Sarah peered into the screen of her laptop and clicked ‘save image’, adding the picture to her files. Again a light flashed across the screen. Impossible. She clicked ‘save image’ for later comparison.
“Did you see anything then?” She sent an Instant Message to Sexy Lexi, her courageous online ghost hunter friend. Without waiting for a reply, Sarah returned to the first screen, riveted by the dull image of an empty storeroom.
Ghost cam ran twenty-four hours a day recording the musty interior of a disused printing house for intrepid ghost-watchers. The ancient building occupied a corner of downtown Manchester, on the other side of the world. Yet here Sarah sat, hoping for a ghost to appear in the warmth of a wet summer dawn in Oz.
The screen looked hazy. Sarah turned away and rubbed her eyes.
In the corner beside her bed the candle flame fluttered. The perfect atmosphere for ghost hunting had taken only a few moments to create. Alone in a small suburban flat, huddled in bed with her laptop with the triple flamed candle for light, she listened to the steady drip of rain from an overflowing gutter.
Sarah’s impatient fingers tapped a rapid tattoo on the keyboard as she waited for her friend’s reply.
What had she seen?
Her eyes might be playing up. Perhaps her glasses needed changing again. Too long in front of these damned computers ruined her eyesight and produced memorable headaches.
On the screen the storeroom door stood open. Boxes and bookshelves lined the room. A chair rested beside a filing cabinet. In the gloom of a winter’s evening, the shadows tumbled across the floor, thrown adrift by security lights.
Sarah blinked. She leaned forward and forgot to breathe. The faintest mist seemed to rise from the area of shadow behind the chair.
Clicking ‘save image’ she peered into the monitor, her heart raced, her stomach filled with butterflies. As she watched, an image of a figure appeared. A woman seemed to be sitting in the chair.
“Did you see what happened then? Come on you must have seen something!”
The Instant Message sent, Sarah returned to view the screen.
Nothing. The room looked empty.
There. In the chair, transparent, insubstantial, the figure remained.
She could check the pics later.
With no reply from Lexi, Sarah saved images she could share with her friend later.
The figure looked like a character from a Dickens novel. A fair-haired woman wore a shawl and dull coloured clothes, with her hair tied back in an old fashioned bun. She appeared to rest in the chair. Resting, relaxing or perhaps working?
Could this be the ghost? What did the archives say? A young woman is supposed to haunt the building. The girl fell, or did someone push her, down the stairs leading from this storeroom to the lower level.
Sarah rubbed her eyes.
The figure flinched.
As if a disturbance caught her attention the young woman’s head turned toward the computer cam.
Sarah leaned away from the screen. She caught herself before her shoulders struck the headboard of her bed. What was she thinking? Her mind was playing tricks. Even if the figure was a ghost, how could an apparition from another century know someone watched her.
“This is getting weird. Why don’t you answer me? Come on Lexi, this is really strange. Tell me what you see!”
Sarah tapped the keyboard. Why didn’t Lexi reply? Her status said ‘online’.
“I know I’m being foolish, but I swear I saw a ghost.”
Nothing. No reply. Sarah glanced back at the screen. A flutter of fear exploded in her stomach as she focused on the familiar storeroom. The ancient chair now appeared empty.
Sarah exhaled, breathed in again, and mocked her wild imagination.
She brushed a hand through her hair and laughed out loud.
The sound of her voice disturbed the quiet of her room. The rain no longer provided a background noise. The candle fizzed. One of the flames flickered and went out. Sarah shivered.
A cat yowled, a dog barked. Normal suburban noises. Reassuring. Familiar.
She looked at the screen, collected her nerves and told herself the case of butterflies came from living alone. Of course, she was prone to flights of imagination. The whole idea of ghost watching centred on creating an adrenaline rush.
A woman’s face looked out from the screen. The woman smiled.
She hit the reduce icon.
The screen returned to a screen of an idyllic waterfall, the image from her desktop. Even so, Sarah’s hair stood on end. Goosebumps erupted on her skin. Whoever she witnessed on the screen, Sarah didn’t want to know about her any more. Ghost or no ghost, her hours of sitting alone after midnight on either side of the planet waiting for a ghost to appear, ended in that moment.
“Hey Lexi, I don’t know what you are playing at, but I’ve seen enough. Real weird stuff. I’ll email you the pics.”
Nothing. No reply.
“Ok,” she said aloud, putting the laptop to one side as she pulled the blankets over her knees. Funny, the room was strangely cold. In the pre-dawn hours of a humid summer she usually threw off blankets to sweat the night out in front of a fan.
The laptop beeped.
Sarah reached out. Her hand froze before she could grab the console. The screen showed the gloom of the storeroom.
Lexi’s icon flashed blue, to indicate an incoming message.
“Yes!” Sarah wanted, needed to talk to her friend. She grabbed the laptop and enlarged the message box.
No message showed. Lexi’s icon vanished, as if Sarah had deleted all Lexi’s details from her list of contacts.
Sarah shivered. She didn’t want to look into the empty storeroom, not even for an instant. What she had witnessed would satisfy her interest in ghost hunting for a long time. Again, she closed the on-screen window, and sent Lexi an email through another channel.
“Lexi, what is going on? Are you still online, I have lost you!”
The message sent.
The room grew colder. The two remaining candle flames flickered. Sarah glanced around the shadows. The atmosphere no longer gave her a sense of adventure. The night closed in around the light from the laptop screen as a breeze teased the candle flames.
Where did the breeze come from? Tonight’s rain didn’t ride on a windswept storm. The night brought the clammy humidity mosquitoes loved.
Sarah threw back her blankets.
Did she leave the door open?
The candle spluttered and both flames drowned in hot wax. Sarah reached for the light. Enough is enough.
This is way out of hand.
Light would fix the feeling of being watched, of sitting alone on a dark night with the image of a ghost replaying like a movie inside her head.
With a flick of the light switch…
Smell of dust, ancient mould.
Sarah covered her mouth to stifle a scream that skittered up her throat.
Matches. Candle. In the corner. Light. She listened. Could she hear another person breathing? Did the beating of her own heart smother the distant drumming of a heavy metal band or did she hear a second heartbeat?
The laptop hummed. Power on. No light, only the glow from the laptop. Sarah hit control; alt; delete; over and over. The computer hummed, the screen remained a steady glow in the darkness.
A pale mist rose in the corner of Sarah’s room. The scent of death burned her throat.
The Lexi message icon blinked. Alive after death.
Sarah drew a breath, reading the words as her mind rejected the smell, the cold and the imagined presence of a ghost.
Her fingers flew over the keyboard. Needing no more light than the glow of the screen, Sarah typed her message.
“Lexi, so glad to see you back. What a night, you won’t believe what I have seen.”
The icon blinked as the message transferred through the ether. Sarah wrapped warm blankets around her. She always felt safer wrapped in the old familiar bedding from her home.
The Lexi message icon flashed blue. Sarah opened the message.
“Good evening, Miss Sarah, what a fine coincidence.”
“Lexi? What do you mean coincidence?” Sarah typed.
“I do beg your pardon. Who is Lexi? My name is Miss Sarah Stevenson. This is a most wonderful contraption. My, my, what wonders the new century has brought us.”
Sarah’s heart pounded in her chest. She dragged air into her lungs. Her mother’s maiden name was Stevenson. The scent of death faded and the room filled with the heavy aroma of lavender and rosemary.
“The new century?”
“So very exciting, Miss Sarah. I am to attend my first ball, this very night!”
“A ball? Sounds great.” Sarah typed, shaking from her head to her toes. She wanted to scream and yet an overwhelming sympathy for the ghost stilled her terror. The young girl who died in the printing house, the archive said, planned to attend her first ball the day she ‘fell’.
“I can barely sit still, and yet, Mr Johnson insists I renumber every item from this month’s invoices. I do believe he has no soul, the monster. When will I ever get my hair done and my gown prepared?”
“Your gown? Sarah, do you know what today is? What year this is?”
“Of course, Miss Sarah, it is nineteen hundred and three, January the 24th. What a strange question to ask!”
“It is just, we have celebrated the turn of the century too.”
“Of course you have, dear, we know the colonies are civilized. I understand you would celebrate.”
Sarah exhaled, still shaking. Today would be 24th January 2003.
Her fright lessened. One of her father’s friends claimed to talk to dead people. He said a soul who lost track of their purpose when they met with a sudden death, often wandered for years as a ghost.
Miss Sarah was trapped in the moment before her death.
Alone in the damp night Sarah sensed if she couldn’t help Sarah Stevenson find her way to whatever peace lay before her, the young girl might wander the lonely halls of the old printing house for another hundred years.
Huddled in the gloom of a rented room, alone in the rain, tears flowed over Sarah’s cheeks. To spend endless nights waiting for the close of a day that never arrived, was tragic.
“How long have you been waiting for tonight?” she asked. She wanted to sound sympathetic, but the keys of her computer gave no hint of emotion. Sarah held her breath, not from fright, this time, but from suspense.
“It is curious you should ask, Miss Sarah, if the truth be told, it strikes me as forever. I do not remember in my life such a tedious and monotonous day. Mr Johnson has not returned from lunch. There is something wrong. The press is quiet. I do believe even the copyboys have left the building. It is so very quiet.”
“It isn’t so strange, you know, Miss Stevenson. A great deal of time has passed since you arrived for work this morning.”
“Why, whatever do you mean, Miss Sarah?”
“Have you not thought it strange, the others haven’t come to tell you it is time to leave? Time to go to fetch your gown?” Sarah paused, bit her bottom lip and kept typing. “Sarah, you have been in the building for a hundred years!”
“Your words frighten me, Miss Sarah. I have goose pimples on my arms. Why would you want to scare me? I intend on enjoying a most wonderful night.”
Sarah sat in the dark and didn’t know what to say or do next. She wanted to reach out and give the poor girl a hug. Never in a million years did she want to scare Miss Sarah Stevenson.
“Please, Sarah, I don’t want to frighten you. I don’t know what to say, but I am sitting in my room in Australia talking to you through this modern typewriter, and today is one hundred years, to the day, from the time you fell down the stairs in that very building. Don’t you understand these machines didn’t exist when you were alive?”
Sarah peered into the screen at the empty storeroom. She watched a gloomy office, in a cold and miserable building where a frightened ghost might haunt the corridors forever. Unless Sarah, her namesake from another century, could convince the ghost to let go of her ties to this plane and move on.
“If I am to believe you, Miss Sarah, where am I to go? I don’t want to be alone forever. I want to go home, now.”
On the screen, the haze seemed to vanish. The figure returned to the chair. Shadows faded as the room grew darker.
Sarah watched and wept as the woman in the chair drew her shawl around quivering shoulders. Sarah Stevenson’s head bowed, her whole body shook with desperate sobs.
Sarah reached out and touched the screen of her laptop.
“Sarah, I am sorry. So sorry. I only wanted to help!”
The Lexi message icon blinked.
Sarah wiped the tears from her eyes and sniffed. She opened the message box.
Lexi wrote: “Hi Sarah. Sorry, I fell asleep. What a boring night. Maybe next time hey!”
The pale light of dawn seeped through rain drenched clouds. The chorus of boisterous magpies shattered the night’s peace.
Sarah rolled her shoulders and un-cricked her neck.
“I’ll send my pics. You won’t believe what you missed!” she typed, throwing back the blankets. The day promised summer warmth and high humidity. Sarah opened the window and breathed fresh air.
Her laptop beeped.
“Sarah, nothing came through. No text, no pics. Your files are empty. What have you been dreaming?”
The laptop screen flickered. Sarah stared at the storeroom. The figure in the chair looked into the distance. The girl’s shoulders no longer shook. As Sarah touched the screen, the figure turned her head and smiled. Sarah Stevenson reached out to a shadow draped stranger. The ghost of the young woman pushed to her feet and seemed happy to take the first step on her new journey.
“Dreaming? You know Lexi… No, never mind. What are we going to do today?”