I was Nigel's flunky.
He was the cool one. He decided what we did. He decided who we hung out with. Nigel even picked out what music we should listen to and what movies we would go see. All in the seemingly endless work of remaining cool.
In eighth grade, Nigel was my best friend.
My school science project that year was an investigation into the existence of ghosts. The plan was simple. I would find an appropriate graveyard and record ghosts talking from their graves. The appropriate graveyard was a tiny five stone family plot, long lost to the woods of Gooserocks Beach, Maine, where Nigel's family had a vacation home.
There was a lot of grumbling as we walked to the edge of the woods that autumn evening. "Silly. Stupid. Juvenile. Waste of my valuable time." Nigel murmured these words not too quietly. He often talked as if vocalizing the thoughts in his head could not be heard by others.
When we reached the path into the woods, Nigel announced that he would wait for me there. His announcement was punctuated by the spark and flame of his lighter as he lit up a Marlboro. He was very skilled at the theatrics of coolness.
Of course, there was no arguing, so I ran in, blindly, letting errant branches scrape my hand and face as I tried to block them from cutting my eyes. My flashlight bobbed through the woods like an illuminated Ping-Pong ball. When I reached the mini-graveyard, I thrust the record and play buttons down on my Panasonic cassette recorder and tossed it onto the grave from about ten feet. It landed harshly on the crunchy autumn leaves at the foot of a gravestone.
I sprinted out of the woods wheezing and coughing. Nigel was crunching his Marlboro out on the ground with his cool leather boot. My plan had been to return in an hour and get the recorder. Nigel decided that there was no reason why we couldn't return to the graveyard during the daylight, so what if the batteries ran out.
The next day, we walked at a more carefree pace into the woods and grabbed the tape recorder. There was a small chip out of the corner of the plastic casing from bouncing off the foot of a tombstone. The stone was so faded that only the name "Mary" was visible. The recorder had landed squarely where one could imagine the head of Mary being. And, the batteries were still good.
Back at Nigel's house, we brought the recorder into the basement and played it there.
In the cement basement hung a creepy painting that Nigel's dad had found at the dump - a portrait painted over an enlarged photograph of someone. What made it creepy was that Nigel had ripped out sections around the portrait's eyes - exactly where the photographed person's were - leaving human eyes poking through the painted person's eyes.
I rewound the tape and hit play.
The tape began with the sound of my running on the crunchy leaves and grunting. Then, the smack of the player hitting the gravestone.
What followed was the quiet murmur of the tape recorder recording, and the occasional swish of wind in the leaves near the ground. We listened to this for twenty minutes, straining to hear the sound of a voice, or the sound of Mary digging her way out of the grave.
We grew impatient, so I fast-forwarded it for a few seconds. Play. Nothing - wind in the leaves. Fast-forward. Play. Only the tape recorder murmuring to itself...except, this time there was something else. I looked up at Nigel, and his eyes were wide with anticipation. I rewound the tape briefly and cranked up the sound. The murmur sounded like a small jet-engine, and the wind in the leaves had become a muffled hurricane. But then, in between the chaos of noise was another sound. It sounded like a voice.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.
Nigel and I said nothing to each other. I rewound the tape, again, and pressed play. I was about to say aloud, "what do you think it is?" But Nigel told me to shut up before I got beyond "what."
There it was, again. It sounded exactly like the voice one would expect to hear from beyond the grave - distant, from deep in the ground, and in a long moaning voice. It seemed to be saying "I am here."
The day of the presentation came and I was all set. I had a nice-looking display board made up of cardboard, covered with cut-out articles and pictures of supposed real ghosts. The, now infamous, tape recorder was all set. Infamous, because Nigel and I had told just about everyone about the ghost voice we had captured in our midnight hunting for specters. The tape was in position. I hadn't played it since leaving Maine - mostly because I was too afraid to hear that moaning voice alone.
Nigel gave me the thumbs-up as I began the presentation. He sat behind everyone, on top of a desk. His sharp smile glistened in my peripheral vision.
I talked about the history of ghost-hunting, and pointed out the photos of ghosts. I described my experiment - highlighting Nigel's and my courage and focus.
Then I played the tape. We heard the sound of the leaves blowing, and the sound of the recorder recording. That's it.
I began to sweat a bit.
I rewound the tape and played it. I fast-forwarded the tape and played it. Nothing and nothing. I rewound and fast-forwarded like a crazy person - the ghost voice had disappeared.
Eventually, when it became apparent that they were not going to hear a ghost voice, the once rapt audience moaned collectively. I hung my head in shame and said "sorry," as Mr. Barnes, the teacher, tried to elegantly move on to the next presentation. I glanced up and saw Nigel sitting back on the desk - staring idly out the window as if this didn't affect him at all. But, I knew from the tense muscle in his jaw that he was upset - probably embarrassed and, probably, angry at me.
Later that day Nigel came up to me. His face betrayed nothing. I was afraid he was going to punch me or tell me we were no longer friends. Instead he asked me: "why the fuck are you so weird about ghosts?" I didn't know how to answer. I believe I mumbled, "I don't know."
It was only later that a better, more truthful response came to me. I considered calling up Nigel and telling him, but thought better of it. I wasn't sure if I he would understand. What I realized was there was something about knowing another world just beyond this one. Somehow, I felt if I could understand it, I would own it in some way.
About the author:
Russell Bradbury-Carlin may still spend a bit too much time wondering about other worlds beyond this one. He lives in Western Massachusetts. His writing has been published on the web at McSweeneys, Opium Magazine, The Big Jewel, Facsimilation and Uber.nu. He has print published his poetry in Rattle. You can visit him online at allmyshoesandglasses.com.