This is a reoccurring dream/nightmare of mine. I’m especially prone to it this time of year when I do a lot of tours. It’s very dark and cold when I finish and I could usually use a hug. From someone alive, preferably.
Ghost’s Tour Guide
I get the text from my boss. “No tour. Meet your group at Signer’s Garden at 8:24. Please confirm.”
At first I’m confused. No tour? Was I scheduled? I don’t have my cape. Why meet a group? And why at such a specific time?
But when I try to type back for clarification, I understand. “Got it. 8:24 Signer’s Garden. No tour.”
I spend the rest of my day writing e-mails to my loved ones. I do this periodically. To keep in touch. To reminisce. To tell them that I love them. I call my fiance and talk to him on the long walk from 19th and Market to Signer’s Garden. I tell him I’ll be home late, not to wait up, and that I love him dearly. Ten days to the wedding and then this. Damn it.
I am compelled to eat dinner. This is not a word I use lightly. I don’t say compelled to eat ice cream when I want to eat ice cream. I don’t talk about compelling reasons or and I don’t feel compelled to make the bed in the morning. I am compelled to enter a certain Indian restaurant where the waiter smiles and gives me a menu then after a moment of looking confused takes it back and says something I don’t understand, then adds. “Heavy garlic and rosemary. Certainly. Have it right out.”
I did not order a garlic dish and I didn’t know Indians cooked with rosemary. “And a strawberry lassie, if you please.”
He smiles, feeling more at ease now that I’ve spoken. He’s further from the moment that frightened him, the instant he lost control. The moment he was compelled. Soon enough, he can pretend he wasn’t focusing, that he just lost track of the memory of greeting me and hearing me order.
He’s moving away from his moment of fear. I’m moving closer.
I eat the food he puts in front of me. I hate the spices, the texture, the weird runniness of the meat and vegetables. But I eat it. He returns to clear the table and wish me a good night. And I leave. He has not asked me to pay for my meal and I didn’t ask for a check. I only realize this when I’m walking down the street with a twenty dollar bill in my hand that I mean to pay with.
The truth is a twenty wouldn’t cover my meal. There was saffron and expensive herbs in that dish. It was a fancy place, though I had been utterly alone in it that night.
Across the city, I wander. I sit for a while in Washington Square Park, thinking of the 2,500 soldiers buried just beneath my feet. I look at Library Hall and wonder about the ghost of Ben Franklin and then wander some more. Making lazy circles around Old City. Usually I read with this time, write stories on my little laptop, but this is not a usual day and so I walk. No. I’m compelled to walk.
I pass the actual ghost tour. Busy night. Sarah and Josh are splitting their group into two groups. At 7:30 he heads one way and she heads another, black capes billowing, lanterns glowing. I do not have my cape and I don’t carry a lantern.
Without hurrying, I arrive at Signer’s Garden fifteen minutes early, as is my custom. I have a moment of wakefulness where I realize I have not been in control of my wandering. I send my fiance another text to let him know I love him and he’s made my life wonderful.
I lose more time, jolting back when the phone beeps. I take it out. His message reads, “Are you feeling I love you too. Get home safe, darling.”
It’s not like him to worry. It’s not like him to answer a text so quickly. It’s not like him to start one text then without deleting it write another. I realize it’s 823. I turn off my phone and pocket it. Then turn to face the group.
At exactly 8:24, the streetlights turn on. They do that everyday exactly at sunset, when the light becomes just dim enough to trigger their sensors. There is no explanation for why they flicker off when I walk under them for the rest of the tour.
They were not there at 8:23 pm, when there was still a thread of red in the sky from dying sunlight. But now they are here.
They watch me with hollow eyes and sunken flesh. Not human, not alive, but not exactly monstrous. They vary in height, in shape, in reality. The smallest is the size of a ten year old with eyes that I cannot hold in my mind long enough to describe. The tallest scrapes his pointed head against the boughs of the tree hanging over Signer’s Garden and he is bowed over to smile at me. Drawn and quartered? I wonder. I only smile and nod back.
“Well.” My chipper voice belies the mortal dread I’m feeling. “You lot just sneak up on a person.”
There’s a light titter from the group and one of the creatures looks at another and gives a sly smile as if to say ‘see, it’s fun.’
“Do you have your tickets?” I ask.
One with a voice like a dry October wind says, “private tour. Do we need them?”
“Right.” I answer. I am terrified. I wonder if the usual patter will come to me. If they will laugh, if I will survive. I smile and proceed. “Welcome to the ghost tour of Philadelphia. I’m your guide. You may call me Lisa unless you’ve heard otherwise.”
There’s a chuckle and I grin. A small monster says, “but her name is Lisette. I can read it in her head. She doesn’t like it because it’s so French and she’s English and she’s in America.”
“Yes, Darling,” says the tall one next to him holding his – would I call that a hand, a bone, the light of assistance? – says the small creature’s mother. “That’s why it’s funny.”
“A few rules before we begin,” They do not have cellphones. They do not need them. They do not need to worry about losing the group because they are the things the lurk in the dark alleys. Then I realize, there is a weight in my hand, a cold metal handle on my palm, a warm lid near my knuckles. I gesture to the lantern I have not carried in nine years. I threw it away when it’s flame got out of control. “When I set down my lantern I’ll be telling a story, gather close and listen carefully. You know when something I say, might change your afterlife.”
This gets a riot of laughter that it never gets from the living.
“Finally, and most importantly,” I want to say please don’t kill me, but there’s a script to stick to, a precedent. “all these stories are true. We pride ourselves on research and accuracy, but if something I say contradicts your own experience, please let me know and I will right our records.”
Nods of approval, serious and invested. The dead have nothing but their stories after all.
My cape, complementing the black dress I have not worn today, billows in the breeze, teasing the open flame of my lantern. “Shall we begin?”