Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  When company shows up

THE GHOST IN THE ROOM

They had all gathered for an event called Friendsgiving.  A Thanksgiving without family, and almost entirely without friends; for the most part, they were friends of friends, or rather strangers, only the most tentative of connections between them:  work, church, a hobbyist group.    Bearing food, they arrived.  Cranberry sauce, scalloped potatoes, dinner rolls, stuffing, green beans, and so on.  The turkey was in the oven, provided by their host.

Surreal and tense after the first introductions, did any of them have anything in common?  They sat at the table and poured each other wine.  Those who did not drink alcohol had sparkling grape juice.  The candles were lit, the host raised his glass to toast: to absent friends, and to new ones.  The toast was repeated.

But not quite everyone who repeated it had good intentions.

One member of the party disliked another.  The second guest had no strong opinion on the first.  The first not only had reason to dislike the second, but had suffered a personal insult at the second guest’s hands.

The disliking guest had taken a glance at the invitation list, noticed the other’s name, and had delayed answering the RSVP almost until the last moment.  Come or don’t come?  Tell the host this other member of the party had done—which was, in that circle, just across the boundary of being unforgivable—and feel the satisfaction of knowing that they had exiled this other person, as it were, from the host’s pleasant society? And yet it would spoil the evening.  Or say nothing, keep the peace, and know that the pleasantry of the evening had been purchased at the price of silence, even complicity?

The first guest, who knew the host well, finally arrived at a solution.

“So I have a question for you all,” the first guest said, after the meal was well underway.  “Who is the ghost in the room?”

The ghost in the room, the ghost in the room.  A puzzled whisper went around the table.

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, it’s just a game.  One of the people in the room is a ghost; the rest of us have to figure out who it is.”

“It’s you!” said one person.

The host announced, “I’ve shaken hands with everyone in the room.”

“Everyone’s been drinking wine and eating, so it’s none of us!  Ghosts can’t eat!”

“No, no, I get it,” said the second guest, jovially, who was a teetotaler.  “The ghost will seem perfectly normal right now, but later on, we’ll look back and realize who it was.  Like ‘Afterward’ by Edith Wharton.  The main character sees a ghost but doesn’t realize that it was a ghost until much later.”

“Yes, like that,” the first person said, grateful that they hadn’t needed to mention the story themselves, but annoyed that, once again, the second guest hadn’t the slightest awareness of the first guest’s antipathy or reason for same, although it had given the first guest an ulcer and repeated nightmares.

“What are the rules?” someone else asked.

The first person said, “That’s the fun of the game, deciding what the rules actually are in the first place.”

“Does it have to be someone actually present?” said the host.  “Or could it be an invisible presence?”

That was voted down.  It had to be someone present.

“Can ghosts eat and drink?  Can they shake hands?” asked the host.  He seemed to be particularly adamant on establishing this point, which was understandable, given that he had shaken everyone’s hand.

“They seem to eat and drink, but it’s only an illusion,” said someone, which suggestion was taken up.  Later on, it was decided, the food would reappear on the ghost’s plate, the wine or juice in their glass.

“Can spirits drink spirits?” was a question received only by eyerolls and laughter.  Ghosts could drink spirits, although they would tend to avoid the appearance of doing so—joked one of the guests—because it would be cannibalism.

“What about handshakes?” the host repeated.

“You can feel a chill when ghosts are present,” said one of the guests, who had always been a bit on the superstitious side.  The motion was carried, however; a ghost might shake a hand, but a ghost’s hands would be inevitably chilled.

Everyone felt their neighbors’ hands.  The host’s hands were warm; likewise those of the guest who had wronged the other.  The superstitious guest’s hands were chilled, and so were those of the guest who had started the game in the first place, the one who had been wronged.  The others were of a moderate temperature.

“We’re down to two candidates,” declared the second guest, and gave their names.

The superstitious guest stated, “Everyone knows that I have a talent for mediumship, that is, contacting the spirits.  It’s the presence of the ghost in the room that makes my hands cold.”

That, too was accepted.

The first guest, the one who had suggested the game, was teased for finally being chosen.  “You didn’t think that we would choose you!  And it was your suggestion!”

The first guest smiled, pulled something out from under their chair, and dropped it on the table.  “Feel this!”

It was felt:  “Oh, it’s cold!” “It’s an ice pack!”  “You’re not the ghost at all! You’re only pretending to be a ghost!” “If it’s not either of you, who is it, then?”

The host and the second guest were searched for heating packs, but nothing was found.  The evening finally devolved into other pursuits. Someone took out a guitar and began singing Christmas carols.  The dishes were done.  People began to excuse themselves—“I have to get up early for Black Friday!” “That only proves you’re not a ghost. Ghosts never go shopping at five a.m.!”

Finally only the host, a clean kitchen, and a glass of wine remained.  “What was that all about, I wonder?” he asked himself.  “And planned it out, too, with the ice pack in their pocket.”

Then he distinctly remembered pouring the second guest’s glass of juice, into which he had emptied his last bottle, and which the second guest had apparently drunk to the dregs.

And yet, at the second guest’s place–the host had picked up the wine glasses from the table himself–there had been a full glass of slightly flat grape juice.

The host wasn’t the only one to have noticed. The rumors went ’round.  And the second guest was never invited to Friendsgiving again.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.