Most people will tell you that a ghost haunts only familiar places from its earthly life.
They might be wrong.
Most people will tell you that Hardyville is too young, too raw, and far too rational to have a ghost.
They would definitely be wrong.
It's not something sensible people talk about. When the ghost first appeared, back in 1913, the Hardyville Independent nastily scorned those who claimed they saw her. (Yes, our ghost is a she, or what remains of one). Hysterics, the witnesses were labeled. Alarmists. And delusional fools.
Except, of course, that fools often perceive what wiser men don't wish to see.
For years after her initial apparitions, most people she visited in the night kept quiet. They shuddered and turned on a light on and pulled the covers up over their heads and spoke hardly a word to anyone.
The Hardyville Ghost had a shudderingly upsetting habit. In the depth of the night, or any time after dark (you could never know), you'd feel more than see an eerie light. You'd be grasped by a goose-bumping sense that someone was staring at you. A chill would run down your spine and you wouldn't even think about what a cliche that expression was because it felt so very chillingly true. You didn't want to look. But you had to, had to ...
And there she would appear, standing outside a first-floor window or hovering in the chill air outside an upper story. Her face disfigured by sorrow. Her fingers clutching at her own throat or tapping pallidly against ... no, through ... the window pane.
She never came inside, except for the tips of those pale, wraithlike fingers, always probing, probing, probing through the glass. She couldn't come inside unless someone let her, so it seemed. But those who whispered their experiences to trusted friends said they heard her pleading, "Let me in! Let me in!" And she cried piteously through the dark.
That was hard enough to bear for those who saw her in 1913 or 1921.
But it got worse. Oh my, did it -- and she -- get worse.
Those who first saw her described a pretty young woman. Not refined. Not a lady. But a robust village girl in a full, floor-length skirt of red and white stripes, topped by a blue bodice. Around her throat was a necklace of tin stars. In her hair, a cluster of jaunty plumes. Her garb was old-fashioned, even then. And one young girl who saw her (Nat Lyons' mother, as a matter of fact) wrote in her diary that "the ghost looks as if she just walked out of a pageant."
They wondered who she had been. She wasn't from Hardyville, certainly. No one recognized her or her strange, unfamiliar dress. Could she have been a Victorian actress, dead of debauchery? An immigrant girl who died crossing the plains? People could only speculate and never know. She was just a sad remnant of someone who, in life, had possessed an earthy beauty.
Or so she was at first.
Those who saw her later -- those who see her today -- describe ... Well, it might be best not to describe too vividly. Because over the decades this young woman -- a woman who couldn't fully die and couldn't live a fully ghostly existence, either -- slowly, slowly, began to rot. Her clothing fell to rags and faded to shades of gray. Her skin turned blue. Her lips decayed and fell away. Her tongue was eaten. Her eyes went dull, collapsed in their sockets, and finally whithered away altogether.
Yet somehow, to those who managed to stand and look at her instead of running or cowering, those empty sockets still managed to convey, some said, a poignant, tragic expression. This ruin of the ghost, one man confessed, was the ruin of something that had once been beautiful and still had a heart.
So odd. This horrible thing that could scare 10 years off your life merely by appearing on your lawn or outside the big, steamy picture window at the Hog Trough Grill and Feed, evoked more pity than fear, once you took a breath and gazed at her.
Well, at least as much pity as fear. I've seen her myself. And fear devours her and everyone around her.
Pity, fear. And the third most powerful emotion around this crumbing ghost was -- and still is -- horror.
No, not horror at the sight of her. That would be a normal reaction and another Hollywood cliche. What we feel is horror at what she suffers.
Her original anguish, back in '13, was heartbreaking to behold, as some admitted on their death beds or whispered to their closest friends. But that's nothing to what our young ghost endures today.
We first saw her most agonizing pain in November of '93, we who were gathered at the Hog Trough that dismal night. November 24th, it was. She appeared -- suddenly as always. And she beckoned to us through the window. "Let me in! Let me in!" -- though now the lips and tongue were too corrupted to produce words. "Eh ee'n! Eh ee'n!" was all she could manage. Then she screamed in frustration, as if she knew all too well the ruin of her own face and voice -- and existence.
But no sooner had that scream dissipated into the night when another scream took her. Took her. Her whole body contorted, twisting as though it would shatter. She clawed at her cheeks, down her throat, and across her sunken breast, tearing rills of spectral flesh that didn't bleed, but gaped open like the raw earth above a new grave.
We first cowered back at the onslaught of her anguish. But then, as one, we surged forward toward the big dark window, as if to help.
But ... what could we do? She was -- and is -- a phantom. We are creatures of flesh and fear. We pressed against the window, inside. She writhed before the window, outside. As it must be. After what felt like hours of tormented screaming and spasms, she faded.
More the agony. Now almost every time we see her, one of these fits overtakes her. We see her standing outside a window, pleading for admittance into our lives. But before we can think, "Should we, this time? Do we dare?" the agony overwhelms her.
It happened on September 30, 1996.
It happened on October 24, 2001.
It happened on May 10, 2005.
All nights that the free people of Hardyville recall all too well.
It's happened on too many other occasions. It happens all the time now. Every day, it seems, some unseen force torments her.
Sometimes instead of being overcome by one unendurable agony, our tattered, tormented ghost is instead stricken again and again by some smaller painful thing. In fact it was that something that finally helped us understand who she is and why she's standing outside the doors and windows of Hardyville, begging admittance and mercy.
It was on an icy night in February of this year, 2005. The 2nd, to be exact. Somebody had brought a radio to the Hog Trough for a Very Important Speech. We were listening to -- and loathing -- as big a pack of lies as ever vomited from a politician's spew-hole. Throughout the speech, the mouldering specter stood at the window and stared at us with her infinite eyes. But every few seconds, she'd twitch and stiffen as if some force were shooting an electrical shock through her from head to feet.
Bob-the-Nerd -- rational, systematic Bob -- was the one who finally made the leap of logic, who finally snapped the synapse and made the connection.
Every time the word "freedom" or "liberty" erupted from the mouth of that lying destroyer ...
Twist. Scream. Stiffen in the claws of horror.
And slowly it dawned on us who our poor, crumbling ghost really was. No, not some foreign village girl murdered by her lover. Not some housemaid who tumbled down the stairs of her master's house. Not some young wife dead in childbirth.
Bob realized first what we were looking at ... what stood in ruins before us, beseeching us to open our doors and our hearts to her. Not a mere "she." No ordinary miss in extraordinary sorrow.
"Ohmigod," Bob uttered. "She's ..."
"Columbia," Nat rasped in the silence.
"She was a lady after all," Carty murmered with uncharacteristic gentleness.
And every time the liar twisted the word "freedom" until it meant freedom's opposite, the specter twitched and twisted in anguish. And every time the liar lied, "Liberty," she stiffened and sobbed in pain.
And every day now, blow by blow, the flesh continues to fall from her bones. The skull shows through her once robustly handsome face. The hands that once gestured toward the future shrink into boney, birdlike claws. The muscles waste away. Spectral maggots feast on her spectral flesh. And so -- with seemingly nothing with which to feel pain -- her undead and undying agony goes on.
How long can she hold together without collapsing into a pile of unarticulated (but unthinkably, still conscious and suffering) bones?
Yet still she pleads to be let into Hardyville, the only place left that resembles the one where she was born. This lady, who might have been reared in Massachusetts or Virginia or Pennsylvania, now haunts the only place left that feels familiar to her.
We can't let her in, though. We all know that. Pitiful though she is, out there in the cold, she isn't herself any longer. She's just a rotted and fetid specter of the healthy young beauty she once was. She becomes ever more corrupt as the years and the corruption of all she once represented assault her. Would you want her? Would you take her in as she now is? Would you accept the risk of welcoming a rotting, undying -- and no doubt deadly -- specter into your home, your business, your family?
No, you would not. And neither will we, ever. She's beyond our help. Only the gods of whatever strange and merciless limbo she inhabits know what her eventual fate will be. We can only be sure that what awaits her is worse than any mere Halloween tale of horror.