Gone too soon
Right, where were we? Aye, the story about the wee girl.
She stood at the end of the corridor, staring back at me pleadingly, beckoning me to follow her. And I did. Through the building, past closed offices, and down the stairs until we arrived at the main entrance. By the time I got to reception she was already outside the door, eagerly waving at me to hurry up. That’s when I heard someone call my name. not the ghost, but the living.
When I turned around, I saw Strother accompanied by a woman I’d never seen before. What you’re thinking now is what my first thought was. What are they doing in the building after midnight? But I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for that answer.
Because I hadn’t followed the wee girl that night at the university, she continued to follow me, becoming like a second shadow. It was hard to ignore her because she knew I could see her. I don’t know what had possessed me the night she first appeared to follow her. If you acknowledge them, they become more determined to pull your attention.
It didn’t take my resolve long to break. This wee girl wasn’t my first persistent ghost, but when I’d went to university I promised myself I wouldn’t become involved in their business. For the four years of my undergraduate I’d stuck to that vow, but there was something different about the girl. I don’t care that horror films these days have made them synonymous with fear, the reality is that someone has killed a bairn, stolen their life from them before they could live it. They’re to be pitied, not feared.
I left the office early one evening with the mind to do what she wanted, to follow her wherever she wanted to go. If that sounds foolish, even dangerous, it’s because it is. Don’t do it at home, kids. There had been a few times during my teenage years where I’d landed in serious trouble after following a ghost, hence why I quit during my degree. But I was an adult, at least that’s what I thought at the time, and at the first sign of trouble I’d leave.
I wasn’t that familiar with the city. I’d only been living there for about a month when she had appeared, but I followed her anyway. We walked away from the high street towards the suburbs, the neighbourhoods where they had oak trees and children’s parks. She was sprightly for most of the journey, skipping happily down the streets, ringlets bouncing from her shoulders. It was only when we started nearing a derelict piece of land that her pace slowed, the spring in her step faded.
The only way I can describe the place would be like a back-alley people use as a dump, but rather than uneven cobblestone, it’s a field. More like a place for fly tipping and other illegal goings on than somewhere to walk the dog. Winter was nearing and so even though it wasn’t late, it was still dark. Some streetlights were out, and the ones that were working barely lit up anything with their sickly amber glow. Adjacent to the field was a housing estate, some of the windows had bars on them, back fences had anti-theft spikes. To put it politely, it wasn’t a place you’d want to find yourself living.
The wee girl continued across the field and as soon as my foot went from the concrete of the pavement to the grass I was thrown into another world. It’s not uncommon, and to this day I still don’t know what it is. Sometimes, if you near a place associated with a ghost, you’ll get glimpses, memories, of their life, of moments that are important to their story. I still have full control, but my eyesight changes – rather, what I see changes.
I continued to follow the girl across the field, but everything around me had shifted. All of the streetlights were working, none were dull or flickering. The bars on the windows of the houses had gone, the fences were brand new and freshly painted, and all of the rubbish that accumulated on the grass had disappeared. What really gave it away was the cars parked in the driveways and streets. They were all smaller than the cars I was used to, and all had a box like quality rather than the smooth, stream-lined cars of my own time. If I hadn’t already been convinced about the time shift, then looking more closely at the number plates confirmed my suspicions.
Despite the functioning streetlights there was a gloom to the air, as if the entire place was already tainted with the sin of a crime. Suddenly, not so far in the distance, I heard a car door slam. Immediately I stopped dead, my heartbeat pounding in my ears. Standing very still I scanned my surroundings, looking for the source of the noise. There was a car at the top of the field, stopped on the road.
Its headlights were switched off, as was the engine. It was hard to hear anything over my own heartbeat. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had moved because this wasn’t my time, it wasn’t even real, but it’s hard to convince your mind otherwise. A man had got out of the car and went around to the boot. Vaguely I could hear a rustling sound but I was too far away for it to be anything but a whisper. Eventually he slammed the boot closed.
He left the car and strode onto the field, right to the centre where the light didn’t reach. It became harder to see him, he was only a shadow, an outline. What was unmistakeable was that he was carrying a shovel and something that was wrapped in black plastic flung over his shoulder, and the way it moved was unnatural. The bag fluttered, pulsated, but whatever was inside didn’t. It could’ve been a carpet, but I think you’ve guessed by now it wasn’t.
I could’ve fooled myself into believing it was the remnants of a rug, but the sound it made when he threw it down on the ground forced me to face the truth. I was almost sick. Reluctantly I looked over to my companion and the guilt weighed down on me. I had ignored her for days, refused to acknowledge or help her because I thought that my life was more important. At least I had one.
He began to dig the ground, with sickeningly practiced ease. He was so far away from the road, and the housing estate, that no one would’ve seen him with any useful detail. To this day I still think burying a body in the middle of a field is audacious, but perhaps he knew something I didn’t. I continued to watch until he’d dug the shallow grave. In that time no one had peered from their windows, or arrived home, or even walked their dog.
He threw the bag into the hole like it was nothing, like it was a carpet. In those few moments his face came into focus, and at the time I seared the details into my memory. But memories fade, and these days the only thing I can remember about that man was the crooked bend to his nose, like he’d broken it more than once, and never had it fixed properly.
The past began to dissolve around me, melting into the present. Before it could fade completely, I snatched a glance at the number plate of that car. The ghost was still there, as was her body beneath the dirt. The leaves were scattered around the grass beneath her feet, stretching the entirety of the abandoned field, yet such an autumnal night had never been so gloomy.
Do you know him? I asked her gently. She nodded in reply, a shallow movement of her head, barely enough to send ripples through her ringlets. My eyes began to sting, for the injustice, for the waste of a life. No matter how many ghosts I’ve seen since, or before, every encounter is poignant, and I remember every detail about that girl, more so than the man who took her life. Her name came to me like a whisper on the wind. Abigail Greyson.
Pulling myself together I took out my phone, swapped the sim card, and phoned the non-emergency police number. When a woman picked up, I told her all of the details of what I’d just seen, in my best English accent, which even to me, wasn’t believable. After I’d relayed the information about the location and the number plate of the car, I hung up.
Before I left that field, put that ghost to rest, I went over to the spot where Abigail’s body lingered beneath the surface and gathered the autumn leaves in a pile, perhaps as a mark of respect, or a marker for the police if they decided to look. I didn’t know how long it would take them, if they would even listen to my suspiciously anonymous tip, all I could do was hope. I stood there for a moment in silence, hands clasped in front, for the life taken before it was due. Then, before anyone could see me, I left.
You can verify the details if you don’t believe me. It should come under the freedom of information act. Failing that you could always look in the archives of local, and even national, papers and news outlets. That’s how I know the police found her. What wasn’t ideal was that I found this out in a meeting at the university, one that Strother had arranged.
He played a clip from one of the local news stations. A segment that covered the decade long history and eventual discovery of Abigail Grayson. She went missing on Halloween, dressed as a China doll. She was seven years old.
The anonymous tip that had the police baffled was mentioned numerous times over the report, asking that person to make themselves known, as it was thought they were a witness who, after ten years, had admitted what they’d seen. The culprit, a man named Richard Cogan, had been taken into police custody due to the anonymous tip about his number plate. My jaw tightened when I saw his mugshot appear on the screen. The crooked nose was all I needed to see to confirm he was the man in my memory.
He’d been arrested by the police, and thankfully they’d found evidence that he’d committed the crime. I wish I could say that was the case with all the ghosts I’ve become involved with. At the time I believed there was justice in my strange world, and that it would see him sentenced for his crime.
Once the clip was finished Dr Strother turned to the three of us with an expectant gaze and asked for thoughts about the anonymous tipper. Why this particular case had caught his interest was probably down to my own bad luck, but there aren’t many incidents of cold cases being solved over anonymous tips, especially after a decade. Ken asked Strother the same question. Why the interest? Steph piped in stating that it’d be unusual for someone to remember the exact number plate and location of the body after so long, unless it’d been the murderer himself. Hence, there was a chance the tipper was psychic. Strother agreed with her logic, and stated that he’d shown us the clip to boost morale, to illustrate that our research was needed to once for all prove whether people with special abilities were real.
I suppose I should’ve felt flattered. There was a part of me, the psychopath part, that wanted to stand up and correct them that I wasn’t psychic. Thankfully, my self-preservation was stronger than that part. At the time I sat in that chair, in the meeting room without windows, afraid. It was like I was a deer separated from my herd, and in the midst of lions. Instead of running, I decided to pretend to be one of them, and I was so convincing that even the lions believed it.
I went to Strother’s funeral. I still can’t tell if it was a good idea. It was a cold and miserable day, the time of year when you can feel more winter on the air than autumn. It started raining through the service, I could hear it hitting the windows, attempting to drown out the insincere words of the preacher, or whatever he was. It was held at the crematorium, his coffin on display throughout.
There was hardly anyone there. I think I counted just over a dozen. An old woman sat in the front row, the place usually reserved for family and close friends. Beside her was a woman whom I recognised because she’d visited the university once or twice in the time I was there, to see Strother. That woman’s name is Alice, Strother’s sister. I could see the family resemblance. Giant’s blood must have run in his family because she was tall, and slender to match. Her face was softer than his was, her eyes rounder, and her hair lighter. The roots were already white, and she dyed it blonde to hide it.
It was during that service than an awful thought popped into my head. The university hadn’t given me the answers I craved about IPP. Could Strother have told his family anything? Could he have kept documents amongst his personal belongings, which they would have? I think the more pertinent question was could I ask them at his funeral?
I know we don’t know each other well, but I’m that kind of person. I’m not great with timing, as you can probably tell. During the wake, which was held in a quaint pub a few miles’ down the road, I approached Alice, hoping she wouldn’t recognise me. I was afraid that if I recognised her, then it would be reciprocated. Thankfully, I’d inflated my own importance.
When I approached her she asked me who I was. I thought about giving her Steph’s name, but thought that might not be appropriate if she turned up later. Instead, I told the truth. She didn’t recognise my name either but knew that her brother had a PhD student. After exchanging condolences, I told her that I was looking into the research, more specifically who had funded it. my mentioning it made her uncomfortable, and for a few moments she refused to meet my gaze. She quietly admitted that he’d refused to speak about the entire thing, and assuming it was a sensitive subject, she hadn’t pressed him.
I asked her if the family had kept his work, his files, folders, laptops. She confirmed they had, but that none of it was organised. Graciously she said I was welcome to look if I wished. We exchanged contact information and I slipped away when a distant relative came to speak with her.
There were two faces who’d been absent during the service, and again at the wake. To be honest I wasn’t sure if they even knew he’d died. Where I was spared the glare of the spotlight, Ken and Steph weren’t. Their careers went up in flames just as quickly as Strother’s did. I know what you’re thinking. Why don’t I just seek them out and ask them about the funding? I would if I knew where they were, or even if they’re alive. Just because I saw Strother’s obituary, doesn’t mean I’d see there’s. Perhaps in my journey to the truth our paths will cross again.
I haven’t contacted Alice Strother. I thought it’d let the dust settle on that family’s grief for a few days before my interference no doubt riles it up. Perhaps it’s cowardice. I’ll keep you updated.