The Ghost Lives
by Anthony Jones
The Montreal Review, January 2011
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It was hot in the abandoned home. The Ghost dripped sweat. He was outnumbered and concussed-on the ground with his hands bound behind his back-and he thought he might be defeated. He was worried that he could pass out at any given moment. His mind drifted in and out of what felt like a dream. Sitting there in the dark-flashlight glaring down at him from his captor's hands-he began to talk to his wife again in his head.
He told her that he was in a tough spot. He admitted that this could be the end. But deep down he thought he still had a chance. He said that these men had made a mistake by leaving his legs free. It was clear that they were underestimating him and that left him with an opportunity. As a young man he would have already seized it, rushing forward and attacking almost immediately. Now though, he would wait for the right moment. He was more patient. He hoped that his wife could see how he'd changed.
"Quit that damn mumbling," the man holding the flashlight said.
The comment shook The Ghost from his imaginary conversation and wrenched him back into the present moment. To his knowledge, he hadn't been making any noise. After the man's question had passed, he noticed that the flashlight's beam was wavering a little bit. The buzzing on the second floor was constant. It sounded like some small drill had been left permanently operating. The longer it lasted, the longer his partner stayed upstairs, the more the flashlight quivered. This man could not seem to hold his hand still.
Suddenly, the flashlight came very close to his face and The Ghost had to shut his eyes. The man ripped the gag off his face and then backed up to where he had been standing before.
"Are you a cop?" he said. He was breathing quickly now. He was nervous.
The Ghost stayed still for a moment and then nodded slowly.
"Where's your badge then?" the man said.
"In my pocket," The Ghost said.
Again, the flashlight came close. The man searched through his pockets and removed the only object he could find-the earring. He was silent while he stared at it.
"You think you're funny?" the man said finally. His voice took a sinister tone. "This all a joke to you?"
The Ghost did not respond. The man flicked the earring at his chest. He secured the gag back in his mouth. "We're gonna bury you here old man," he said. "I promise you that."
Despite the threats, The Ghost stayed calm. The man lingered in front of him for a moment-debating whether or not to slap him across the face or spit on him for emphasis. He decided against it and returned to his original position. His flashlight was still jittering. He only seemed to be getting more nervous. The Ghost knew that this man was different from his partner-younger probably with less criminal experience-inclined to hesitate, unlikely to take action.
At least, The Ghost hoped this was true. He knew that he couldn't wait around much longer. If he did, he'd wind up passing out again or his partner would come downstairs and they'd finish him off together. Still, he didn't want to force the situation. He sensed that his chance might come soon. He took slow, deep breathes through his nose and concentrated past the pain and blood. He focused his stare into the darkness. He gathered all his strength.
Another ten minutes passed and then a loud pop sounded above the buzzing upstairs, as if a wooden beam had suddenly snapped. Startled, the man wheeled around with his flashlight and shone it on the second floor. Whatever had caused the noise had taken place inside one of the rooms. The man searched a bit longer and then brought the flashlight back to the ground. By that point though, The Ghost had already disappeared.
. . .
The moment the flashlight left him The Ghost rolled off to the side and then onto his back so that he could bring his bound hands up over his backside and around his legs. After that he was able to stand upright with his bound hands in front of him.
The Ghost sidestepped across the room. He crouched down at the foot of the stairs. He tried to tear the duct tape off his face but he didn't have enough freedom with his fingers. He blinked hard, hoping that his eyes would adjust quickly to the dark. At first the only thing he could see was the man's flashlight scanning the second floor of the house. The light beam stayed there for a moment and then sliced back down to where The Ghost had been. There was a small pause. Then, the flashlight flew wildly around the living room-jerking from spot to spot as if the man was suddenly having a seizure.
During that short amount of time The Ghost had been able to distinguish the outline of the man's body in the dark. His size was impressive. The man was at least four inches taller than him and looked as if he outweighed him by more than thirty pounds. The Ghost hadn't anticipated that. The surprise left him momentarily paralyzed.
The flashlight raced over where The Ghost crouched, just above his head. He couldn't hide forever. He worried that the man might call his partner downstairs too so-despite his physical disadvantage-he made his move.
Holding his bound fists above his head, he rushed the man. The distance between them was short but the man heard the footsteps racing toward him soon enough to shine the flashlight in The Ghost's eyes before he reached him. The light impacted his aim and The Ghost's two-handed blow struck the man's shoulder instead of his jaw.
The attack knocked the flashlight out of the man's hands and it went spinning across the hardwood floor. The Ghost's momentum took him past the man after he struck his shoulder. Before he could turn around the man had already recovered and grabbed him around the waist. The Ghost felt himself lifted off his feet-controlled completely by the superior strength of the man-and then slammed on the ground. Pain exploded through the left side of his body. His knee felt warm and oddly numb after the impact. He thought he might have blown it out again. Ignoring injury, he scrambled to his feet as quickly as possible.
The younger man was up quicker. As soon as The Ghost steadied his feet he saw the man's fist flying down upon him through the dark. He rolled with the momentum of the punch, limiting its force. He continued with the motion and spun completely around coming back with a roundhouse kick that struck the man's ribcage. His massive flesh absorbed the attack. He did not seem hurt. He threw another wild haymaker and this time The Ghost avoided the punch easily-ducking and positioning himself for a counter.
The Ghost drove his damaged knee into the man's gut. The man grunted, losing his breath momentarily. The Ghost took a step back-creating space for another attack-but before he could, the man grabbed his throat. He tried to escape but the man secured his grip. He began to choke The Ghost at arm's length with two hands.
The Ghost brought his bound fists up under the man's arm and struck him just above the elbow. His arms didn't budge. The Ghost struck his elbow again but the man's grip on his throat was too rock-solid. He looked up at the man towering above him and he felt the blood in his head trapped, bulging behind his eyes. The gag bunched up in his mouth. The wooziness from his concussion clung to the corner of his mind. The situation seemed very bleak.
Still, he tried to think clearly. He knew that he only had one move left. He reduced resistance in his lower body and allowed the momentum of the chokehold to force him into a backpedal. Both men moved in that direction until The Ghost's back was against a wall near the front of the house, next to one of the boarded up windows. Overly excited and sensing the kill, the man bore in on The Ghost. Before he had held him at arm's length but now the man was bent-elbowed, putting all the force of his weight into his grip-trying to crush The Ghost's throat with his immense strength.
This was the mistake that would cost the man his life.
Knowing that he only had a few seconds of consciousness left, The Ghost crouched down a bit more and then exploded upward with a savage kick that slammed into the man's crotch. A groan bellowed up from the man's guts. All the strength in his grip vanished. The Ghost kicked him between his legs again-just as savagely as before-and the man doubled over as if he were about to vomit.
The Ghost broke free from the chokehold and ducked under the man's arms which flailed out at him weakly one last time. The Ghost slipped behind him, fit the crook of his elbow up under his throat and then wrenched the giant down to the ground so that the back of his head planted against The Ghost's chest, secure in a head lock.
The Ghost pushed forward against the back of the man's head with his chest and pulled against his throat simultaneously, desperately trying to seal off his windpipe. He wrapped his legs around the man's abdomen and squeezed there too.
The man tried to stand up but his position was awkward and he couldn't rise to his feet. He began to fumble around in his pockets. He moved frantically. The Ghost had no idea what he was doing until the man reached back and stabbed him in the shoulder with a pocket knife. He only missed his neck by a few inches. The Ghost growled through the gag. He bit down on the sock still stuck in his mouth and suppressed his urge to howl in pain-worried that the man's partner would come flying down the stairs at any moment. The man grabbed at the knife. The Ghost reacted-turning his shoulders quickly so that he could not use the blade on him again.
The man made a strange gurgling noise and spit up all over himself while he was dying. He reached back with one last burst of energy and ripped out a handful of The Ghost's graying hair but that's all he could manage. The Ghost felt him go limp soon after that. He held the head lock for another minute. He wanted to be sure that this giant of a man would not be able to get up and attack him again.
. . .
The Ghost bit down on his gag. He tried to groan as quietly as possible when he reached to his shoulder with his bound hands and pulled the knife from his flesh. Sweat poured down his face. He was covered in grime from the floor. Blood streamed down his shoulder and dripped off his fingertips. He hobbled over to the flashlight lying on the ground. He sat down next to it, secured the handle of the knife between his heels, and then positioned the light on the blade. Carefully, he rubbed the duct tape that bound his hands against the knife and slowly began to saw it off.
He was surprised that the man's partner hadn't come downstairs. Until now, he hadn't even thought about what might be going on upstairs. All he knew was that there was something causing that strange buzz. He wondered what had snapped up there too. He had no idea what was going on. He also didn't have any evidence that suggested these men were guilty of anything larger than breaking into an abandoned home.
And now one of them was dead.
The Ghost pushed these thoughts aside. He continued to saw off the duct tape bit by bit until the gash there was deep enough that he could pull his hands free. He ripped the duct tape off his face and spit out the sock that he'd been gagged with. Then he grabbed the flashlight, got up, and began to scan the house for what he was missing.
He found his metal club lying on the floor in the kitchen, close to where he'd been knocked out earlier. He saw his mask flung over near the front door of the house. He wiped the dust off and fit it back over his face. He put pressure on the wound in his shoulder with his free hand. In his other hand, he carried the club. The adrenaline from his battle had begun to wear off and he started to feel very fatigued. All the haziness from his concussion came rushing back. He felt nauseous while he walked up the stairs.
He was certain now that the problem with his knee was serious. The warm numbness had faded and been replaced with deep pain that left him feeling unstable as he stood. He did not think he could run if he had to. He wasn't planning on running though. He grit down hard on his teeth and drove himself through the dizziness and fatigue and pain to make it to the top of the stairs. The buzzing got louder. It sounded more like screeching metal now. Limping-hand over his bleeding shoulder and weapon in hand-he moved toward the bedroom door from where it came.
A pale, electrical blue light leaked out from the bottom of the door into the hallway. His better judgment told him not to simply go through the door, but he couldn't wait. He didn't know how much longer he'd be able to stay conscious. He gripped his club and went in, prepared to do battle with whatever lay on the other side.
The first thing he saw was the young girl's face. Her eyes were squeezed shut, cringing in torture and fear. Her hands had been tied with rope above her shoulders to the wooden headboard of the bed. She was naked and gagged the same way that The Ghost had been. The old bed sagged in the middle, between her legs where part of the box spring had snapped and collapsed. This had been the sound that had distracted the man that he'd killed. A battery powered camping lantern was in the corner of the room. It filled the space with pale blue light.
The other man stood with his back toward the door. He held an electrical handsaw-the cause of the continuous metallic screeching. He was naked from the waist down. He still wore his black tank top. The rattlesnake tattoo was still visible coiling along his shoulder blade and neck.
An extension cord plugged into an exposed outlet at the other end of the room powered the saw. He was using it to carve into the top of a dresser that stood next to the bed. He sawed off a piece of an exposed drawer and then turned to the girl.
"It's sharp enough honey," he said, laughing.
The Ghost stood in the doorway unnoticed. The young girl kept her eyes clamped shut. She was Mexican. She couldn't have been older than fourteen. The man finished with the dresser and then moved toward the girl with the saw still spinning. Before he reached her though he saw The Ghost-wearing his mask once again, standing at the edge of the door, metal club in hand.
The man was speechless for a moment and then sighed and wiped the sweat off his forehead. His eyes drifted to the corner of the room where the saw was plugged in to the outlet next to the blue lantern. His gauged the reach of that extension cord and then looked at The Ghost.
"Listen," he said. "This girl is a whore."
The Ghost didn't say a word. He just stared at the man from behind his mask, unblinking. This was the first chance he'd had to study the man's eyes. They were strange-hollow-looking and perverse.
"She's a prostitute," the man said. "This is what she does for a living. Unless you're a cop, then this don't concern you. I'm gonna pay her for this."
The Ghost stayed silent. He began to walk toward the bed. His boot crunched over an empty beer can. There were a half dozen other silver beer cans on the ground, gleaming in that eerie blue light. The young girl's eyes were open now and she was sobbing.
"Look," the man said. His eyes narrowed into slits. "You can fuck her if you want. She's not going anywhere. She's got a pussy like you won't believe. Come see how tight this bitch is."
The Ghost took a few more steps toward the bed. A sudden blast of dizziness and nausea rushed up into his head and, for a moment, he lost his balance. He stumbled backward and when he was able to focus again he saw the man charging toward him, wielding the electrical saw.
The Ghost regained his composure and stood his ground while his adversary crossed the short distance between them. Aiming for The Ghost's throat, the tattooed man lashed out with the electrical saw. The Ghost sidestepped and avoided the spinning blade. He positioned himself at an angle that required the man to come all the way across his body for another attack with the saw. This is exactly what he did. The Ghost ducked as the saw came screaming over his head. Now, the man's body was wide-open and defenseless. The Ghost exploded upward and swung the metal club with all his strength. He caught the man flush under his chin. The force of the blow lifted the man up off his feet and he fell to the ground on his back. Before he could react The Ghost was already on top of him. He stepped on the man's wrist where he still held the buzzing saw. He planted his other foot firmly on the ground and then brought the metal club crashing down upon his face in one final tremendous attack, leaving his enemy in a bloody heap-motionless.
The Ghost dropped his club and took off his mask. He yanked the extension cord out of the wall. The buzzing stopped. He sighed and took a deep breath. The arm closest to his shoulder wound was starting to go numb. He had lost a lot of blood. He felt like he was going to vomit. He had killed two men tonight and he was having a difficult time comprehending all that had happened.
He limped to the other side of the room, where the man's camouflage shorts lay crumpled, and took the knife out of the leather case still strapped there. He carried the knife over to the girl on the bed. She hadn't stopped crying. He had no idea how long she'd been kept in this house. Her eyes were bloodshot and frantic with terror while he walked toward her.
"Relax," The Ghost said. "I'm here to help."
The girl was not relaxed. She didn't understand the situation. Her mind may have been shot. She made a strange, desperate whining noise from behind her gag when he sat down on the bed next to her. He leaned over and cut the rope that bound her from the headboard. He took her hands and cut the rope from her hands as well. Her wrists were raw and bloody where they had been tied.
The Ghost tossed the knife on the bed and then eased her up with both hands so he could remove that gag but she wrenched away from him. The girl grabbed the knife and spun on him so quickly that he was momentarily dazed by what was happening. She raised the knife and tried to kill him with it but he caught her hand and then secured her other hand and pressed them gently against her sides. He looked right in her eyes and he was not angry-he was very calm.
"Marissa," he said. "I already told you. I'm here to help."
. . .
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Anthony Jones's work has been published in Westwind (Spring 2006) and The Furnace Review (Fall 2010). He was also the 2007 recipient of the Ruth Brill Scholarship, awarded to the most outstanding fiction writer at UCLA. Jones has performed his work with The Noah Garabedian Sextet (http://vimeo.com/13471981) and, most recently, he was selected to read one of his short stories at The Franklin Park Reading Series. Currently, he coaches basketball in the South Bronx.
Illustration: Untitled, (2006, oil on board, 30 x 40 inches) by Steven Assael
Steven Assael was born in New York, New York in 1957. He attended Pratt Institute and presently teaches at The School of Visual Arts in New York. Mr. Assael balances naturalism with a romanticism that permeates the figures and surroundings of his paintings and drawings. The focus of his work is the human figure, either individually or in a group, rendered in glowing relief by gentle beams of warm and cool light. Steven Assael's classical talents are as rare as they are essential to the diverse art world of the late Twentieth Century.
Assael's works can be purchased at Forum Gallery, 730 Fifth Avenue 2nd Fl. (between 56th & 57th Streets) New York, NY 10019
Steven Assael's web site: www.stevenassael.com