He had only been in China for two months when he saw the ghost for the first time. It wasn’t at all the way he imagined it would be. It wasn’t a windswept cemetery in the dead of night, or even a spooky old deserted mansion. She was standing at the top of the stairs in his apartment block in broad daylight. A little Chinese girl of six or seven, wearing a little blue and white dress with a red neckerchief – the kind the local kids wore to school. Her black shoulder-length hair was tied in pigtails and held in place with little white ribbons.
He didn’t even know she was a ghost at first. That realization came later. His first inclination was to scan the stairwell for an absent parent, but as he was doing so the little girl simply shimmered and vanished right in front of his eyes, just melted away into nothing. That was how he knew she was a ghost. Aside from the spontaneous disappearance it was the frown on the little girl’s face, and above all her huge black eyes that made a lasting impression. They stared straight at him accusingly and seemed to be asking the question… why?
Why did you do this to me you horrible man?
This shocked Jeff, and quite frankly pissed him off a little. Until that afternoon he had never seen this little girl before. Of course there was no way to be certain but he was quite sure of it. So what the hell could she be accusing him of? There was no mistaking the look she gave him before she vanished; it was full of contempt, even hatred. Bizarrely, this unwarranted animosity disturbed him more than the fact that apparently he had started seeing ghosts.
After that afternoon Jeff began seeing the little girl everywhere; outside the school where he taught, in the foyer of the restaurant where he ate lunch, in the doorway of the little corner shop where he purchased his daily supply of cigarettes. Once he even saw her in a crowded supermarket. He had been rooting through the cellophane-wrapped silk worms, marvelling at the uniquely Chinese practice of wrapping things when they were still alive.
The silk worms looked dead until you picked up the package and shook it. That would wake them up and start them crawling all over each other inside their little plastic prison when she suddenly appeared next to him. It frightened the life out of him. So much so that the pack of silk worms he had been holding fell from his grip and hit the floor with a soft thud where it split open. The silk worms, suddenly given a new lease of life by this unexpected glimpse of freedom, began crawling out, sluggishly at first but then with admirable fervor. A few shoppers turned around to scowl whilst treading carefully around the spreading mass of black worms, but none of them seemed to notice the little dead girl with the wide staring eyes.
The multitude of shoppers pushed, shoved and bumped into each other, yet no one entered the space now occupied by the little dead girl. They went out of their way to walk around her, leaving a gap next to him, a tiny patch of sacred supermarket aisle. Jeff wondered if the shoppers were even aware that they were doing it. They seemed to be doing it subconsciously and not a single other person so much as glanced at the girl. They looked past and through, but never directly at her.
By now Jeff was quite sure the little girl was dead. Apart from the way she appeared and disappeared before his very eyes, he never saw her with anyone else and she far too young to be walking the streets alone, even in China. Also, her complexion was all wrong. She was far too pale, though her skinny arms were still darkened by the sun. And those eyes, that horrible damning expression.
What the hell did she want?
Jeff wanted to ask her why she was haunting him, what she thought he had done to her, but he knew that no one else saw her except him. If people saw him talking to people that weren’t there, especially little dead girls, they would surely lock him up in a mental institution and throw away the key. Besides, his Mandarin wasn’t good enough to enable him to solve mysteries just yet. He had only just learned how to ask for a beer. He didn’t drive here, the roads were just too chaotic, so there was no way he could have accidentally knocked her off her bicycle or something, and she was far too young to have been a pupil at the school where he taught. He lived alone in his apartment and hadn’t made any friends yet, apart from a few fellow foreign teachers whom he only saw sporadically. There was certainly no one around who he trusted enough to confide in. If he mentioned his predicament to any of his colleagues they would certainly think he was insane.
After a while he grudgingly accepted the bizarre situation as best he could and tried to console himself with the fact that apparently even the walking dead are fallible and prone to cases of mistaken identity. What else could he do? The thing that terrified him most was waking up one night and finding her in his apartment. Then they would be alone, just him and his accuser, his persecutor. She had already permeated his nightmares, from which he would wake up screaming and thrashing around in his bed.
One day he came home from school and found her at the top of the stairs, where she had been the very first time he had encountered her. The staircase was fashioned from cold, unforgiving concrete and the acoustics of the old building made his footsteps echo as he climbed the stairs wearily, looking forward to putting his feet up. And suddenly there she was, at the top of the stairs fixing him with that awful dead gaze of hers. He was sure she heard him coming. If little dead girls could hear, he could imagine her lurking out of sight in the shadows, stepping out into the light only when she knew it was him.
Sunlight streamed in through an open window and a light breeze gently lifted a few loose hairs sticking out of her pigtails and ruffled her neckerchief. Jeff stopped and gazed back, determined not to lose a staring contest to a ghost, then cautiously edged his way around her. His apartment door was only yards away, if he could hold it together until he got there he could lock the door behind him and leave this creature outside. For some reason, she never followed him inside his apartment. That seemed to be his only sanctuary.
Nearly there… almost reluctantly Jeff broke their gaze just long enough to configure the last step, which seemed to be placed at a different height to the rest of the steps and had often caught him off guard, then looked back at the space she had occupied. She was gone. An almost palpable sense of relief swept through him, as it always did when she… stopped being there.
Then he happened to glance behind him, towards the foot of the staircase, and there she was again. Only this time it was different. She wasn’t standing up anymore, she wasn’t challenging him, she didn’t look capable of challenging anybody. She was lying in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the concrete staircase, one leg twisted horrendously underneath her, and a spreading pool of blood radiating out from her shattered skull. Her eyes were still open, but even from this distance Jeff could tell that those eyes were not seeing anything.
The awful sight was more than Jeff could take and took his terror to new heights. Before the girl had been dead yet somehow alive, watching, scrutinizing him. Now she was wholly and completely dead. He could see her little body, he could watch as the life drained out of it. This was infinitely more shocking, more up close and personal. He pushed a fist into his mouth to stifle a scream with and ran the last few meters to his apartment, fumbled for his keys, unlocked the door and hurried inside. There he stood with his back up against the door, panting and trying desperately to stop the last threads of his sanity from unravelling. He stayed that way for a long time.
He expected the knocking to start at the door any second; the weak, tentative knocks of a dying little girl. Then, as he listened and wished he wasn’t, the little knocks would morph into the wood-splintering blows of a vengeance-seeking demon. In the final act of his twisted mental production the monster eventually succeeded in breaking through the door and carrying Jeff off to the fiery pits of hell as he kicked, screamed and begged forgiveness for whatever it was he was supposed to have done. And there he would burn, forever oblivious to the sins he was adjudged to have committed.
But the dreaded tentative knocks never came, and in many ways that was even worse because Jeff knew that the dead little girl was still out there somewhere, waiting for him. He felt she would always be there, staring accusingly at him with those huge black dead eyes. He would never find any peace.
The next day he called his school and told them he was ill. He just couldn’t face the pupils. He wanted to get drunk instead, drink himself into oblivion, in fact. He wanted to forget all about the little dead girl that haunted him, if only for a little while. So he found a western-styled bar near his apartment block and took a booth near the back, just in case anyone from the school should look in as they were passing and see him through the window, and also because he wanted privacy. This was going to get ugly.
And so he sat and drank. Beer with vodka shot chasers. Definitely not the kind of behavior a teacher should partake on a school day. After a while the beer bloated his stomach so much that he couldn’t drink it any more, so he stuck to the vodka shots. At one point he staggered to the hole in the floor that passed as a toilet and vomited, then he returned to his booth and resumed his private drinking session. Some time later, he didn’t know how long, he decided he should try and make it home if he didn’t want to spend the night in this damned booth. He stood and swayed unsteadily on his feet, fumbling in his pockets for enough money to pay his bar bill.
He couldn’t remember much about the walk home, only that he felt it should have been night but it wasn’t. It was still day and the huge Oriental sun blazed down. He guessed it was late afternoon, around the time he should be returning home from school. Excessive alcohol consumption had evidently short-circuited his internal clock.
His concrete apartment block was blessedly cool, and Jeff took his time going up the stairs. He didn’t want to fall. That would indeed be a tragic end to his time in China, so he clung to the peeling walls to aid his stability as he drunkenly climbed the steps.
And there she was at the top of the staircase, just like clockwork. That damn little dead girl. His nemesis. Jeff stopped and squinted his eyes at her. She was wearing the same little blue and white dress with a red neckerchief, and her hair was tied in pigtails and held in place with little white ribbons the way it always was. Sunlight streamed in through an open window and a light breeze gently lifted a few loose hairs sticking out of her pigtails and ruffled her neckerchief.
He started to edge his way around her, but then the rage came from out of nowhere, and Jeff was powerless to stop it. It was the injustice that pushed him over the edge. He was sick of being a victim. Why was this little zombie-thing haunting him, why won’t she just leave him alone? He grunted and lashed out blindly, fully expecting his flailing arm to pass clean through the ghost as he stormed by on his way to the sanctuary of his apartment. But to his horror, his arm connected with solid flesh with such force that the little girl was lifted right off her feet and sent sprawling down the concrete staircase.
The little girl lay in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the staircase, one leg twisted horrendously underneath her, and a spreading pool of blood radiating out from her shattered skull. Her eyes were still open, but even from this distance Jeff could tell that those eyes were not seeing anything. More confused than ever, Jeff sank to his knees as he heard an apartment door slam and a woman scream.
Afterwards he saw the little dead girl all the time. She became his constant companion. Asleep or awake, it didn’t even matter anymore. At the police station, at the embassy, at the court, and now in this place they called a hospital. He tried explaining a million times that before he was being haunted by the ghost of a girl he hadn’t even killed yet, and now she was just an ordinary ghost. To him that was easier to understand than being haunted by the ghost of a ghost but it didn’t matter, no one believed him anyway. And still nobody else could see her, his little persecutor, the little dead girl.
New Tredegar-born C.M. Saunders has been writing dark fiction since 1997. His work includes the novel Sker House and the novellas Out of Time and No Man’s Land: Horror in the Trenches as well as the more than 30 short stories.