spent on orthodontics, his father said, and he almost chews his teeth out of his own head! What would your mother say?
Rick gave Stacey forty-five minutes to fall asleep and then crawled back in bed with her, moving carefully, trying not to make a sound.
Rick instructs the tourists to pull out their cameras, point them at the church steeple across the street, and look for orbs. The preacher was shot to death in the choir robe closet, not in the steeple, but they don’t have access to the inside of the church. In fact, the church has banned GhostHaunt from stepping foot on their property because ghosts are un-Christian. Apparently, only Jesus can return from the dead. So the group stands on the sidewalk across the street, snapping pictures of the steeple, as if for some reason the preacher’s ghost would float around up there when he was killed far below.
The group always perks up a little when it’s orb time. They’re excited to do anything besides stand with their hands in their pockets and stare at Rick, who with his mutton chops and slight beer belly looks completely un-scary, more like he should be eating nachos in front of the TV (which yes, he does do in his off-time) than leading a ghost tour. Unlike Warren, who is six foot three, stooping, and bone-thin, with a nose like a murder weapon and the shiny, pale blue eyes of a killer.
On his night off last week, with nobody waiting for him at home, Rick had too much to drink and decided to spy on the enemy (Warren) and see what bastardizations of ghost stories he was spouting. From one of the abundance of souvenir stores, Rick purchased a disguise: a baseball cap that read “I♥GSM,” which stands for “I Heart Great Smoky Mountains,” but Rick has always seen, on first glance, as “I ORGASM.” He lurked behind the group, crouching behind post office boxes and dumpsters and parked cars, overcompensating because of his conspicuous hat that he now regretted purchasing. As soon as Warren’s tour group dispersed, chilled and looking over their shoulders, wadding generous tips into Warren’s creepy arachnid hands, Warren walked right over to Rick where he knelt behind the wall of the cemetery, his blue witchfire eyes flashing with amusement, and said, “So what did you think?” Rick stood up, brushed off his pants, and, not knowing what else to say, replied, “Good job.”
“It helps to have the flash on,” Rick says to the tour group. The flash will reflect off dust particles floating through the air, making them appear to be self-luminescent orbs. This is one of the many untruths he’s already succumbed to, and he hates himself for it, but a man’s got to get tips somehow.
“Do you think ghosts get red eye?” someone says. There is a general chuckle from the crowd, and Rick’s acid reflux flares again. He swallows it back down with a gulp of Coke. Rick would like to say something to put the joker in his place, though he’s not sure what that something would be. Instead, he makes himself laugh along with everyone else. Never show weakness. Always laugh. Rick laughs.
Rick used to wonder if the ghosts at the haunted locations listened while he spoke of their untimely ends. He imagined Vern Barth gliding over the asphalt to peer over the shoulders of the tourists, wafting the smell of smoke; the ghost of Mary O’Doul, jilted bride who hanged herself, stepping down from her noose in her ruined wedding dress to press her pale cheek against the cold glass of her bedroom window; the ghost of Timothy Allison frowning with his remaining half a face from the second floor of the Motorlodge, blushing under the blood and brain matter as he is reminded of his shame.
Little known fact: Rick wrote a history of the ghosts of Gatlinburg when he was seventeen. He called it, The Ghosts of Gatlinburg. He scoured the town records and talked to folklorists and old-timers until he gathered as many stories as he could find, and then he bound them all together, all 30 pages worth, with binder clips, and tried to get the library to shelve it in the history stacks. They declined.
“Keep trying!” Rick says. He hopes someone finds an orb soon.
In his binder, Rick carries a glossy 8x10 of the first and only orb he’s ever captured. The summer after his mother’s death, Rick washed his father’s pickup until he could afford a disposable camera, telling him he had to pay library fines. He waited till his father left for the bar and then walked around the house taking pictures of the air. When he picked up the photos, he went through them right there on the sidewalk in front of the general store. He flipped through the kitchen with its yellowing linoleum, the wood-paneled den, the bathroom where the grout had been steadily blackening since his mother stopped cleaning it—all of them just empty rooms. And then: the orb. Huge, right in front of the lens, nearly smack-dab in the center, like it had floated up in front of Rick and posed for the camera. It was translucent white, edged in a band of purple on one side, and behind the orb, Rick could make out the furniture of his bedroom. The orb had been waiting in his own room.
He used to show the photo to his tour groups as an example of what to look for, but their patronizing nods or outright disbelief made him angry. He doesn’t show it anymore. He used to keep a copy of it framed on the side table in the living room, but Stacey thought it was morbid, so he moved it.
It’s not like Rick intended to stay at GhostHaunt forever. But after waiting tables, selling tickets at Dollywood, and then working his way up the management chain at Mad Bill’s Go-Carts and Putt Putt, from which he got fired for letting a kid slip by without a helmet, a kid who proceeded to wreck his go-cart and sustain a large, bloody (but nonfatal) gash in his head, it seemed like ghost tours would be something fulfilling. Something to believe in, or at least something more redeemable than fixing the perpetually broken bear maw on the seventh hole twice a day. Rick wanted personal interaction, wanted to make people feel things, wanted to share with them the enraptured fear and hope of contact with the other side. He also wanted to finally see a goddamn ghost. But for all the stories, there didn’t seem to be any ghosts in Gatlinburg. Not that he could tell.
The night Stacey left, she said she wanted to get married and have a family. “I want a life,” she said, and Rick realized this was his last chance, this was the best he was ever going to get, more than he deserved, actually, and he said, Yes! Of course! He did, too! He dropped on one knee, ring-less, and declared, “Stacey, I love you. Marry me.”
“No,” Stacey said. “Not with you.”
Rick stayed on one knee, not understanding.
“Look at yourself!” she said, her eyes getting wet. “You’re thirty-two and telling people ghost stories for minimum wage. You don’t wake up till after lunch and spend all day in your underwear. You used to talk about leaving this stinking town, but you never have, and you never will. And you’re a drunk, besides! I said I want a life! What kind of life could you give me? What kind of life is that? Stop kneeling, for Christ’s sake! Get the fuck up off the floor!”
The woman in the electric blue marshmallow jacket, the same woman who saw the face in the fog picture, squeaks as she finds an orb staring at her from the screen of her digital camera. Rick rushes over, feigning excitement.
“It’s an orb, everyone!” Rick declares. The woman beams at him with pleasure, and Rick fills his mouth with Coke. He feels a brief flare of shame at the lie, but this woman is the group’s True Believer, and he wants to give her something, this little thing, to boost her belief, to reaffirm it. He knows the thrill she’s feeling now, the hopeful zing of looking the otherworldly in the face, the chill up her back like someone has opened a door behind you.
What’s wrong with giving her that?
The summer he caught the orb, Rick went to the library and checked out as many books as he could on everything from paranormal studies to séance tutorials to Wicca guidebooks. He saved up his allowance and bought a Ouija board and some crystals from the Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not gift shop. He hid the books behind his dresser, the crystals and Ouija board in a Monopoly box, and would wait until his father left. Then he would grab the spice rack and head to his parents’ bedroom, light some scented candles, trace a circle around him in cinnamon or cardamom or allspice (different texts advised different things), and try to contact his mother. He would close his eyes and sit with his legs crossed, hands on his knees, in a vaguely yogic posture because this seemed mystical, his heart jumping like a minnow in a palm, and his voice would shake in his throat before he could force it out and say as loud as he could, which turned out to be a whisper, “Mama? It’s Ricky. Are you there?”
When the cinnamon and allspice weren’t working, he decided to try his mom’s Cajun seasoning mix. His mother used to put that on everything. She would blacken chicken in it, sauté catfish in it, sprinkle it on popcorn, stir it into vegetable soup. She liked to say that if it wasn’t hot enough to give her cheek ulcers, she wasn’t interested in eating it. Though now Rick suspects it was necessary to give things flavor after destroying her taste buds with twenty years of smoking.
He’d been at it for thirty minutes, his dad safely gone till at least 2:00 a.m., plenty of time for him to vacuum the Cajun seasoning mix off the carpet. His feet were going numb underneath him, the stiff fibers of the carpet chafed his bare thighs where his shorts rode up, and the scents of the spices were in his nose, making his mouth water even though it was on the carpet and not on food. He thought of his mother’s crawfish remoulade, her red beans and rice, but also of the non-spicy things: the warm cheese biscuits, the juicy bratwurst, the fluffy, weightless whipped sugar of the Divinity she made at Christmas, the green beans cooked with bacon fat.
Rick was distracted by these thoughts of food, having skipped dinner to hold the séance, when he felt the hair move on the back of his neck. It moved like it used to when his mother would idly run her hand through his hair before sending him off to school, or when she would be distracted by a phone conversation or a private thought and the touch of her hand on the back of his neck would be enough to tell him Not now, or how she did when he visited her in the hospital, his eyes red as a bloody egg yolk, his molars already smoothed to river stones, and she’d put her palm on the back of his neck and smile at him with that cirrus cloud smile and say, “Hey, baby, don’t look like that, huh? I’m still here. Can you grab me some ice chips?”
And there it was, in the middle of the sacred circle of Cajun seasoning mix: the displacement of hairs of the back of Rick’s neck.
When he opened his eyes, his mother was not there. He touched the back of his neck with a shaky hand, the hairs still prickling, the skin still cold.
Rick guides the dwindling group to yet another parking lot higher up the mountain that affords a clear view of the Gatlinburg Sky Needle rising in its metal and neon splendor into the night sky. Rick’s Coke bottle is almost empty, and he has lost four people. They have wandered off to crawl under the bedbugged comforters of their motels, or to drink fake moonshine out of a mason jar at Hill Billy’s, or maybe to catch up with Warren’s tour group. The lady in the electric blue still looks excited, but no one else even tries to hide their dissatisfaction.
Rick wants to go home. He wants to get there before Stacey leaves with all her boxes and throw himself at her feet and say he’ll quit the tour. He’ll try to get back on at Mad Bill’s Go-Cart and Putt Putt; he’ll get a job at a temp agency; he’ll go to night classes in whatever subject she wants. He’ll make them a life! He can do it.
Instead, he downs another gulp of Coke and directs the group’s attention toward the Sky Needle.
“This is our most recent ghost,” Rick says, “and a story we’re not even supposed to tell you because the Sky Needle thinks it’s bad for business. But I bet all of you go up there tomorrow because of this very story, because you want to see the ghost for yourself! And you should—just don’t tell them I sent you.”
This is another lie. The Sky Needle actually gives them sponsorship money to include this story in the tour.
“One Friday night,” Rick recites, “seventeen-year-old Bobby Tatum, member of the high school golf team and baritone in his church choir, was goofing around with some friends when one of them dared him to sneak into the sky needle and ride up to the observation deck standing on top of the elevator.”
Several tourists grimace at this. They know what’s coming next. The thing about ghost stories is that you know how they’re going to end before they even start: someone’s going to turn into a ghost. However, Rick isn’t sure if the grimace is because of the thought of someone getting pancaked at the top of an elevator shaft, or because of the disappointing predictability of that scenario.
Rick is having trouble getting his eyes to focus on the Sky Needle, that glowing neon monstrosity that seems now to be a symbol of everything he hates about Gatlinburg, rising up out of the valley like a huge metal spear in Nature’s back. The needle isn’t even tall enough to see over the mountains much more than you can from your balcony at the Econolodge. All you can see is the same exact encircling wall of mountains, with the same glimpses through the cleavage of those mountains to some foggy blue-tinted humps beyond, but with the added bonus of a bird’s-eye (a low-flying one’s) view of the ground, just far enough away so you can’t see the dark gum-blotches and curdling frozen yogurt on the sidewalks, or smell the fetid stench of discarded hot dogs and funnel cakes wafting from the over-filled trashcans, and you can gaze down towards the Denny’s and the Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not, looking pristine so far below, and think, “Yes, what a nice view.”
Rick wonders if that’s what Bobby Tatum was expecting at the top of the elevator. To be able to look down from a new vantage point and smile at his friends hooting and waving below him, their facial features blurred by distance, mere suggestions of faces, two eyes and a mouth like dark holes in their heads, and be assured that he was, in fact, at this moment, on top of the world. On top of his world so nicely spread out under his feet, looking so much better, as things usually do, from far away.
“There have been reports of an apparition of a teenage boy gazing over the railing,” Rick is saying, when he sees something move in the darkness on the edge of the parking lot.
It’s the figure of a man, dark, almost invisible, like a shadow. Rick looks at the tour group to see if they’ve spotted it, too, but they’re all staring vacantly at the sky needle. Rick looks back for the figure, tries to squint his eyes into sharper focus, but the shadow is gone. His customers are now staring at him quizzically. Rick has forgotten what he was saying.
For the first time in five years, Rick can’t remember the words to the story. His mind is emptied like an open window. He rubs his face and finds himself smiling.
“I’m sorry,” he stutters. “Did anyone see that? I thought I saw something. Over there.”
Several group members raise their eyebrows. The boy with the acne rolls his eyes. They think it’s a stunt.
Rick squints into the shadows again, but his eyes won’t focus right, like they saw briefly into another world and haven’t quite adjusted back to this one. “Never mind,” he says. “We’re almost there, folks. Last stop, White Oak Flats cemetery. Right this way.”
By the time they get to White Oak Flats, Rick is down to eight tourists and drunk as a skunk, but he doesn’t care. He glimpsed the shadow again, saw the blurry peripheral moment of a dark figure, and then he thought he heard footsteps behind him, too far back to be one of his tourists.
So now Rick is walking backwards in front of the group, looking for the shadow, saying, “That’s the thing! Don’t ghosts make you believe in heaven more? When we’re dead, we’re not just dead! Am I right or am I right?”
“Amen!” says the lady in the electric blue marshmallow jacket, raising a witnessing palm in the air.
Rick claps his hands and says, “That’s the spirit!” And then cracks up at his own pun.
The other tourists are giving him the kind of looks they might give a burning car they’re hoping to see explode.
Rick doesn’t care. He’s exhilarated and dizzy, but an upward sort of dizziness, like his skin might slough straight off into ectoplasm and sail upwards like a sheet in a breeze. He wishes Stacey was here to see this. And Carl! They’re not just stories! Fuck creativity.
They reach White Oak Flats, and Rick warns the group to watch out for the low headstones, some of them so worn down by the elements that they barely reach over the grass, like Rick’s molars in the back of his gums. Rick feels inspired. He wants to tell them about his mother and the orb and the touch on the back of his neck. She’s not buried here—she’s buried in an expensive little box in a wall at a cemetery in Pigeon Forge that only allows plastic flowers—but he could say she was here. Maybe she is here! Maybe she’s floating somewhere just beyond his perception, like the orb in his bedroom that he could only see with the eye of a camera.
He leads them up to the middle of the small graveyard and is about to start orating when he sees the shadow again, at the edge of the cemetery, on the other side of the low stone surrounding wall. It’s a full figure—a whole silhouette of a man in clothes from the 1800’s, some sort of long cape, and a lantern.
Rick’s tongue stills in his open mouth. A lantern.
He hopes for it to disappear, to dissipate into the air, desperately hopes, but it doesn’t. It steps forward so the streetlight hits the side of its face, a face painted white, with black lipstick, black lips quirked into a smile.
The tourists shift uneasily. “Looks like he’s seen a ghost,” says the boy with the acne, chuckling.
Rick shifts his gaze to the boy, his pockmarked, insolent face. This boy, this clown, this eye-roller who thinks he’s a nonbeliever. But Rick knows the truth: he wouldn’t be here, wouldn’t have stayed through the whole tour, if he didn’t want to believe. The ones who protest the loudest are always the ones who want to believe the most.
“Alright, then,” Rick says to the boy, who is still smirking. “Do you want to hear a story? A real ghost story?” The tourists nod hesitantly. “Well, listen up then! I’ve got a story.”
Then, in the direction of Warren: “Can you hear me in the back?”
The tour group retreats a step, flinching. Rick’s head buzzes. He points his empty Coke bottle at the group like Timothy Allison must have pointed his gun in the Motorlodge, and begins.
“One dark and stormy night—that’s right—one dark and stormy night, do you like that! There was a man… a man who spent his life chasing ghosts! Yeah—he was a freaking ghost expert, knew all sorts of stuff. It had been his dream from a young age to track down ghosts, and you know what? He followed that damn dream! He didn’t listen to any of the naysayers, all the people who told him he was stupid or insane or both, and he travelled all over the country to old mansions, battlefields, factories, documenting proof. Proof! He wanted proof, just like all of you, because we are pitiful, faithless creatures! And you know what? He found it! He fucking found it! He stalked around dusty attics and mildewed hallways with tape recorders and digital cameras, and he caught voices! And orbs! And ecto-fucking-plasmic mists! But still, no one believed him.”
Here Rick gestures with the Coke bottle so violently that it flies from his hand, narrowly missing the couple huddling on the edge of the group, who emit a squeal. Rick smiles and continues.
“He wrote books about it, but no one would shelve them with the science books, or even the history books—no, they put them in a special section with books on crystal therapy and astral projection. And then one day, when no one would give him a job because he had no quote-unquote practical job experience, he looked around his sorry apartment, which wasn’t haunted, and realized he was alone. He’d spent so much time chasing ghosts that he never got married or had kids, so concerned with the afterlife that he never had a life. So he moved back to—you guessed it!—Gatlinburg, where he was born and raised, where as a boy he first got interested in ghosts because of a ghost tour just like this very one you’re on tonight. He got a job doing the only thing he was qualified to do—leading ghost tours—and tried to find himself a wife. He bought a small house up on the hill above town, started leading several tours a night, and went to all the singles’ barbecues at the church.”
Here he pauses for effect, lets them savor this potentially happy ending that they know is about to be ripped cruelly away, because it’s a ghost story, after all. Their eyes are wide, the whites tinged with something like panic.
“But he never found a wife, and he wasn’t a very good tour guide. He didn’t look scary enough, and his delivery wasn’t great. When he wasn’t on the tours, you could find him drinking at the bar that’s supposed to be haunted down on the 441, staring into corners with eyes crossed with whiskey, or maybe crossed with trying to see past our world into the next. And then guess what happened. He died! Mysteriously! One rumor is that he walked into the woods to die of loneliness like an animal, his heart just up and quitting without anything to beat for anymore. Another is that he spent so much time with ghosts that he finally became one himself, passing straight over death and right into spirit, his body going ectoplasmic like a candle melting in fast-forward. And the last and probably most correct rumor is that his cirrhotic liver finally gave out and the bears dragged his body out of his cabin and into the woods before anyone noticed he was gone. Either way, they never found his body.”
Rick’s delivery is masterful, his voice modulation superb—soft as a whisper one moment and then booming the next. He is yanking his audience around like naïve little meat puppets on strings made of his words. He recognizes that maybe they are more scared of him and less of the story, but he doesn’t care. They wanted to feel fear—let them feel fear!
“So how do we know he’s dead, you ask, instead of just missing? Cause there have been sightings! He’s been seen walking these very paths you have walked tonight, visiting with the ghosts at each haunted location, finally able to see them, speak with them, like he wished he could do all those years of his life. And when the dead tour guide isn’t hanging out with the other ghosts, he still stalks the ghost tours like he did as a child, making the tourists look over their shoulders, whispering icy air into their ears. Sometimes he even appears whole-formed and smiling, but only to the nonbelievers, trying to prove to them as he couldn’t in life that ghosts do exist, they are real, they’re all around us, right here, right now, and we’re just arrogant little creatures thinking we’re the only beings in this world, thinking we know everything, that the only real things are what we can see with these sad balls of jelly we call eyes, when all you have to do is open your mind enough to see them!”
Rick feels electric, charged with a destructive energy, kind of lightheaded. Very lightheaded. He sits down on the nearest tombstone, out of breath.
“Are you scared now?” Rick wheezes.
They certainly look scared. The boy is pallid under his acne. The lady in the electric blue marshmallow jacket has her forehead screwed up like she might cry. Warren is standing on the far end of the cemetery, exactly where he was before. Rick’s exhilarated high is swiftly disappearing in a riptide of nausea. The group is still staring at him. He no longer wants them to be staring at him.
“That’s the end,” Rick says. “Tour’s over. Thanks for coming. Tips are appreciated.”
The group is already moving away from him. The lady in the electric blue marshmallow jacket drops a fiver at his feet before half-running to catch up with the rest of the group, all of whom are whispering and looking over their shoulders.
“Tell your friends about us!” Rick yells after them, stuffing the bill into his pocket. He can feel the blood pulsing in his head, presses the heels of his hands into his temples, lowers his face between his knees. He knows at least one of them will report him to Carl. Right now he doesn’t care. He might vomit.
The toes of two black boots appear in the grass in front of him.
“Dude,” says Warren.
“Fuck you,” says Rick.
Warren crouches his lanky form in front of Rick and peers into his face. “Are you drunk? Do you need a ride or something?”
“I need you to get the fuck away from me is what I need,” Rick says, covering his face in his hands.
Warren does not get the fuck away from him. Rick removes his face from his hands and says, so forcefully that he sprays spit at Warren’s ghoul-painted face, “You look like Dracula!”
Warren stands up and wipes the back of his hand across his cheek, smearing the makeup. “Okay, man. I was just trying to help.”
When he’s not using his tour voice, Warren sounds sort of squeaky, and when Rick squints hard enough at his face, he looks about twenty years old under all the makeup.
“Where’d you buy that get-up, anyway? A Halloween store?”
“Well, yeah,” says Warren. “Where else?”
Rick starts laughing so hard it hurts his head. This is very funny to him at the moment. He laughs so hard he nearly topples over the tombstone backwards.
“Whoa,” says Warren, reaching out his spindly hands to steady Rick.
Rick swats him away with more force than necessary, yelling “BOO! BOO!” into Warren’s face, almost sending himself over the tombstone again, but he succeeds in making Warren back away. Look! he thinks. I can scare people too!
“Jesus, dude,” says Warren. “What’s your deal?”
“What do you mean what’s my deal?” says Rick. “What’s MY deal? This is life and death! Life and death! And you’re wearing makeup! What’s YOUR deal?”
Warren backs up another step and raises his hands in front of him, palms out.
“It’s just a job, right? I think you should probably go home.”
Before he left for work tonight, Rick pulled all of Stacey’s things out of the closet, the drawers, and strewed them on the floor. The blouses and jeans, the lacey pink underwear from which her butt cheeks pushed like the lobes of an upside-down heart, the plain white ones, too, with the elastic wearing out. Also the kitchen things, and her green afghan, and her plastic jewelry because he’s never been able to buy her real jewelry. And lastly, a photo from a day hike two summers ago, their hair stiff with dried sweat, the starts of sunburns deep in their cheeks—that photo he held in his lap as he sat in the middle of her things extending outward around him like a makeshift spirit circle, and nothing moved, and there was no sound, and all he could feel was her absence, the complete lack of anyone else in his house except for him.
Rick had left all of it on the floor in some half-hearted act of defiance, and Stacey will have found her things there by now, and she won’t have understood why he did it, and she will have lifted them into boxes and trash bags, taken that as one more affirmation of why she should leave him, and there will be nothing waiting for him at home.
“Do you even believe in ghosts, Warren?” says Rick.
Warren shrugs. “I don’t know, maybe. Shit’s weird, right?”
Rick thinks about this for a moment, decides it to be true, and then nods. Shit’s weird. Understatement, perhaps. But true. It feels like fluid is swishing around in his head.
“You can’t stay out here,” says Warren, his voice soft and not scary at all. “You’re going to freeze to death.”
Rick stares past Warren’s painted face at the ski lift in the distance. During the day, it takes lazy tourists up the short mountain so they can buy neck pillows and rock candy at the gift shop and stare at an unimpressive view of Gatlinburg, this little strip of bad taste and fatty food lodged in the buttcrack of the valley. But from the top, if you look off to the right, away from Gatlinburg, you can see the Smoky Mountain National Park extending farther than the viewfinders can see, all those endless trees and valleys hunching up and down, still almost exactly as they were over 200 years ago, before the settlers cut and notched their logs, before the Cherokee footpath to North Carolina became Highway 441. And in the dark, the mountain goes as black as the sky, its hunched form a huge shadow darker than you ever thought a shadow could be, and the evenly spaced lights of the ski lift look like a sharply sloped air strip rising into the air, outlining the takeoff to heaven.
“Dude?” says Warren.
Rick sighs. “Fine, you can give me a ride,” he says. “But don’t try to help me walk or anything. I don’t need you smearing grease paint on my nice shirt.” Warren steps back to let Rick pull himself, with much concentration, to his feet.
“That was a good story, you know,” says Warren. “Bringing it back to the tour like that. I wish I had thought of it. Really creepy stuff, man.”
“Thanks,” says Rick.
Warren lights his lantern with a cigarette lighter, and they make their way down the slope of the cemetery, Warren’s cape flapping behind them, each step carrying them through the fog of their own breath. Warren’s free hand hovers behind Rick to catch him if he falls, and Rick can sense it there, a light pressure between his shoulder blades, prickling his skin, raising the hair on the back of his neck.