Twice a year we invite leading authors to select from submissions of short fiction and poetry on a particular theme for the Showcase section of Mslexia magazine. Our themes for 2024 will be announced at the end of the year, in the meantime take a look at one of our 'Ghost' themed stories...

Boston, 1924 

I am aware that I’m doing this for the wrong reasons. I’m not doing it for the money, although there’s a reward of $5,000 for anyone who can fool them. That is, anyone who can summon a spirit without them working out how they did it. There’s a panel from the Scientific American, a group of psychologists and scientists, men who want desperately to narrow their eyes and shake their heads, whisper to each other through tight lips, Clearly it’s a trick with the mirrors. There’s somebody hiding in the closet, banging on the door.  

I’m not doing it for the fame, either, because people already know my name. Perhaps I should be tired of it all: the weight of responsibility, the interest and the intrigue. People who recognise me from the papers are desperate to believe that it’s true, that I can contact their loved one and bring them a message – whatever it is that they need, a declaration of love, a final goodbye, forgiveness. 

Why am I entering the prize then? Subjecting myself to the inspection of one Professor William McDougall, representative of the panel, who will march into my house and partake in my séance, doing everything he can to trip me up in the process. 

I’m doing it because I want the men who think they know the world to be wrong. I can show them something they can’t understand. It is reason enough. 

My name is Margery Crandon, and I am a world famous medium. I have reached into that vast plane that exists beyond ours, and tugged on the thread of life. I have put my ear to the door behind which the departed reside and called their names, heard them speaking back to me. I have peered through the fluttering veil and grasped onto something slippery, like holding the shape of water itself; felt its energy slide through me, the proof of it oozing out from my skin. I have lain down at the altar of spiritualism and let it use my body like a vessel. 

Or – have I? Some people say that I’m a fraud, that I’m pretending. It is not true until the men say it is. So I must show them what I am made of. McDougall knocks on the front door at the agreed time, nine o’clock, and it’s a cloudy night where the moon cannot be made out and there’s an agitated wind that whispers at the corners of the windows.

I asked the maid to count to 60 before opening the door. He strides into my parlour with forceful footsteps and a gait that’s too aware of itself. This is a man of science. A psychology professor. With a round, protruding chin and hat pulled low over deep-set eyes. And yet I can already tell that he wants me to change his mind. It’s not that he believes me, in what I do – it’s that he has the capacity to believe. All good men of science should be prepared to find out what they don’t want to know. 

‘Good evening, Professor,’ I say, shaking his hand – and his grip is tight, but mine is tighter. He looks around the room, my space, and I see him taking it all in: the plush crimson curtains that drape the walls; candles that spatter and burn in all corners; lacquered round table made from a dark mahogany; the red softness I’ve cultivated, like a womb. 

‘May I?’ he asks, as he moves his podgy fingers over every fold of fabric, opening every cupboard to examine its contents. I try not to wince. It’s a violation, he knows it. My face is calm as he picks up and looks into a mirror that once belonged to my mother, taps on the clock face with a sharp rap. Through the dim light I can see the fingermarks he leaves on the candlestick. He is nervous. 

When he’s finished in my room, he asks for a tour of the rest of the house, particularly the adjacent rooms where I know he suspects someone might be able to hide and knock on the wall at the correct times. I picture my maid Dorothy, crouching under some desk to put her old arthritic fist to the wall, and I smile. ‘Of course.’ 

We walk slowly together around the house – my house – where he will find nothing out of the ordinary. I watch him examine every closet, trunk and desk, not asking for my permission as he lifts lids to reveal only blankets, pulls open drawers stuffed only with papers. Under the beds he finds fluffy grey gatherings of dust and mouse droppings, an old handkerchief embroidered with lilies. 

When he is done, he dismisses the servants and instructs them to return no earlier than midnight. Dorothy looks at me with a quizzical expression and I nod to her. McDougall bolts the door behind them with a resounding clang, producing sealing wax from his pocket, which he melts with a candle and presses onto the lock with a thumbprint. He’s heard the stories and is taking no chances. I don’t blame him. But still, it’s amusing to watch him try. 

McDougall steps back to admire his handiwork and the house is quiet, creaking with the wind. His next task is to finish his search of my parlour, which he does methodically. I don’t think he knows what he’s looking for; or if he’d even know if he found it. He both does and doesn’t want to discover something to explain it all away. But the harder he looks, the more I sense his resignation for what’s to come. 

I must prepare myself too. I must sweep superfluous thoughts from my mind and regain focus on the task. It is like rolling back great blustery clouds to reveal the moonlight, a calmness I must embrace or else it won’t work. 

‘I am ready,’ he says, but I don’t think he is. 

The candles must be extinguished and I do it, one at a time, feeling his eyes linger on me as I move around the room. At last I sit next to him at the round table and blow out the last remaining flame, so that we are in complete darkness. On the wall behind me the clock ticks on. 

How should I explain what it is I do? I take the hands of my guests. I hold them tight and don’t let go, no matter how cold or slick they get. I tell them that they can’t let go of me, whatever happens, ‘or it will break the spiritual bonds’.

I close my eyes, although it is so dark it doesn’t matter. But it helps. I peel apart the clouds and call out to the spirits. Together, we wait for them to reply.

For a while there is nothing. McDougall’s breathing is laboured and I listen to the wheezy rasp of it. He is getting old. Anything could happen in this room and he would have to report it back to the panel at the Scientific American. I could break down and tell him that this is all an act, one that’s already gone too far. He’d like that, I think. It would make sense to him. Tears and a woman in her place, a lying one at that.

What else could happen in the dark? I could slip off my loosely-buttoned dress, silk with a collar, and when I strike the match he’d have to look upon my naked body, gleaming in the soft light. He might like that more; the men always do.

Or else – I could use my knee to open the secret drawer hidden within the table and take out my ivory pocketknife, sleek and sharp, and thrust it into his chest, and listen to the wet gurgle of his last breath. Or slice it across his neck, as light and easy as if I were buttering toast for my supper. I could say it was the spirits who did it. There was somebody in the afterlife who wanted him dead; it wasn’t me. What would they think?

But I don’t do any of those things. The air in the room shudders and shifts around us. I can feel where every source of warmth and coldness is coming from, hear the dull howl of the wind outside. I call to the spirits again, louder and more insistent. I have to sound commanding; that is as much a part of it as saying the words themselves.

There are five loud bangs on the table and I feel McDougall’s hand jump in mine. A moment, and then he speaks in a sharp voice. ‘The table! It’s rising. Is that you doing that?’

He pulls his hands away from mine to feel underneath the tabletop, but I snatch them back. ‘I told you, you need to hold onto me.’ He has to know how this works. Who is in control. 

After a few seconds the table drops back down onto the rug with a thud. Suddenly a voice comes from the other side of the room. Hoarse, deep. My beloved brother Walter, my spirit guide. 

‘There is someone here to see you,’ the voice says. 

Next to me McDougall rustles. ‘Me?’ he asks.

‘Yes,’ I say, somewhat breathlessly. ‘There is a presence in the room. Someone small. A child?’ 

McDougall’s hand freezes in mine. He is completely still now. I hold us there, waiting, until it’s almost unbearable. I’m holding my breath until it hurts. From the corner of the room there comes a soft whimpering, quiet at first and then a little louder. 

‘There is a child here to see you, Professor. Do you know who this could be?’ 

McDougall doesn’t say anything. I can feel how still he holds himself as the snivelling in the corner ebbs and flows. There’s a sniff, the sound of a snotty nose. 

‘Isaac?’ I ask it, and the man beside me makes a noise in between a cry and a cough. 

‘Your son,’ I say. ‘Your son is here.’ 

I wait for McDougall to turn towards the corner and face his child – but he doesn’t move at all. And this is when I know that I have him. The noises continue for a while longer, and when they are gone I am ready for the finale. 

I start to speak but I do not know what I’m saying, could not recall the words that come from my lips. Footsteps in the corner, knocks from the wall to the hallway, which he knows must be empty. My bell on the dresser is ringing, jangling as if it were outside being buffeted by the wind. It is all these physical things, but it is also a feeling. The sensation that we are not alone in the room. 

He might think my eyes are closed but I am looking at him through the darkness, searching for the space where his body is frozen in fear, gripping onto him firmly with my hand, and I am smiling. 

When it is finished, I let go of McDougall and come back to myself with a deep exhale. I stand and relight the candles with steady fingers. The flame flickers into life and everything is momentarily bright and red. I am fully clothed and the man sitting at my table looks somewhat dishevelled. He is quiet on the way out, looking around the room warily, as if he might find my deceased brother Walter standing in the corner. Or something else, something that he does and does not want to see. 

‘Would you care for a drink?’ I ask, but he says he would not. 

He cuts open the wax on the front door, and I hear his sigh of relief as the cool air hits him. 

He will come back, with more of the men in tow – I am sure of it. They will do everything in their power to disprove me, to stop me from winning the prize. The future unfolds in my mind and I can see all the things they will accuse me of; how they will constrain my hands and legs to prevent me from moving; the humiliation I will have to bear to prove them wrong. They will plant objects in my parlour – things to make it seem as though I have been pretending. It is easier that way. 

But for now I am triumphant. McDougall takes one last look behind him as he steps out into the blustering night. I stand firm in the doorway, hands ready to close him out, and return to my haunted house. He wanted me to change his mind, but now he is not so sure. 

I watch him walk down the street by the glow of the streetlights and then he is out of my sight and I am glad to be alone.

BETHANY WREN is the Head of Content & Events for a legal careers website, and balances her writing with working full time. She discovered her love of short stories while studying a creative writing MA at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her work has previously been published in New Writing Scotland. Outside of writing, she enjoys life in Scotland with all the adventures (and midges!) it brings, drinking a lot of coffee, and K-pop.

Read all our Ghost-themed stories and poems in Issue 98 of Mslexia.

Mslexia Magazine - Issue 98
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