Aphelion Issue 231, Volume 22
August 2018
 
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The Ghost Box

by Charlie Williams




The old Jesuit carefully navigated the serpentine road and returned to the moment when he stopped believing in God. Five years earlier, he listened to the tearful confession of an overwrought brother in Christ with a taste for altar boys. He erupted out of the confessional booth and pummeled his fellow cleric to the point of unconsciousness. The Church, unparalleled in the ways of cover-up, immediately reassigned both priests. The penitent simply disappeared into the Catholic ether, and Father James Butler found himself upon his current path.

Father Butler had always been a free-thinker, even for a Jesuit. He prided himself on being one of God’s marines, but was conflicted by the vows of obedience and chastity. Now approaching his sixtieth year, chastity was less of an issue. As for obedience, it was easier to honor that promise when one believed in a supreme being guiding the way. Years of ministering to the dregs of humanity had robbed him of that particular comfort. His belief in evil, however, remained steadfast and devout. Unlike God, evil’s presence in the world was palpable. Evil was everywhere, and it kept Father James Butler in the “Company of Jesus”.

Driving was one of the few sensual pleasures left to the priest. He still enjoyed an occasional drink, but high blood pressure and acid reflux curtailed his smoking and consumption of spicy food. He took self-indulgent delight in the reflective nature of driving alone. As he wound his way through the foothills serving as sentinels for the looming Sierra Nevadas, his thoughts harmonized with the motion of the rented Prius.

There was beauty in the natural world. Butler could appreciate the early autumn breeze as it teased the withered leaves of oak trees dappling the landscape. The late afternoon sun bathed the thirsty hillsides, giving them a golden glow which inspired him like a great work of art. But he could no longer envision a divine artist behind the wonder.

Father Butler was on a mission. His loss of faith and self-control had narrowed his options. In the eyes of The Church, he was the perfect weapon to send into battle: experienced and expendable.

The Jesuit’s communion with his surroundings was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone.

“The ever-punctual Father O’Hare,” answered Butler. “Missed check-in, didn’t I? Give me a break, Mike. I’m enjoying the scenery”

“Captivated by the mundane again, Jim? That’s always been your problem. Your head is up your ass instead of up in the clouds with the rest of us. God only knows why you took the sacrament of Holy Orders.”

“I don’t think God knows much about anything,” Butler replied.

“Okay, I get it, Father Karras. No time for another theological throwdown.” Father Michael O’Hare’s voice betrayed a weariness born of countless arguments with his friend. “You’ll be meeting with Philip Usher at 7:00 PM. He’s agreed to let you view his art collection as a favor to the Cardinal. It’s a rare privilege, so we’re counting on Usher being your personal guide. With him as your escort, security won’t be a problem. You’ll have visual access to Usher’s most valuable possessions. The machine will be hidden, but it should be somewhere close.”

O’Hare was the director of a sect the Jesuits called “SAVES”. The Society Against The Violation of Eternal Sleep was created in 1920 as the result of Thomas Edison’s startling revelation that he had been working for years on an apparatus to communicate with the dead. Edison believed that personalities survived beyond death in the form of submicroscopic particles swarming together like bees. These particles were incapable of being destroyed. He reasoned that surviving personalities wished to communicate with the living and would be able to manipulate matter if a machine could be built to detect the most delicate of vibrations. The press dubbed Edison’s invention “The Ghost Box”.

The Catholic Church viewed this scientific quest as blasphemy. Such a device might serve as an invitation to demonic entities and provide a spiritual conduit between the two worlds. More important to the hierarchy, Catholicism was based on the mysteries of faith. What would happen when those mysteries were solved?

Edison spent the final fifteen years of his life working on his machine to contact the dead. Upon his death, no trace of the device or its design were ever found.

The clandestine efforts of SAVES were responsible for the deletion of Thomas Edison’s final chapter. The machine was hidden in the Vatican for almost 100 years. Then it disappeared.

“What is it about Jesuits and acronyms?” asked Butler. “SAVES is just a tad melodramatic, and OMFG should really replace AMDG to keep up with the times.”

“AD MAIOREM DEI GLORIAM,” said O’Hare, savoring each Latin word. “Is the motto, “For the Greater Glory of God” really meaningless to you, Jim?”

“Not meaningless, my friend, just irrelevant. Why are you so sure Usher is the one who took the device?”

“Three reasons,” said O’Hare. “First, it had to be an obscenely wealthy person or group. Can you imagine what it takes to get past the Swiss Guard and break into the Vatican undetected? Second, if you eliminate the need for money, the motive must be to contact someone who has died. Usher lost his wife and young daughter in a plane crash two years ago. Third, and most revealing, Usher is a devout Catholic and confessed to our friend, the Cardinal.”

“He actually confessed to stealing the Ghost Box?”

“Not in so many words. We all know how vague someone asking for forgiveness can be. Fortunately, billionaires don’t confess to parish priests. The Cardinal is the Pope’s confidant and read between the lines. So much for the sanctity of the confessional.” O’Hare was starting to sound like Butler. “Instrumental transcommunication is the spiritual nuclear option, Jim. We’re not talking about Ouija boards or seances here. This is a machine created by quantitative science and delivered to the world by one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. There’s just one problem.” O’Hare paused to allow Butler to complete his thought.

“We don’t know who’s going to answer the phone,” said Butler, taking the cue. “You may fault me for finding God in absentia, Mike, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the devil.”

“Alright, Jim. I know you’ll make St. Ignatius proud. Maybe we can chat the old boy up when you get that damn machine back,” said O’Hare chuckling.

“You do realize that you are literally sending me into “The House of Usher?”

“Go with Poe, my son.”

Father O’Hare lured Butler from his limbo with the promise of one last adventure. Butler had been something of a “fixer” during much of his priesthood, a sort of ordained Ray Donovan. The Jesuit never betrayed his principles, but he acquired a reputation for extricating The Church from some embarrassing and potentially damaging circumstances. O’Hare’s group had been stuck in their own purgatory, monitoring the lame attempts of self-proclaimed “ghost hunters” to create an instrument for transcommunication. The disappearance of the Ghost Box was a bonafide four-alarm/Gabriel’s horn fire.

Butler needed a break. He passed a sign suggesting, “Get ExCIDERed About Our Cider! - 1 More Mile!” A small, ramshackle building with an open facade soon came into view. He pulled into the dirt parking area and said a rare prayer for the blessing of a decent restroom.

The Cider Hut was little more than a fruit stand with a a narrow walk-in aisle allowing visitors to peruse a variety of cheap novelties. An ancient cash register rested on the counter, greeting customers like a tribal totem. At the side of this building was a PETA nightmare. A bobcat, raccoon, and possum cringed and snarled in small wire cages, daring unwary gawkers to place a finger within their tiny prisons. Behind the “zoo” was a weathered outhouse with peeling whitewash.

“So much for prayer,” grumbled Butler as he relieved himself, keeping a watchful eye on the large black widow serving as the restroom attendant in one corner of the stall.

“Hey, Padre! You lookin’ for the Holy Ghost in there?”

Butler eased open the door of the outhouse and found himself face-to-face with the strangest-looking human being he had ever seen. The old man’s bulging eyes traveled in different directions before coming together to examine the priest, like a hungry chameleon suddenly charmed by easy prey. He tilted involuntarily to the left, his rounded shoulders giving him the appearance of a hunchback. And the smile. Butler sensed that it was perpetual and practiced, a tool used to overcome a grotesque first impression.

“Well, if it’s taken the form of a spider, I may have found it. That thing is big enough to put the fear of God into anyone.”

“Can’t keep ‘em out of that shithouse, pardon my French, Padre. I told them kids they gotta spray regular, but they can’t afford nothin’ extra. My son and his lazy-ass wife. Barely make enough to get by from this rathole. Pretty piss poor when bug spray’s a luxury. Name’s Elijah Cuthbert. Like in the Bible.” The old man extended a scrawny arm to shake the priest’s hand.

“I seem to remember,” said Butler as he felt the frailness of Elijah’s grip. “A prophet as I recall. I’m Father James Butler.”

“What brings you to these parts, Padre?” Elijah rocked slowly from side-to-side as if standing in one place was uncomfortable, but his smile never faltered.

“You were pretty close when you asked me if I was looking for the Holy Ghost, Elijah. I’m on sabbatical, doing a little soul-searching. A mutual friend arranged a solo tour of Philip Usher’s private art collection for me. He felt looking at some of man’s most beautiful creations might help me recharge my connection with the Holy Spirit. I’m afraid the battery is a little low.” Butler found a seed of truth in his deception.

“Christ on a cracker! Guess I was well-named,” Elijah chortled, obviously pleased with his prescience. “My wife, God rest her, worked for years as a housekeeper for the Ushers. Broke her heart when Mrs. Usher and the little girl died. Never really got over it. I moved in with my son after she passed, into that double-wide up the road.”

“Were you ever at the Usher house?” Butler seized the opportunity to gather a little intel on his soon-to-be host.

“Hate to correct you, Padre, but calling that place a house is like calling the Titanic a rowboat.” Elijah attempted an eyeroll with little success. “I know that place like the back of my hand. The Ushers was always goin’ somewheres. Europe, England, Mexico. Sometimes I’d go to work with Molly. None of the family or staff ever minded none. They all loved my Molly.”

Butler carefully considered the odd-looking little man in front of him. He reckoned Cuthbert to be in his mid-seventies, although his strange appearance made it difficult to judge. Despite his coarseness, Elijah exuded a warmth that made the priest like him instantly.

“Elijah, how would you like to go with me to view Usher’s collection?” Butler was employing the three-dimensional thinking taught to him by the Jesuits. The old man would be an asset because of his familiarity with the house and its occupants, but he could also be used as a distraction if necessary.

“You’re shittin’ me, right Padre?” said Elijah, surprised at the invitation.

“No,” said Butler laughing. “I think it’s a great idea. It gives you a chance to see some of Molly’s co-workers again, and having you along might help put Usher at ease. I don’t think he’s terribly excited about having me there. You’ve met Usher, haven’t you Elijah?”

“Yeah, of course. Lots of times. Molly was one of his daughter’s favorites. Had a real bond with that girl. Molly always used to say how sad she was.” The memory caused the old man to briefly lower his eyes.

“Perfect. We’re only thirty miles away from the Usher estate. I’ll have you back in time to watch the 10 o’clock news, and I’ll even spring for some spider spray. What do you say, Elijah?” Butler placed a hand on the old man’s bony shoulder to fortify his offer.

Elijah rubbed the gray stubble on his chin thoughtfully. “I say throw in a bottle of Jim Beam, and you’ve got a deal, Padre.”

“Done,” said the priest. Father Butler spoke less than ten words during the forty minutes it took to drive to the Usher estate. Elijah Cuthbert seized the time and filled it with whimsical tales about every person who lived on the road. The old man was a born storyteller, and his captive audience gave him a rare opportunity to practice his gift.

The rolling hills and scattered oak trees around The Cider House gradually gave way to towering forests of Ponderosa and Sugar Pine. As the sun vanished beneath the treeline, Butler switched on the Prius’s lights and found the turn which would take him to his appointment with Usher.

Marked with only a number on a post, the narrow road steadily darkened under the forest canopy. After a half mile of driving, the priest and Elijah came upon a clearing and the home of Philip Usher. The old man had been right to correct Butler’s use of the word “house”.

An illuminated limestone castle sat defiantly upon a small hill, a fanciful structure kidnapped from a Grimm’s fairy tale. On its right emerged a four-story tower with a turret room. Large balconies lept out from the second story on the castle’s left side and above the main entrance. An ethereal light shone through the German stained glass windows framing a large oak door.

“God,” uttered the priest.

“Found ‘em already, eh Padre?” cackled Elijah.

The two men climbed the steep steps to the door. Butler pressed the intercom button.

A camera discreetly mounted above the door flashed a tiny red light as a disembodied voice greeted the visitors.

“Good evening, Father Butler. I’ve been looking forward to our meeting. Give me a moment to get the door.” The priest was taken aback upon hearing the voice of Philip Usher instead of a servant. Usher’s regal tone made the greeting sound like a line of Elizabethan poetry.

Moments later the great door opened to reveal their host and an invitation to enter. Usher was in his forties but looked much older. He was at least four inches taller than the six foot-tall Jesuit, with wavy gray hair and a thin, neatly-trimmed mustache beneath an aristocratic nose. He was dressed in a tailored black suit, giving the impression that he was either on his way to a business meeting or a funeral.

“Elijah! So happy to see you, my friend,” gushed Usher. He seemed genuinely pleased to see the old man. “I see you’ve picked up a Sancho Panza on your quest, Father.”

“What is it that Shakespeare said about “strange bedfellows”?” asked the priest.

“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,” replied Usher. “ It’s from “The Tempest”. It may be true in my case, but I hope that’s not what brought you two together.”

“Misery surely does like company, Mr. Usher. And me and you have had more than our share,” offered Elijah.

“Well, perhaps the good Father can change that for both of us, Elijah. Are you here to take the tour with Father Butler?”

“If it’s all the same to you and the Padre, I’d like to hit the kitchen and catch-up with Maria and Fernando. I haven’t seen ‘em since we laid Molly to rest,” said the old man.

“Of course, Elijah. You know the way. Have Maria make you something to eat while Father Butler and I conduct our business. We’ll find you when we’re done.” Usher smiled as the old man hobbled off down one of many long halls leading out of the enormous foyer. “This way, Father,” said Usher, guiding the priest toward a staircase with newel posts topped by brass troubadours.

At the top of the stairs, the two men walked silently past the ornate wainscoting and millwork of a murkily lit hallway. Usher opened the door of a darkened room and switched on a small fairy-shaped lamp. It provided just enough light to show the priest that the room belonged to a little girl.

“This is my daughter’s room. Was my daughter’s room,” corrected Usher. He turned and looked the priest squarely in the eye. “My grief hasn’t robbed me of my wits, Father. I know why you’re here. The Cardinal has always been indiscreet. Perhaps I really wanted someone like you to come.”

“Then we can make this very easy, Mr. Usher. Give me the Ghost Box, and I’ll collect Elijah and be on my way.” Butler was startled by Usher’s recognition of his true motive but did not let his manner disclose his surprise.

“I always planned to give the machine back,” explained Usher. “I only intend to use it once. I want to speak to my little girl one more time. I need to tell her I’m sorry.” Usher lowered himself heavily onto his daughter’s bed.

“You must know the risks,” said the priest. “Demonic forces or malevolent spirits might view this device as an open doorway. Can you imagine the havoc Hitler’s revenant would create in the current geopolitical climate?” Butler studied the other man’s face for some sort of acquiescence.

“Isn’t the fuhrer supposed to be in hell? Mediums tell me that spirits attach to those they love. I don’t think I’m going to find Hitler in my little girl’s bedroom,” said Usher, fixing his gaze on a menagerie of stuffed animals piled in the corner.

“It’s a chance you can’t take, Philip,” implored Butler.

“This is the way it’s going to be, Father. I will use the machine once. Tonight. In this room. You will be here to observe and advise, a spiritual watchdog if you will. If you see things are getting out of hand, I’ll shut the thing off.”

“What if it’s too late? And why would I ever agree to such a proposal?” asked the priest.

“I have Edison’s design and a large investment in social media,” said Usher. I can duplicate it and share it. Haven’t you ever wondered why the Church hid the machine instead of destroying it? If there’s one thing the Church appreciates as much as faith, it is power. It was never my intention to give the Ghost Box to the world, Father. I promise to return the device and the plans for its construction as soon as I’m done with it. You see, you really don’t have a choice.”

The Jesuit knew that Usher was right. Pandora’s Box had nothing on the Ghost Box. At least Usher’s plan gave him some measure of control.

Usher rose slowly from the bed and walked over to a small table beneath a large shuttered window. He carefully removed a tattered pink baby blanket covering what appeared to be a child’s toy in the dimly-lit room. A brass drum with a glass top sat upon the table. A thin brass tube connected the drum to a smaller brass box containing a quartz amethyst. A brown electrical cord extended from the small box, and a set of headphones was wired into the narrow tube. Resting beside the machine was an eyepiece resembling a jeweler’s loupe. A solitary brass toggle switch protruded from the front of the brass drum.

“You’re kidding, right?” said Butler. “This thing looks like a reject from a parish rummage sale.”

“The proof is in the pudding, Father,” lectured Usher. “Edison used a combination of radioactive metals and 40 chemicals to create a “metallic medium” for the Ghost Box. Finding the right alchemy took years of experimentation. He was in failing health for some time before his death and kept the device close at all times. It was at his bedside when he died. He was fond of the song about the old man and his grandfather’s clock, even made a recording of it. When he died at 3:24 AM, the clocks of three of his closest friends stopped. His own grandfather’s clock stopped three minutes later.”

Father Butler had heard the story. It portrayed the Ghost Box as a miracle tool to bridge the carnate world with the discarnate realm. The Jesuit was more of a glass half-empty kind of priest. “Let’s get this over with, Philip. Remember, I’m ending this at the first sign of trouble.”

Usher nodded and plugged the machine into the outlet behind the table. He gave Butler a furtive glance before flipping on the switch. The Ghost Box came to life with a low hum and the bluish glow of the amethyst. Usher strapped on the eyepiece but held the earphones between his right ear and the left one of the priest. Father Butler leaned in closer.

There was a perceptible change in the room. Butler felt the tiny hairs tingle on his arms. The temperature dropped dramatically, as if someone had suddenly opened the door of a massive freezer. The small fairy lamp flickered, then went out. The only remaining light came from the pulsating amethyst.

“Laura, this is Daddy, baby. Are you here, Sweetheart?” asked Usher, his voice taking on a softer, more paternal tone. There was silence except for the steady hum of the machine. He tried again. “Barbara, this is Philip. If you can hear me, please answer.” Still no response.

Suddenly, a high-pitched electrical squeal, like the feedback of a giant amplifier, filled the room. Usher and the priest recoiled from the device. The sound was painful but brief. When it stopped, the humming was gone.

“Daddy,” said a faint child’s voice through the earphones.

“Oh, my darling. Laura is that you?” asked Usher, his voice quavering. “Is Mommy there with you?”

“Daddy,” said the weak voice again. Father Butler listened intently, trying to determine if the emotionless response represented any threat.

“Baby, come to us,” said Usher. “I’m so sorry for what I did to you. I’m sorry for the pain I caused you and your mother. You never should have been on that flight. You were trying to get away from me. I understand that. It’s all my fault.”

Philip Usher’s refined tones had given way to the obsessive ramblings of a man wracked with guilt. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, Baby. You were just so beautiful, and I loved you so much.”

“Daddy hurt me.” The words grew louder and more distinct through the earphones.

“Usher, that’s enough. You’re not going to find what you’re looking for with this machine. Absolution doesn’t come that cheaply.” Butler had heard the remorseful confession of a child molester before.

As he reached for the switch to turn off the Ghost Box, the Jesuit was struck by the powerful backhand of Philip Usher. He was knocked off balance and fell to the floor, striking his head on the unforgiving wooden surface. He lay in a state of semi-consciousness as Usher returned his attention to the machine.

“I want to see you, Laura. Daddy loves you so much. Come to me, Baby!”

Usher removed the eyepiece and wept as he leaned over the machine.

The brass drum vibrated slightly as the glass top began to glimmer with the same bluish-violet light as the amethyst. The light separated into a myriad of tiny particles, swirling together like a throng of tiny flying insects as they rose above the drum. They coalesced into an indistinct shape that resembled a photograph in the first stages of development. Slowly, the figure began to take form.

Laura Usher’s calcined body floated above the brass drum. The melted lavender lace of her dress mingled with the charred flesh of her twisted corpse. One of her eyeballs had dissolved from the heat of the crash, a yellowish goo dripping from the empty eye socket. The remaining eye studied her horrified father curiously.

“Daddy,” she said, reaching with one scorched skeletal arm to touch her father’s forehead. Usher took three faltering steps backward and collapsed on his daughter’s bed.

“No, no! Not like this!” Usher screamed as the apparition detached from the glass top of the drum and followed him. Laura Usher hovered above her father’s fallen form, one red-streaked eye bulging from her skull as the remnants of her other left greenish-yellow drops on his face. She plunged one seared, cadaverous finger into Usher’s right eye. His body stiffened, then went limp as she withdrew her round crimson prize. His mouth froze into a silent scream as he drew his last breath.

Father Butler had recovered enough to groggily watch the lethal reunion of Usher and his daughter. He rose unsteadily to his feet and approached the Ghost Box to turn it off. Laura Usher turned her blackened form away from her dead father and considered the priest.

“Daddy?” She moved toward the Jesuit menacingly.

“God Almighty!” Elijah Cuthbert stood in the doorway, transfixed by ghostly image of Usher’s daughter as it floated above the table. He had gone looking for Butler and Usher after visiting with his friends in the kitchen. The initial metallic wail of the Ghost Box had brought him to the little girl’s room.

“Stay there, Elijah!” warned Butler. “Don’t let her touch you!”

Laura Usher shared her attention between the two men, shifting her contorted presence from one to the other. Butler was not sure if turning the machine off would rid them of the ghost, but contact with her would be deadly.

“Laura.” Another voice echoed through the earphones. “Laura, come back. Come back to me, dear. You don’t belong there anymore. Come back, Dear Heart.”

The ghost of Laura Usher seemed calmed. She turned around slowly, surveying the room as if saying goodbye. Her image grew fuzzy. She slowly dissolved into tiny illuminated particles which swarmed down through the glass top of the brass drum in a circle of blue light.

Father Butler quickly flipped the machine off. Father Michael O’Hare and SAVES be damned. They could handle the clean-up. The Jesuit would make sure that the Ghost Box never made it back to the Vatican.

Butler looked over at Elijah. He had slumped down to the floor and held his head in his hands. He walked over to the strange little man and squatted down beside him.

“I’m not quite sure how to explain this, Elijah. I know you must be frightened by what you’ve seen. It’s the battle between good and evil, my friend, and most of the time good wins. We were saved by the spirit of Philip Usher’s wife, calling her daughter back to the other side. Hopefully, they’re at peace now."

The old man raised his head, unleashing his eternal smile. “Hell, Padre, I know they’s things in this world we don’t understand,” he said with tears in his eyes. I ain’t afraid. I’m a lucky man, yes sir. We was saved, alright. Saved by a spirit, sure as shit. But that weren’t Mrs. Usher ‘s voice we heard, Padre. That was my Molly.”



THE END


2018 Charlie Williams

Bio: Charlie Williams is a retired teacher with a love of things that go bump in the night. He is currently assisting a former student with his podcasts and film production company. He recently took the lead role in his student’s first directorial effort. Of course, it was a horror film.

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