We stepped through into that dusky sanctuary and suddenly I wasn’t afraid anymore. My newfound courage emboldened me. I pretended to trip and when I bent to tie my shoelaces, I glanced back at the gate. The ghost hovered just outside. It was obvious he was unable to enter, and I couldn’t help but give a childish smirk.
When I straightened, Papa glared down at me. “Rule Number Four,” he said sternly. “Never, ever tempt fate.”
The childhood memory flitted away as the waitress approached with my first course—roasted green-tomato soup, which I’d been told was a house specialty—along with the pecan pie I planned to have for desert. Six months ago, I’d moved from Columbia to Charleston, making it my home base, but I’d never had dinner at any of the upscale waterfront restaurants. My budget normally didn’t allow for fine dining, but tonight was special.
As the waitress topped off my champagne, I caught her curious, sidelong glance, but I didn’t let it bother me. Just because I happened to be alone was no reason to deprive myself of a celebration.
Earlier, I’d taken a leisurely stroll along the Battery, pausing at the very tip of the peninsula to enjoy the sunset. Behind me, the whole city was bathed in crimson; before me, a fractured sky shifted into kaleidoscopic patterns of rose, lavender and gold. A Carolina sunset never failed to move me, but with the approaching twilight everything had turned gray. Mist drifted in from the sea and settled over the treetops like a silver canopy. As I watched the gauzy swirl from a table by the window, my elation faded.
Dusk is a dangerous time for people like me. An in-between time just as the seashore and the edge of a forest are in-between places. The Celts had a name for these landscapes—caol’ ait. Thin places where the barrier between our world and the next is but a gossamer veil.
Turning from the window, I sipped champagne, determined not to let the encroaching spirit world spoil my celebration. After all, it wasn’t every day an unexpected windfall came my way, and for barely lifting a finger.
My work usually consists of many hours of manual labor for modest pay. I’m a cemetery restorer. I travel all over the South, cleaning up forgotten and abandoned graveyards and repairing worn and broken headstones. It’s painstaking, sometimes back-breaking work, and a huge cemetery can take years to restore fully, so there is no such thing as instant gratification in my profession. But I love what I do. We Southerners worship our ancestors, and I’m gratified that my efforts in some small way enable people of the present to more fully appreciate those who came before us.
In my spare time, I run a blog called Digging Graves, where taphophiles—lovers of cemeteries—and other like-minded folks can exchange photographs, restoration techniques and, yes, even the occasional ghost story. I’d started the blog as a hobby, but over the past few months, my readership had exploded.
It all started with the restoration of an old cemetery in the small, northeast Georgia town of Samara. The freshest grave there was over a hundred years old and some of the earliest dated back to pre–Civil War days.
The cemetery had been badly neglected since the local historical society ran out of money in the sixties. The sunken graves were overgrown, the headstones worn nearly smooth by erosion. Vandals had been busy there, too, and the first order of business was to pick up and cart away nearly four decades of trash.
Rumors of a haunting had persisted for years and some of the townspeople refused to set foot through the gates. It was hard to find and keep good help, even though I knew for a fact there were no ghosts in Samara Cemetery.
I ended up doing most of the work myself, but once the cleanup was completed, the attitude of the locals transformed dramatically. They said it was as if a dark cloud had been lifted from their town, and some went so far as to claim that the restoration had been both physical and spiritual.
A reporter and film crew from a station in Athens were sent out to interview me and when the clip turned up online, someone noticed a reflection in the background that had a vague, humanlike form. It appeared to be floating over the cemetery, ascending heavenward.
There was nothing supernatural about the anomaly, merely a trick of the light, but dozens of paranormal websites ran with it and the YouTube video went viral. That’s when people from all over the world started flocking to Digging Graves, where I was known as the Graveyard Queen. The traffic became so heavy that the producers of a ghost hunter television program made an offer to advertise on my site.
Which is how I came to be sipping champagne and savoring a wild mushroom tart at the glamorous Pavilion on the Bay restaurant.
Life was treating me well these days, I thought a little smugly, and then I saw the ghost.
Even worse, he saw me.
I don’t often recognize the faces of the entities I encounter, but at times I have experienced a prickle of déjà vu, as if I might have glimpsed them in passing. I’m fortunate that in all my twenty-seven years, I’ve never lost anyone truly close to me. I do remember an encounter back in high school with the ghost of a teacher, though. Her name was Miss Compton and she’d been killed in a car crash over a holiday long weekend. When classes resumed the following Tuesday, I’d stayed late to work on a project and I saw her spirit hovering in the dusky hallway near my locker. The manifestation had caught me off guard because in life, Miss Compton had been so demure and unassuming. I hadn’t expected her to come back grasping and greedy, hungrily seeking what she could never have again.
Somehow I managed to keep my poise as I grabbed my backpack and closed my locker. She trailed me down the long hallway and through the front door, her chill breath on my neck, her icy hands clutching at my clothes. It was a long time before the air around me warmed and I knew she’d dissolved back into the netherworld. After that I made sure I was safely away from school before twilight, which meant no extracurricular activities. No ball games, no parties, no prom. I couldn’t take the chance of running into Miss Compton again. I was too afraid she might somehow latch onto me and then my life would never again be my own.
I turned my attention back to the ghost in the restaurant. I recognized him, too, but I didn’t know him personally. I’d seen his picture on the front page of the Post and Courier a few weeks ago. His name was Lincoln McCoy, a prominent Charleston businessman who’d slaughtered his wife and children one night and then shot himself in the head rather than surrender to the S.W.A.T. team that had surrounded his house.
The way he appeared to me now was quite ethereal, with no evidence of the wrongs he’d committed on himself or his family. Except for his eyes. They were dark and blazing, yet at the same time icy. As he peered at me across the restaurant, I saw a faint smile touch his ghostly features.
Instead of flinching or glancing away in fright, I stared right back at him. He’d drifted into the restaurant behind an elderly couple who were now waiting to be seated. As his eyes held mine, I pretended to look right through him, even going so far as to wave at an imaginary acquaintance.
The ghost glanced over his shoulder, and at that precise moment, a waitress saw my wave and lifted one finger, indicating she would be with me in a moment. I nodded, smiled and picked up my champagne glass as I turned back to the window. I didn’t look at the ghost again, but I felt his frigid presence a moment later as he glided past my table, still trailing the old couple.
I wondered why he had attached himself to that particular pair and if on some level they were aware of his presence. I wanted to warn them, but I couldn’t without giving myself away. And that was what he wanted. What he desperately craved. To be acknowledged by the living so that he could feel a part of our world again.