The Ghost Box
by Charlie Williams
The old Jesuit carefully navigated the serpentine road and returned to
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
an occasional drink, but high blood pressure and acid reflux curtailed
and consumption of spicy food. He took self-indulgent delight in the
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
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
Father Butler was on a mission. His loss of faith and self-control had
his options. In the eyes of The Church, he was the perfect weapon to
battle: experienced and expendable.
The Jesuit’s communion with his surroundings was interrupted by the
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
Father Michael O’Hare’s voice betrayed a weariness born of countless
with his friend. “You’ll be meeting with Philip Usher at 7:00 PM. He’s
let you view his art collection as a favor to the Cardinal. It’s a rare
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
The Violation of Eternal Sleep was created in 1920 as the result of
startling revelation that he had been working for years on an apparatus
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
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
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
final chapter. The machine was hidden in the Vatican for almost 100
years. Then it
“What is it about Jesuits and acronyms?” asked Butler. “SAVES is just a
melodramatic, and OMFG should really replace AMDG to keep up with
“AD MAIOREM DEI GLORIAM,” said O’Hare, savoring each Latin word.
“Is the motto, “For the Greater Glory of God” really meaningless to
“Not meaningless, my friend, just irrelevant. Why are you so sure Usher
one who took the device?”
“Three reasons,” said O’Hare. “First, it had to be an obscenely wealthy
or group. Can you imagine what it takes to get past the Swiss Guard and
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
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
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
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.”
to allow Butler to complete his thought.
“We don’t know who’s going to answer the phone,” said Butler, taking
“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
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
“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
but he acquired a reputation for extricating The Church from some
potentially damaging circumstances. O’Hare’s group had been stuck in
purgatory, monitoring the lame attempts of self-proclaimed “ghost
hunters” to create
an instrument for transcommunication. The disappearance of the Ghost
a bonafide four-alarm/Gabriel’s horn fire.
Butler needed a break. He passed a sign suggesting, “Get ExCIDERed
Our Cider! - 1 More Mile!” A small, ramshackle building with an open
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
in small wire cages, daring unwary gawkers to place a finger within
prisons. Behind the “zoo” was a weathered outhouse with peeling
“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
the strangest-looking human being he had ever seen. The old man’s
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
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
if standing in one place was uncomfortable, but his smile never
“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,
with his prescience. “My wife, God rest her, worked for years as a
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.
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.
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?”
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
“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
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
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
A camera discreetly mounted above the door flashed a tiny red light as
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
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
“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.
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
with Maria and Fernando. I haven’t seen ‘em since we laid Molly to
rest,” said the
“Of course, Elijah. You know the way. Have Maria make you something to
while Father Butler and I conduct our business. We’ll find you when
Usher smiled as the old man hobbled off down one of many long halls
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
and millwork of a murkily lit hallway. Usher opened the door of a
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.
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
“Then we can make this very easy, Mr. Usher. Give me the Ghost Box, and
collect Elijah and be on my way.” Butler was startled by Usher’s
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
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
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
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
a quartz amethyst. A brown electrical cord extended from the small box,
set of headphones was wired into the narrow tube. Resting beside the
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
“The proof is in the pudding, Father,” lectured Usher. “Edison used a
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
health for some time before his death and kept the device close at all
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
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,
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.
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
“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
the remorseful confession of a child molester before.
As he reached for the switch to turn off the Ghost Box, the Jesuit was
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
“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
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
“No, no! Not like this!” Usher screamed as the apparition detached from
top of the drum and followed him. Laura Usher hovered above her
form, one red-streaked eye bulging from her skull as the remnants of
other left greenish-yellow drops on his face. She plunged one seared,
finger into Usher’s right eye. His body stiffened, then went limp as
her round crimson prize. His mouth froze into a silent scream as he
Father Butler had recovered enough to groggily watch the lethal reunion
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
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.
back to me, dear. You don’t belong there anymore. Come back, Dear
The ghost of Laura Usher seemed calmed. She turned around slowly,
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
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
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
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
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.”
© 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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