On my way back to the exhibit hall, I unplug the radio and take it with me. It will be less echoey if I keep it with me, anyway. And I have a new strategy. I am a bit tired. , iIt might be hard to get up on time if I stay here too long. I’ll give myself a limit, stay until eight thirty, and then I am gone. Cranking up my tunes to a comfortable, and comforting, level, I get back to work.
The next artifact that is out of place is an old pair of spectacles which had belonged to an area prospector. I inspect the lenses carefully for breaks, cracks, chips. Happily, they’re in the same condition I had noted when I found them in the collection. I have an impulse to try them on. It’s terribly bad form, but for some reason I just cannot resist. They’re round, tarnished metal wire. I have no idea what prescription they might be, but as I am already nearsighted and have contacts, I figure I’m safe. I move to the mirror that stretches the length of the stone fireplace that bisects the room, and put them on.
I like the look. It’s cute, old-school, kind of like a stereotypical librarian from a children’s book. I lift my hair off my neck into a bun, and in the mirror, I see a man standing behind my shoulder.
I can’t breathe.
He slowly raises his head to look into my eyes. My mind barely registers that he is not wearing contemporary clothing. I see a stained and yellowed collarless shirt, suspenders. He is balding and has a thin moustache. His eyes are deeply circled. He just stares and stares, unmoving. I exhale, and rising on my tiptoes, let my gaze travel down to where his feet should be. Bile rises into my throat. This is not possible. It is not possible for this to be happening. This is some kind of joke, a sick prank on the newbie.
Summoning my courage, I wave my hand in front of the mirror to check for a projector’s beam. “I don’t know who you think you are,” I croak, before turning. “But I really don’t appreciate this kind of immature behaviour.
And of course, there’s no-one behind me. I’m being punked, I know it. I take the glasses off and turn around again, checking the reflection. I only see myself. “Hm. Interesting. I think I know how you did that,” I call out, setting the glasses on the mantle. I inspect every corner of the room, looking for the camera. A hidden panel. Something. If the effect was done like Pepper’s ghost, the image should be projected from a black box of some kind. I ignore the little voice in my head that says that the image should also appear in the room itself, not in the mirror. In the end, after twenty minutes, I find nothing.
“This is such a waste of my time,” I announce. Marching back to the mantle, I hold the specs up once more, and out of the corner of my eye, in my line of sight through a small section of the left lens, I see him again.
Fingers trembling, I slowly put them back on.
He’s closer to me this time. I can see more detail in his face — a spider’s web of wrinkles crossing his skin, the bristle marking where he needs to shave. I can’t stop the whimper from leaving my throat. I force myself to turn around and face him.
But again, there’s nothing there.
My skin is clammy. Across from me, the night disc jockey announces the next set of songs. The room is completely empty of another individual, brightly lit, a row of blackened windows to my left and right.
I take a few steps forward, to the place where the man should be standing. Hesitantly, I put one hand out and move it through the air. “Rationally, Kate, if there was a ghost here you should be feeling a cold spot, or a pulse of energy, or something tangible. Measurable.” Talking to myself is soothing. I put my hands on my hips, looking over the glasses at the floor. “No evidence of a screen.” I look at the ceiling. “No fishing wire.” I pivot on a heel and walk toward the lobby at my left, then stop and whirl around with a judo shriek. “Hi-yah!”
The only result is that I feel even more like an idiot. I straighten from my crouch and resume my power-posture. Chin raised, I look to my right, and in the reflection of the night-dark window I see the man’s face right over my shoulder, so close that by rights I should feel him breathing on my neck, hear him swallowing as he glares directly at me, but instead I feel my heart hammering and beads of sweat breaking out on my forehead.
A banging on the front door makes me jump.
Whipping off the spectacles as I race from the room, I am intensely relieved to see Harley’s face on the other side of the wavy glass. My hands are shaking so badly that I can barely manage the locks. He is wearing some fire gear, so embracing him is uncomfortable, but when I refuse to let go of him he has to peel my hands away.
“I saw that you called,” he says, kissing my forehead. His eyes are full of concern. He strokes my hair away from my face, hugging me again. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“Thank God for caller display,” I joke, snivelling a bit into his fire-proof jacket. I wipe my nose with my sleeve. “I think I’m just letting this project get to me. I’m so stressed out I’m starting to see things.”
“Like what?” His hands rub my back. I hiccup, aware that I am perilously close to tears.
“Um…like I was putting the exhibit back together…” I lean into his arms as I explain, turning the spectacles over in my hand while I am talking. They look perfectly ordinary. “I’m absolutely convinced that there is a logical explanation, some kind of prank, but I don’t know how it’s being done and it’s freaking me out.”
Harley keeps one hand on my back, and with the other, he retrieves a cotton glove from a box on a nearby shelf above the counter. He knows the routines here. Gently taking the glasses from me, he puts them on. “Let’s have a look, shall we?” He smiles at me, confidently, and I follow him back into the room.
Ten minutes later, he has looked into every window and the mirror, spectacles on and off. He’s put them on and turned around, copying my actions. He traverses the room looking for anything out of the ordinary. I watch, my arms folded, feeling more and more stupid. Finally, he returns them to the display case where they belong, and comes over to me.
“I’m just silly, I guess,” I admit, rubbing my eyes with the heel of one hand. He takes off my glove and lays a kiss on my palm. “It’s late, this old house is creepy at night, and I’m stressed. So no ghosts, just me and my dumb imagination.”
“It’s okay,” Harley replies, pulling me close. “It could happen to anyone. It’s probably happened to Chris Allen, which is why he didn’t want you here late. It would mess with anyone.”
“Even a big tough fire fighter?” I tease, tugging at the fasteners on his coat.
“Even a big tough fire man,” he emphasizes, kissing me. He checks his watch. “I have to go, sweetheart. There’s a cat in a tree somewhere that needs my help.”
I salute him playfully. “Then go forth, my hero, and save the poor pussy.”
His eyes light up at my choice of words. He raises an eyebrow and reaches down to tickle me; I push his arm away, laughing.