The Ghost of John
Have you seen the ghost of John?
Long white bones and the rest all gone
Ooh,ooh-ooh-oh, oh, oh
Wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on?
Behind folklore and legend, lies truth. Sometimes it is pretty truth. Sometimes it is partial truth. Sometimes it is ugly truth. Many folk songs have ugly, disturbing truth hidden behind their seemingly innocuous facade.
Consider the nursery rhyme, “Rock-a-bye baby.”
It starts out nice enough:
“Rock-a-bye baby, in the treetop
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock”
And then it turns subtly sinister.
“If the bow breaks, the cradle will fall
and down will come baby, cradle and all”
Death. It finds its way into even the most innocent things. It’s woven into the very fabric of life; the one thing that every person on earth will experience at one point or another is DEATH.
I tell you this story, not because I want to, but because I have to. You see, some curiosities are better left unresolved. As the old adage goes, “Curiosity killed the cat.” Of course, the standard rebuttal is that “Satisfaction brought him back.” However, cats have nine lives, don’t they? We don’t.
Odd, how you can begin reading deeply into myth and legend, folklore, and it all begins to unravel itself. Curiosity of course killed our feline friend, and of course satisfaction brought him back, considering that folklore claims that he has nine lives. Folklore intersects and contradicts until it all begins to unravel at the seams. Or perhaps it knots and tangles itself up?
Behind folklore and legend, lies some sort of truth. It’s rather terrifying if you consider the implications of that. Something existed at some point to cause these stories. Why, in every part of the world, were there ancient stories of dragons? From whence sprang the terror of the bloodsucking vampire? If you read between the lines, it all begins to come undone. I fear that we may one day truly unravel these fictional tales, and find the fact behind them.
And I fear that the truth will be worse than the fiction.
I’m rambling. I apologize for that.
I’m thirty-seven years old. The events of which I’m about to tell happened twenty-seven years ago. They rendered me blind, until two years ago when I became the candidate for a corneal replacement surgery. The surgery was successful.
Oh, how I wish it hadn’t been. I’m in no direct hurry to complete this memoir, but nonetheless I don’t want to waste time; time has a rather nasty habit of running out faster than anticipated when you do. And I am on a schedule. My deadline by my count is this evening, around eleven o’clock. Or perhaps one o’clock tomorrow morning. These things don’t have a set of guidelines I can follow or read through. Eleven is the safe number to assume. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. You may be wondering what is setting this deadline; I’ll get to that soon enough. For now I’m going to explain the circumstances behind me losing my vision for the better part of three decades.
When I lost my sight, I was only ten years old. The hospital said it was corneal burn trauma. They didn’t believe my story. The shrink assumed I had subconsciously made up my story as a coping mechanism, and simply blocked out the “true” accident.
I can say now just as I could twenty-seven years ago that it was not corneal burn trauma. I did not make this story up to cope with an accident that didn’t happen. This is the true story of how I lost my sight, and how I am going to die tonight at either eleven o’clock or one o’clock.
The first time I heard the song Ghost of John was about a week before Halloween, when I was nine. I loved it. The sense of melancholy, the hint of dread. For that week, the song was all I could think about. I hummed it constantly. Sang it under my breath often. I was a child who grew up reading everything horror from Poe to Lovecraft to Stephen King. The song spoke to me.
Halloween came and went, as it does, and I forgot about the song soon after. A year went by. I became ten, and acquired a vested interest in learning to pilot. I read books about it, I watched movies about it. It became my absolute dream to become a pilot. I tell you this not to illustrate the bitter irony in my losing my vision not long after that, but to explain just how obsessive I could become over one subject when it captured my interest.
Halloween drew nearer. My best friend, Ivan, and I would stay up late on weekends telling each other horror stories. Ivan had the first two Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books and I had the third one and a collection of Edgar Allen Poe short tales, so there was almost always material to draw upon. Sometimes his Dad would set up his four-person tent and a couple of cots and a campfire and we would tell stories around it. Most times we were in my living room or his telling our stories to the light of the TV. Sometimes we watched horror movies, but they didn’t have the same magic as a good scary story.
I heard the song again a couple of weeks before that Halloween. Back to singing it. Ivan had moved in from Illinois in November of the previous year, so he hadn’t been privy to my previous obsession with the song. It wasn’t as bad this time around as it was the previous year, but I sang it often enough for him to notice. It turned out that he had heard it back in Pawnee as well. It was a common song.
We were sitting in his living room when he noticed me humming it.
“Are you humming Ghost of John?” he asked.
“I am,” I said, “it’s a great song. Creepy.”
Ivan smiled. “I thought I recognized that. It’s really creepy. But I bet the real Ghost of John is even creepier than the song.” I grinned a little and said, “I don’t think he’s real. But even if he were, he seems nice enough in the song. He’s not sad. It says so in the song.” Ivan eyeballed me for a second, and then quietly said “not being sad doesn’t mean you’re nice. I heard from my uncle that there’s a way to summon the ghost of John.” I gave a rather loud snort of laughter at that, and then asked “yeah, but didn’t this same uncle also say that Bigfoot and werewolves are real?”
Ivan, looking affronted, opened his mouth to reply but before he could make a sound the hallway light came on. We turned to look at it. Ivan’s Dad walked down the hallway and, looking annoyed, said “hey guys, it’s almost two in the morning. I think it’s time for you two to go to bed. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Alright Dad,” “Goodnight Mr. T” in unison, and then I was laying on one couch and Ivan the other.
Here’s the part where I’m supposed to say that Ivan dropped right off to sleep while I tossed and turned for hours wondering if the Ghost of John really was real.
That didn’t happen. First off, it’s borderline impossible to toss and turn on a couch. There’s just no room. Second, I completely forgot about the Ghost of John thing when Ivan’s dad came down the hall. It’s rare for him to have to say anything to us for not behaving, and he had told us to be in bed by twelve-thirty. We were caught red-handed. Being admonished by any friend’s Dad is awkward and embarrassing, but being admonished by Ivan’s dad was worse. After that, I was asleep in minutes.
The next day we were busy all day, and didn’t bring up the Ghost of John once. I think I started to at one point, during a lull in church, but then the preacher (of the hellfire and brimstone sort) began to boom out condemnations against the upcoming pagan holiday and all who would take part in it. That’s all that preacher ever did, was boom. A short, fat man of about seventy, nobody really liked him. Unfortunately, in a town as small as ours, there was only one church to go to, and everybody was religious.
After the morning service, we left to go to a pumpkin carving party hosted by a local bakery. They charged five dollars entry and collected the pumpkin pulp to bake into pies. There were inflatables, a tent with a big TV playing horror movies (an additional two dollars, and you had to be fifteen to enter), and lots of games to play. We were there for most of the day, before leaving at nightfall to go back to church.
The plan was for me to ride home with my parents after the service, but they never showed up. I found out later that night that my brother had come down with a stomach virus. As such, Ivan and his family gave me a ride home, though not after his dad spoke with the preacher. Mr. T had arrived about a month too late last year to catch the fear-mongering that Father Davis spewed around Halloween. I distinctly remember Davis’s look of apprehension when he noticed him approaching. Everyone knew Davis was a racist dinosaur, and I imagine that George Thompson looked like the very definition of “bad news” walking towards him.
You see, Mr. T was a black man, and back in the mid eighties he was about six-foot-four, muscled, mustachioed, and had an afro that added a good three or four inches to his height. Since then he’s put on a good amount of weight, shaved all the hair off, and shrunk a bit. I know this because I spoke to him last year when I went looking for Ivan. Ivan, who I fear may be dead. Ivan, who I never found. Ivan, who got me into this whole mess. I don’t blame him, of course. We were kids, and I’m as much at fault as him, if not moreso.
I’ve long since forgotten the conversation Mr. T had with Father Davis. What I do remember is how Father Davis reacted to Mr. T. He seemed to almost shrink, looking down at the floor and speaking to his shoelaces. I remember Mr. T saying something along the lines of “needlessly scaring kids,” and, at one point when Father Davis looked annoyed and cut him off, “DON’T interrupt me.”
I wish I could remember more, because me and Ivan were completely blown away by it, and both found it hilarious. I remember Father Davis’s sneer when Mr. T began talking to him. I remember how quickly Mr. T wiped that sneer off of his face. I remember him looking at the ground and blubbering out some form of apology, and I remember how his fat cheeks and jowl were quivering when we walked off.
I remember a lot of visual details from those last few weeks. For twenty-five years they were all I had, and I went over them with a fine-toothed comb.
It wasn’t until the next weekend that we got back on the subject of the Ghost of John. Ivan’s uncle Dale was on a business trip in a large city a little over two hours away, and would be able to make a visit during the weekend.
Uncle Dale believed in Bigfoot, werewolves, and the Ghost of John. Uncle Dale believed curiosity killed the cat. And if you tried to tell Uncle Dale that satisfaction brought the cat back to life, he would remind you that cats have nine lives to waste, and we only have one. Everyone liked Uncle Dale, superstitions and all, and Ivan and I were excited to learn he was coming that weekend.
I went with Ivan after school that Friday, and Uncle Dale showed up a few hours after that. Mr. T set up the tent, and we all camped out. I didn’t know then that it would be the last time I ever went camping.
We started out with scary stories from the books, and then the two adults started making up their own. Most of the time they weren’t as good as the ones in the books, but some of them were. It was late when Ivan asked Dale about the Ghost of John. Uncle Dale smiled, and said “What if I told you that there’s more to the song?” No one said anything, and then, quietly, Dale began to sing it.
“Have you seen the Ghost of John? Long white bones, and the rest all gone. Oh, ooh-ooh-oh, wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on?”
He kept on, slowly getting louder until concluding in a loud, dramatic low note.
“Now, that’s just a song. It’s a scary song, right?” We both agreed. “But there’s more to it. There’s more to everything than meets the eye, but especially to innocent little songs like this one. Any old story has some truth to it. A lot of them do. There’s a real Ghost of John. And you can see him, if you’d like.”
At this point Ivan elbowed me in the side, and winked at me.
The details of what Uncle Dale told us elude me. It’s been the better part of thirty years, after all, since then. I remember the basics; the person who wants to meet the Ghost of John must go into the woods at exactly eleven o’clock on All Hallow’s Eve (as he put it), carrying a certain type of flower. When this person hears a crow cawing, he must close his eyes and sing the song. When he’s done with the song, he opens his eyes. If he did it right, he won’t know for some time. John won’t show up until the thirteenth hour– one o’clock in the morning– and then he will speak to the person, if they’re still there.
“But be careful not to make eye contact,” Uncle Dale warned. “If you do, one of two things will happen. If you’re lucky, you’ll never be able to see again. If you’re not… he kills you and keeps your soul.” Then he smiled at us, and added “If I were you two, I just wouldn’t try it. Too damn risky, right?” We both agreed it was too risky, but I didn’t believe a word of it.
Uncle Dale died not long after that. He came to visit me in the hospital after what happened and apologized for telling that story to me. I couldn’t see, but he sounded like he might have been crying. After that he flew home, parked in his garage, and ate a bullet. His body sat there for four days before anyone found him. He didn’t leave a note.
Halloween came that Friday night. Both of our families did trick or treating together. A student in our class’s parents were having a Halloween party for her classmates. Me and Ivan were invited, and our parents dropped us off there at nine o’clock.
Around ten, Ivan brought up the song.
“You know, if you don’t believe it, you probably wouldn’t have a problem going into the woods and testing it. If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t,” Ivan said at around ten-fifteen. “It’s just dumb to go into the woods period,” I came back with.
Other kids joined in, and by ten-thirty I had been convinced.
I was never one to back down from a challenge, and besides – I was curious.
This girl was named Bethanne, and her parents were both doctors. Her house was tucked back into the woods, so it wasn’t a challenge to find them. Her mom was an avid gardener, and happened to have the flower I needed.
At ten-fifty-nine I was at the treeline. All I had was the flower. I had been walking for about ten minutes before I realized that if I wasn’t careful I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. So I stopped and waited. I remember being glad that my watch had glowing hands.
At around twelve-fifteen, I heard a crow cawing, and closed my eyes and began to sing. When I finished, nothing happened. I sat there with my eyes closed, waiting. Finally I opened my eyes and checked my watch. Twelve thirty. Only another half hour, and then I could go back. At twelve forty I noticed a particularly disgusting smell. It was faint, but it was there. I didn’t know what it was then, but I do now – decay.
The smell was getting stronger when I heard a faint sound above the breeze. Was that – singing? I wasn’t sure. It sounded like it was getting closer. It was definitely getting louder. Then I realized what was happening. There were several voices singing Ghost of John. It put me on edge. I tried to convince myself that the voices were those of my classmates, and that if I just called out, they would stop. One part of me, however, wouldn’t let me call out. Because to do so would be to announce my position, and what if these weren’t my classmates?
They started singing from the beginning again.
“Have you seen the ghost of John?
Long white bones and the rest all gone
Ooh,ooh-ooh-oh, oh, oh
Wouldn’t it be chilly with no skin on?”
No, better to stay quiet and let it pass. My brain could be playing tricks on me, right? Except now, the voices were near me, all around me. They were getting close to the end of the song. “John’s not sad, he has had his day. Smile that’s fixed in a rigid way.” I wanted to scream, but didn’t dare. They were still getting louder, still getting closer. I looked down at my watch, and as I did, the voices all became quiet. One was directly behind me, and finished the last three words of the song just behind my ear: “he is dead.”
It was one o’clock.
The ringing silence was almost as unnerving as the singing. I looked up, slowly, and saw a pair of old fashioned dress shoes. They were on the ground, but not all the way on the ground; it looked like they were being dangled to where they were touching, but the weight wasn’t on them.
They were facing to the left. I looked up further and saw an old suit, covered in mold and maggots. The pants were ripped. The jacket looked too big. It hung off the skeletal frame like an old sheet. Looking up further, I saw his face.
He wasn’t all bones like the song said. His face was rotting, blackened skin. I could see his teeth through the sides of his cheeks. They were uneven, and he was missing a few. The remaining ones were blackened and dead. His eyes weren’t really there, not really. They were far from empty sockets, but they weren’t eyes anymore. They were dark colored mush. I gasped at this, and his head snapped towards me. I looked down before he locked eyes with me.
“Are you the boy who woke my children?” he asked. His voice wasn’t ghost-like at all. It was a hoarse rattle, barely audible. I didn’t recognize it then, but he spoke in what sounded like an antebellum era southern accent. I didn’t answer. I was crying, hard, staring at my lap.
“ANSWER ME BOY!” John roared, and I peed myself. The flower – I remember now that it was a black rose – fell to the ground. “N – no sir.” I stammered out, still crying. “You lying to me, boy? I don’t much appreciate being lied to.” John snarled, and then from somewhere off to the side I heard “I think he IS lying, pa!” John walked closer to me. He had jerky movements, like a marionette puppet on strings.
I didn’t think I could take anymore screaming, and I had always been taught to tell the truth, so before John got any angrier I said, “Well, yes sir, I might have woke them up, but I didn’t mean to!”
“Ah, look at that! You’ve gone and pissed yourself!” John said scornfully. Then I felt a hand land on my shoulder. It didn’t have any weight, but I could feel it, and it burned a little.
“Look at me, son.” John commanded. I shook my head no. The hand tightened. It didn’t hurt, and I couldn’t feel pressure, but I felt the tightening. I thought – and still think to this day – “If I don’t look at him, he can’t hurt me, and I’ll be fine.”
Of course, saying and doing are two different things. And when he started screaming for me to LOOK AT HIM! LOOK AT HIM RIGHT GODDAMN NOW and the voices in the woods started screaming the same, I broke down and looked up.
“That’s more like it,” he said. But I noticed he wasn’t saying anything. His mouth didn’t move. The words just came out of his – its – throat.
My eyes were locked with the black gunk that was his. I remember, in some other, happier world, Ivan’s Uncle Dale telling me not to make eye contact with the Ghost of John. I don’t think Uncle Dale himself believed the story he was telling, but here I was, with the ghost staring me in the eyes. “You’ve got some sand to you, don’t you boy?” He asked almost humorously. As if that creature was capable of humor. “I like that. What I don’t like is a boy who won’t listen. No sir, I don’t like that at all. Your momma and daddy didn’t raise you right. I don’t want you. I won’t have you. But dammit I WILL teach you your lesson before I leave you. No child disrespects me. You hear me? NO CHILD WILL DISRESPECT ME. NO CHILD WILL DISRESPECT ME!!”
That was when I felt an agonizing burst of fire in my eyes. It felt like bombs went off on the inside of them. He let go of me, and I toppled backwards screaming at the top of my lungs. I heard him laughing, cackling really, and then all the other voices joined it. The same voice from earlier shouted “Boy, pa! You sure showed him a lesson!”
I kept screaming. Eventually I became so hoarse that I couldn’t manage it anymore, and it was then that I noticed that the laughter was gone. There were no sounds at all. Not even a cricket. The pain had started to ebb away as well.
I tried opening my eyes. Everything was a listless gray color. I could see some shapes, and the moonlight, but that was fading away as well. Eventually everything was black. I laid down and cried. I cried until I fell asleep, and I stayed asleep until the search party found my the next day.
The rest is history. The hospital claimed some kind of burn trauma. The therapist didn’t believe my story, and neither did my parents. They assumed I had blocked out the memory. For twenty-five years my world was inky blackness, and no one would listen to why.
Ivan never spoke to me again, not with any meaning. He felt guilty. He visited me in the hospital, but eventually we drifted apart. He left home at 18, and kept up contact with his family. Home on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Two years ago, not long after I got my vision back, he came back once, and then disappeared for good. No one has seen him since. I tried to find him, but, no luck. I’ve got this pit in my stomach; I think I know what happened to him. I’ll get to that soon.
All of this leaves me, now. As I’ve been writing, it’s gotten dark. Eleven o’clock came and went thirty minutes ago, which gives me another hour and a half. That should be enough time. I’m at terms with what’s about to happen. All of this here on out is my theory as to what’s happening; as I said in the beginning, there’s no real way of knowing what the rules are. These aren’t humans, and if they were once, it’s all gone. My demons have finally caught up to me, and why should I be surprised? Did I ever think John would really stop watching me?
No. Deep inside, I always knew he was real and was nearby. Even past the part of my brain that convinced me that the therapist and my parents were right, I knew that he was the truth. In the hand that sometimes stroked the back of my head as I sat in my chair, in the whispers I sometimes heard from the corner of the room, in the singing I sometimes heard from far, far off in the woods. From the moment I locked eyes with him, I was his. He saw in me that he could make me more miserable in darkness than in afterlife. And then he’d take me anyways. In the afterlife, I feel those poor souls find some semblance of happiness. Strange, I know, but I think once you’ve forgotten the simple joys of life, you can find simple joy in non-life. It’s a half-existence, I’m sure; I guess I’ll know soon.
Two years ago, I had my operation. It was a success. My eyesight returned, and I was able to work myself back into the world of the seeing. I’ve even retained my excellent hearing, which I considered a bonus back then. Now, not so much. It could be the wind, but I think I can hear snatches of Ghost of John. Just hints of it, but I’d recognize that tune anywhere.
I’d recognize those haunted voices anywhere.
When I got my sight back, I was as happy as could be.
I even had myself convinced that my loss of vision was a bad accident when I was younger. I had completely forgotten about John, completely forgotten about the song, forgotten about most of what happened that night. It was what happened about a week after I was discharged from the hospital that brought it all back in a flood of painful, fear-drenched memories.
I looked out the window that night and saw John standing at the edge of the woods, about 400 yards away. Standing behind him, in the trees, was a small army of small people. Children who made the same mistake I did? Probably. I have a theory that John collects even the ones he blinded as well as those he killed right off the bat. I think he makes them little kids again once he has them. I don’t know for sure, but I think I’m gonna find out soon; I can hear the singing, loud and clear now.
I can smell the death.
Every night for most of that year, John and his children were at the edge of the woods, watching. Then last Halloween came. I didn’t see them that night. That was the day that Ivan saw his family for the last time. After then, John started moving closer. Every night, they were a little bit closer to my house. After three months, they were well past the trees, and much closer to my home. That was when I started searching for Ivan.
Mr. T didn’t remember Uncle Dale’s story, and I didn’t expect him to. He didn’t know where Ivan was. None of his family did.
I think – and I pray this isn’t the case – that John the Ghost was stalking Ivan as well as me, and on that Halloween he took Ivan’s life and soul, forcing Ivan to join his army of children. I think he did it to punish me for what I did. I reversed his punishment, and now I must pay. The singing is becoming unbearable. It’s almost time now. Twelve-fifty-six. I’m not scared. I’m beyond it. I’ve had an idea this was coming for a long time. Today was Halloween, you see, and I assumed he would come again on Halloween.
I was right.
They’re getting closer now. As I wrote that last line, I heard footsteps and saw a small dead girl, no older that eight, walk past my doorway. Her eyes were blank and listless. She was bleeding from her ears, her eyes, everywhere. She walked in the same jerky marionette manner that John did all those years ago.
I see – I’m sad to say that it looks like I was right about this, too – a young, dead looking Ivan standing in the room behind me. I hope he’ll understand my apology. I never wanted this to happen to him. I should have known not to try to undo what John did, but I was blind. Literally and figuratively One o’clock is two minutes away. I can see a black rose on the desk beside me. I’m certain it wasn’t there a moment ago. It’s not truly black, though. It’s simply dead.
I guess this ends this, then. If you’re reading this, don’t take folklore for granted. There’s truth behind it. The Ghost of John, curious cats, everything. It’s one o’clock and there’s a knock at my front door. I’m curious, who could be calling at such a late hour?
I guess I’ll go check.