Blood on the carpet
The house doesn’t stink anymore but I can still see the bloodstains in the living room. The authorities wouldn’t let me in that night. It has taken almost a month to convince the family to let me stay in the house. “It’s not you,” they said. “It’s just that… that… just… It’s…” Then the crying started again.
I’m not unsympathetic. I believe in grieving. I also believe in a good story. And these things are best fresh.
At 6:30 p.m., December 23, John Allan went crazy. His wife Helen tried to stop him from killing the dogs. Her pleas for the three-week-old puppies came too late. She begged for the lives of the dogs.
After shooting his wife, John put a bullet in his stomach.
This is the official statement the White Pine County Sheriff’s office gave me. This is the simple version. I want details.
The winter hasn’t been as cold this year. Drought conditions throughout the Nevada High Desert have left the valley clear of snow. With no one to shovel the Allans’ walk, the lack of snow is a blessing. Inside the house, with no one and no reason to use the woodstove, the cold has taken hold. Another mixed blessing; if this happened in the middle of summer the house would smell like a butcher shop, even a month later.
The box next to the stove is full of chopped wood. The stove lengths came from the covered pile in the backyard. John Allan had prepared for a long winter.
I stood outside and watched the family remove all the food from the house. Contents of cupboards and the refrigerator were boxed up along with canned and bottled foods from the cellar. Helen Allan had prepared, too.
The furniture remains as Helen left it. I sit down in the recliner facing the television set. The frayed edges of a bullet hole scratch my spine. I grab the remote and press “power.” The set comes on. I thought the electric company would have stopped service weeks ago. I flip through channels to see what is on.
The satellite company is quicker than the power people are. I see more snow in five minutes than I have all winter. I can also see where blood has been wiped off the screen.
Unless you heard the shots you didn’t hear anything until someone called you. At 7:30 my cousin Per called me. Per is a volunteer firefighter and EMT. He was called to the scene just as he was leaving for work.
Per told me no sirens were used because Sheriff King was in town and made it to the Allans’ home first. By the time he arrived everything except the fire was dead.
“How’d the Sheriff get the call if no one heard anything?” I asked.
“John called his brother in Washington right before shooting himself. The brother called here,” Per told me. “Why didn’t you hear the shots?”
Good question, I thought. The Allans’ house is right behind mine. Why didn’t I hear the gunfire? The thin air often carries conversations throughout town. It was not unusual for me to hear John watching TV, especially during UNLV basketball games.
Sitting in John’s chair I can hear the trucks speeding by outside. I can hear Bobby Carson’s ATV on the dirt road in front of my house.
I can hear someone’s dog barking.
The Allans’ new puppies were about twenty days old. Josie, the German shorthair mother, belonged to Helen. Fritz, the father, lives with Will Carson, father of four-wheeling Bobby, across town. He - Will, not Fritz - was present for the birth.
“There were nine of them,” Will told me two weeks ago. “Cute as any newborn litter I ever saw. Even Johnny was smiling like a new daddy.”
Nine puppies; the deputies couldn’t tell one from another when they arrived. And you complain about the piddle mess your puppy leaves.
I get up and walk into the kitchen. I’m glad to be out of John’s chair. Sheriff King thinks John shot himself while sitting in the chair but died crawling to the front door. John didn’t make it out.
The kitchen floor is spotless. I see the empty fridge, the dead stove and the basket Josie slept in. The blankets were thrown out when the family cleaned the kitchen. They did a good job. I heard it took an entire day. They must have been tired and forgot to do as well in the living room.
I open the refrigerator and the light stays off. The fridge is warm and empty inside. Maybe it is unplugged, I think. Has to be; the TV came on.
I close the door and walk around the kitchen. Half of the puppies died in here but you wouldn’t know it by looking. Martha Stewart could do a show in here, it’s that clean.
I move down the hall to the bedroom. The sheets are gone and the closets empty. The second bedroom is also empty. The Allans’ twin girls, Tammie and Jenny, moved out over a decade before.
John Allan married Helen Clemm on April 20, 1969 at the Hotel Nevada in Ely, about 40 miles from where they would eventually die. He celebrated his twenty-first birthday six months later. Helen wouldn’t be twenty-one for another year. In between, Tammie and Jenny were born. Helen had waited two years for John while he served his country. John stood, his arm in a sling from a bullet wound to the shoulder, and watched his bride walk down the aisle. He might have avoided the war altogether if he had married Helen instead of enlisting in the Army. They talked about it and decided together that John should join up and do what had to be done rather than risk leaving a family behind later.
John made it back. Helen stayed true to her promise to wait for him. Like every serviceman, part of John died in Southeast Asia. Unlike so many of our boys, John lived to see the next century.
It seems Charlie caught up with him two days before Christmas.
The sun is setting and I’m still in the house. I’m planning to stay the night. I won’t be using the sheetless bed. I’ll be sleeping in the living room. On the couch where Helen Allan died.
I take a leak in the toilet and flush it. I rinse off my hands in the sink; no hot water. I shake off the excess water and wipe my hands on my pants. No towels, either.
I reach out to flip the hall light switch. The wall is freezing. I should have started a fire when I got here. Lucky for me the power is still on.
I hit the switch and nothing happens. I flick it up and down, still nothing. I take the flashlight out of my jacket pocket and look at the light switch. It is in the “ON” position but the only light is from my flashlight.
I run to the kitchen and open the fridge. Dark, like before. I hold the flashlight under my arm and pull the fridge away from the wall. I get it out far enough to see that it is still plugged in.
I can’t find the remote when I get to the living room. I almost trip over the bag I left by the chair. I hit the power button on the television set. Nothing.
Either I imagined the TV being on or the power company has incredible timing. Both answers are displeasing.
Flashlight in hand, I make my way to the woodstove. I open the door and shine the light inside. It is clean of ashes. At least they left the wood next to the stove.
I take some paper from the stack by the wood. I crumple the old newspaper then toss it in the stove. I pile some smaller sticks on the paper then light a match. The newspaper catches quickly and the twigs follow soon. Two stove lengths go in next and I have a fire. Close the door. Red light comes out of the glass front. Not enough to illuminate the room but enough to throw shadows.
The fire Helen started burned until the medical examiner from Las Vegas arrived early the next morning. People called the house to see what was happening. They wanted to know why they could still see smoke from the Allans’ chimney. The same people will wonder why they see smoke tonight. The phone won’t ring. I checked that myself. Even my cell phone is on silent mode.
Morbid as it sounds, I wanted to at least see inside the house that first night. I had taught more than one lecture course on urban legends that I wanted to see how one might begin right from the start. I stood outside for three hours after Per called me, hoping to get inside. I left my camera at home but made sure to grab my notebook. I couldn’t even peek through a window for a week.
The pictures from the sheriff’s office are black and white. “To preserve the privacy of the deceased,” they said. Doesn’t bother me, I like black and white.
In the photos, the blood-smeared kitchen floor is black. Josie the dog is a dark lump in her basket. If you look close you can see crushed and broken canine bones on the floor. John tracked a lot of blood into the living room. He took the last living dogs with him, too.
The blood on the television set is black on black. On the carpet, the blood is black on gray. The body of John Allan, covered in blood – less of his own than that of his wife and dogs – is identifiable because his left hand fell away from the door when Sheriff King entered the house. Most of the blood on John’s arm rubbed off on the door.
Helen Allan’s face stares out from the darkness. John cleaned her face before shooting himself. I can’t see it in the pictures but a rag lies next to her shoulder. He wiped off her hands as well. These are the whitest parts of the pictures. Except high up on the walls where no blood reached.
The living room walls have a yellowish tint, some from blood splatter, most from the years John smoked in the house. The furniture and carpet have been shampooed. Dark spots still show and the bullet holes haven’t been repaired.
Why didn’t they take the living room furniture when they cleaned? And why move it back to the same places when they were done?
Why take anything? Why even bother to clean in the first place?
Tammie and Jenny won’t talk to me anymore so I can’t ask them.
Back in high school I dated both of them. The overlap lasted a week. I went out with Tammie three weeks before and with Jenny five weeks after. It wasn’t until my break up with Jenny that they both decided to hate me. You can’t leave one twin for another without the first twin hating you. You can’t date the second twin for long without her hating you, too.
They are both married now. I dealt with their husbands. Apparently Tammie and Jenny still hate me. I did nothing to ease that fury by trying to get into their dead parents’ house. I’m pretty sure their respective husbands hate me now. I’m in the house, though, so what does it matter?
I put three candles on the windowsill behind the couch and light them. Combined with the light from the stove I can see well enough not to bump into the recliner. I walk back to the stove and throw in another log. If I were home, I would be doing the same thing: Keeping up the fire, lounging on the couch, downing a couple of beers, and watching the tube.
Up at five in the morning and head to Great Basin Community College where I teach English 101 and the occasional special topic.
No beer tonight and no school tomorrow.
I step on the remote control while walking back to the couch. The TV clicks on and the room fills with jumpy light. Black blobs cross the screen, splitting and mixing with the snow. I bend down and grab the control. I press the power button and the TV turns off. I hit it again and the TV turns on. The black splotches have spread but somehow seem brighter than before. I step to the set and push the manual power button. Off goes the set. I push the button again. Nothing. I push the remote power button and the TV comes back on but is now filled with the luminescent darkness. As I stare into the screen, I begin to hear a soft, animalistic whimpering. A sound like young fur rubbing on rougher, older fur. When the screaming starts, I turn the set off again and throw the remote on the recliner.
Maybe I should have brought a six-pack.
I reach into my bag and pull out a candy bar. I open it and toss the wrapper on top of the stack of newspapers. I wonder how many of my stories the Allan’s burned in their stove?
The whole town has stayed warm with my writing.
“A lot, Tommy.”
Did I say that out loud? My lips moved but the voice wasn’t mine.
“Don’t go getting bonkers, Tom,” I said. Out loud and on purpose. “It isn’t even 6:30 yet. You can’t be spooked before kill time.”
I shake my head and slap myself a couple times. I go to the couch and lie down. My left thumb pokes into a bullet hole. I can still hear that dog barking outside and the noises from the TV hang in the air.
The headlight on Bobby Carson’s four-wheeler broke in October so he doesn’t drive at night. Most of the big rigs have come and gone.
Other than that dog, the entire town is silent. If the townspeople weren’t all scared, I’d bet they were outside waiting for me to come running out the front door, screaming.
Not tonight, sorry. Go on home folks. Nothing to see here. Move it along.
And someone please shut that dog up.
“Helen, would you please shut that dog up!”
“Calm down. She’s still healing, give her a break.”
“God damn it! Now she’s got those mutts screaming too. They haven’t clammed up since they were born. I can’t stand it. Crying all night and day, scratching around and making all that noise. I hear it all the time and I can’t take it anymore. It has to stop.”
I’m asleep on the couch. I recognize John Allan’s voice. I see myself.
I walk to the closet and get my .45 and the three full clips. I’m John Allan and I’m always prepared.
“John, what are you doing? Put that gun away.”
I stare at my wife, Helen. I walk past her into the kitchen. She screams as I put four bullets into Josie, her German Shorthair.
“John, what are you doing? Stop! Don’t kill the dogs, John. Stop it, please.”
I shove Helen away from me. She stumbles into the living room and falls onto the couch. She is still screaming.
I grab two dogs and hoist them into the air then throw them down to the floor. The barking doesn’t stop. More dogs, too many. I grab another and mash its puppy face in the bones of its brothers.
“Shut up, Helen. Shut the hell up,” I scream as I cover the floor with dog guts. I shoot three of the monsters and pull their insides out through the bullet holes. I throw entrails at Helen, standing in the living room. She won’t stop screaming.
“Please, Johnny, don’t hurt the puppies. Don’t hurt me. Please, John, don’t.”
I grasp her by the hair and push her down on the couch. She doesn’t stop yelling until I empty the rest of the clip into her chest.
I, me, Tom Royster, community college instructor and first-time ghost hunter, wake up screaming. My candles are out and the fire is weak. The living room is lit by the television.
John Allan sits in his recliner, gun in one hand and telephone in the other. His lips are moving but I can’t hear anything. No words, no barking, no gunfire.
John sets the phone on its cradle and picks up the remote control. I can’t see the picture on the screen. The TV is covered with blood.
John pushes the power button on the remote and the room becomes dark. He looks toward me and sees his wife. I see her, face and hands free of blood, and get up. I lean against the door, trying to get out. The door won’t budge.
John Allan aims the gun at his stomach and fires. He stands up, adding his own blood to the mess. He heads for the door.
“It’s so quiet, finally,” I hear him say. “I have to tell everyone about the quiet.” His empty hand hits my shoulder. He slips on dog bowels and falls. The gun goes off. The bullet hits John in the ear.
The door opens and I fall on my ass. No one is out here to see me fall. I look back into the house. I can’t see anything. The candles burned out and the fire died. The TV is off.
Outside it is dark. It is quiet. Almost.
Somewhere I can hear a dog barking and a soft whimpering, floating on the air and right into my brain.
“Shut that damn dog up,” I yell as I run back to my house. “SHUT UP!”
My house is empty when I get there. The house has been empty every night since my wife left me four years ago. She never liked Great Basin City, the desert scrub town I still live in with fewer than three hundred other people. What kind of place calls itself a city when there’s only one store and no stoplights? she would always say.
The kind of place that doesn’t notice a man sneaking back into a haunted house, I’d tell her now. After she stopped laughing at me, that is.
My first real ghost and I ran. Over thirty years of cheap horror novels and cheaper horror movies and I ran.
It is two in the morning. So far, I’m the only person who knows I left the Allan house screaming. Nobody heard the shots that night, why would they hear me? I could go back now and no one would be the wiser. As I finished my fifth beer I reminded myself I needed to get my bag. I left it sitting next to John Allan’s recliner.
I convince myself that I can walk out the front door – bag in hand, smile on face – at exactly 7:00 a.m. Just in time for the couple morning joggers to see me.
Give me a night with two ghosts and call me crazy; catch me jogging at seven on Saturday and shoot me.
I take the last bottle of the six-pack and my flashlight with me. Thank You, God, for not letting me drop the flashlight. Thank you, Mom, for making me sit through all those horror movies no matter how scared I got.
Scare me once, shame on you.
I make it back to the former (and still) home of John and Helen Allan not quite as fast as I ran away from it mere hours before. The house is dark, as any house of deceased residents should be. I have my flashlight on and a book of matches in my pocket. I left the empty beer bottle by the fence. Nothing should have disturbed the candles I left on the windowsill. I hope.
I open the door and go straight to the candles. It takes five matches but eventually the three candles give me enough light to feel comfortable. I look at the woodstove but do not start another fire. My candy bar wrapper sits right where I left it.
In the candlelight I can’t see the bloodstains. I can’t see the bullet holes in the couch or the recliner, either. The TV stays dark, too.
I go to the kitchen and bring back a chair from the table out to the living room. I can stay in the house, I think, but no way am I sitting on that bullet-ridden couch or the recliner, its one bullet hole like the opening of a shark’s mouth.
I place the chair against the front door then grab my bag. I sit down with the bag on my lap. I stare at my candles – away from the TV – until I fall asleep. No dreams of irate husbands killing their wives or their wives’ dogs. I haven’t even heard that stupid dog barking since my third beer back home. Goodnight, doggie, be glad you’ll see tomorrow.
I dream instead, sleeping on that kitchen chair, of my wife, Natalie. I dream of her being dead. Not in any hate-filled way, rather in a tragic way. My dream is of her dying before she can leave me. Her death giving me a reason to be a ghost hunter instead of a burden on the higher education system. The former teacher coping with the passing of his beloved spouse by tracking down other “displaced spirits” hoping someday to meet his wife again.
I know; you’ve read it in too many pulp novels and seen it countless times on screen, both black and white and color. My ex-wife is not dead. She spends way too much money to be resting in peace.
I wake up with the sun hitting my face and pools of wax on the windowsill. My neck is stiff and my bag has fallen off my lap. A pile of candy bars spills over one foot. I reach down to get a candy bar and look at my watch simultaneously – 9:30, in black LED. I made it. I stand up, munching chocolaty peanuts. I move my head around and pop my neck. In the sunlight streaming through the windows, I can’t see the bloodstains or the bullet holes. Maybe I imagined them. Maybe I imagined everything.
Maybe I should stay another night, just to be sure. Then I can find other ghosts.
Perhaps someone will die tonight. Plenty of elderly folks in town.
After all, these things are best fresh.