#fridayflash: the haunted atheist

Mark Leslie Lefebvre's "Spirits" short story inspired me to write down this true(ish) tale that happened about twenty years ago. His fictional tale of a not-quite-a-ghost is a great example of "single serving" e-reading — I read it over lunch at work and got a nice break all in one go. The e-book version also contains a worthwhile afterword.

the haunted atheist


Once upon a time there was a woman who was an arts major, who read the newspaper horoscopes every day for fun, and who hated doing math in her head. When asked if she was religious, she would always say she was an agnostic, but that she felt it was important to study world mythologies since they informed so much modern literature.

The woman was dating a man who was a physicist, who declared that fiction was an inferior art form, and who could do rather complex math in his head. He was an atheist, and very proud of it.

Perhaps this makes it odder that he was the one who wound up haunted. Perhaps it is only poetic justice.

One day the man's place of work was burned down by an arsonist, and the business owner made the then-radical request that the employees work from home until he could find another suitable office space.

The atheist agreed, and set up a workspace in the living room of his small apartment. He spent all his daylight hours working in his living room. He spent all his evening hours as he always had, relaxing in his living room. He spent all his meal-times eating on the living room couch, because although there was a kitchen table in his small apartment, it was used as storage space and never had enough room to set a plate of food down on it.

So it went for months, and still the man's employer had not found a suitable office space.

One evening, when the woman had come over to have dinner with the man, he shakily asked if she believed in ghosts. She said she believed that ghosts were simply a natural phenomenon not yet scientifically explained.

The man swallowed. "Well, I think I've seen a ghost." He pointed towards the living room entrance that led to the hallway. "It was walking along there."

"When?" said the woman.

"Two nights ago."

"Ah." And she changed the subject.

The woman stayed over that night. About halfway between midnight and dawn, she was woken up by the man, who was sitting up in bed and trembling.

"It's here! It's back! Can't you hear it?"

The woman listened carefully. "No," she said. "I don't hear anything."

"Maybe it's a burglar, and now that he's heard us he's stopped moving."

"Maybe, but if it is, he's either going to leave or attack us, and if he's going to leave he's going to have to leave by the door, because none of the windows open far enough to let a person get out."

"Good point," said the man, and he gingerly got out of bed and picked up a baseball bat he'd got to threaten intruders with. "Follow me."

"But I don't have anything to defend myself against —" the woman started, and then realised that she already knew there was no burglar there. She got up and followed the man down the hall.

"Can you hear it?" the man whispered when they were halfway down the hall.

"No, nothing."

"There it is! It just went by, this white light..."

"I didn't see anything."

They reached the entrance to the living room. "It's moving around the room, very fast," the man said.

"I still can't see anything," the woman said.

The man stuck his hand into the living room. "The air is colder here," he said. "That's one sign of a ghost, right? Cold spots?"

"Yes," the woman said, "but on the other hand, we're standing close together in a narrow hallway, reaching into an open room. The air is bound to be colder in the room than it is in this part of the hallway."

The man was upset that the woman had come up with an analysis of the local heat sources and exchanges when he was the one who was good at physics. "That makes sense," he said with as much authority as he could muster.

He watched the ghost whiz around the room for another minute or two while the woman waited with him. "It's fading now," he announced.

"Tell you what," said the woman. "I'm falling asleep on my feet."

"How can you be, when we just saw a ghost?"

"You saw the ghost, not me. As I was saying, tell you what — let's go to the kitchen and have a nightcap, then try to get back to sleep. The ghost or whatever it is doesn't seem to be in a hurry to harm anyone."

She took one step back to reach the kitchen entrance and flicked on the light. "Let me pour the drinks," she said. "You're still all shaking and freaked out."

The man agreed and followed her into the kitchen. The woman was getting the bottle of whisky down from the top shelf when the man cried out.

"Is it back?" said the woman.

"That's what it looked like!" said the man, pointing at the uncurtained kitchen window.

The woman turned and saw the man's reflection in the glass. She thought it over while she got the drinks ready. Meanwhile the man decided that "what it meant" was that he was actually dead. Obviously all of this was taking place in his dying brain. Really he had died at some point, probably recently, although it was hard to tell because all of his observations were being interpreted by his dead or dying brain.

"That means you're not real," he said, turning to the woman. The woman gave him one of the drinks and clinked his glass with hers.

"I think you've made an echo," she said, taking a sip. "The path you said the ghost was taking — it was moving from the stereo to the computer desk to the couch, then back to the stereo again, right?"

"Very quickly," said the man, gulping at his drink. "It was almost a blur."

The woman nodded. "But that's what you do every day," she said. "You work at the desk, you relax and eat on the couch, and you play music constantly."

"An echo," the man said.

"That's the way I see it. Much more logical than telling me I'm dead or nonexistent."

"It's one explanation," the man said. He stared into his drink and didn't seem very happy with the implications.

The woman shrugged, finished her drink, and went back to bed. The atheist did as well.

He never mentioned this or any other ghost ever again.