Never had the phrase “You can’t be crazy when you’re rich, only eccentric” been more accurate than when applied to my uncle. He’d made a fortune developing some kind of military grade software that I won’t even pretend to understand and, after retiring at the ripe old age of 42, had decided to spend his days traveling to every corner of the globe.
He owned houses all over the world, hopped from place to place in a private jet, and had a full time staff of highly educated, multilingual people answering his every beck and call. Whenever it came time to hire someone new, he liked to say, “If they don’t have at least one PhD, they’re not the one for me!” I always thought it was a bit strange that such credentialed individuals would want to work for him, but apparently Uncle Spencer was a very generous employer.
I digress, though, none of that is really what made him eccentric.
No, that came from his obsession with the afterlife. He had authorities on every religion working for him, physicians and psychologists on speed dial, and no less than five psychics or mediums or whatever they’re called on the payroll. He collected artifacts associated with death from every culture and had a room dedicated entirely to a pair of mummies he’d somehow gotten his hands on (he called them Harriette and Harrison).
My father said his brother had always had a keen interest in death and what comes after, probably stemming from the early loss of their mother, but that it ramped way up after he’d started to make his money.
Even with such a macabre interest at the forefront of his life, we loved Uncle Spence. He was witty and fun and he would take us to any place we wanted to go whenever we wanted to go. His gifts were lavish and frequent, his laughter was loud and infectious, and there was nothing he wouldn’t do for his family or friends.
So when he asked if myself and my siblings wanted to stay at his summer house with him while he was in the states, we readily agreed. He’d never married or had kids if his own, so he spoiled us nieces and nephews rotten. We certainly didn’t complain.
After flying in on his jet, we were met at the airport by a limo, which whisked us away to Uncle Spence’s mansion in the woods. He was waiting for us at the front door, balloons and gift baskets in tow, and he gathered both of us into a tight hug the moment we stepped out.
“So glad you guys could come! You hungry? Let’s get a snack.”
My brother, an eight year old walking stomach, raced around him before he’d even finished the suggestion. I stayed with Spencer, though, making small talk while we crossed through his cavernous foyer to the hallway leading to the kitchen. As we passed by the windows looking into his side yard, I noticed a number of people scurrying around a trio of large crates.
“New furniture?” I asked.
“New collection,” he said with a grin.
“What this time?”
Spencer was one of the few people who could make it sound so casual, so normal. It actually took me a minute to register what exactly he’d said and, when I did, I paused and looked at him.
“Well, sort of. There are some rituals to perform, some steps to take, but soon enough, yes!”
“Wait, you’re serious?”
Even for Uncle Spencer, this seemed a bit far fetched.
“Completely,” he said. “I’ve imported them all the way from China along with some spiritualists and monks.”
“Uh, are you sure you’re not just paying for some empty boxes and an expensive vacation for those guys?”
Spence shook his head quite seriously. “Oh no, I’ve had this planned for months. It’s part of the reason I asked you two to come. Children, even older ones like you and your brother, are far more in tune with the spirit realm than adults. You guys don’t have to do anything directly, just let me know if you see or hear anything unusual.”
“Right,” I said skeptically.
At sixteen, I hardly considered myself a kid, and I certainly didn’t believe in ghosts, but I could easily play along if it meant being able to spend the summer with my uncle.
We agreed not to tell Pat about the whole ghost thing as he was still young enough to believe just about anything Uncle Spence said. If he even heard the word ghost, he’d be unable to sleep in his own bed for the rest of the visit.
“Just keep an ear out and let me know if they mention anything strange,” Spence made me promise before we joined Pat for lunch.
“Got it,” I agreed, but I was sure we were all in for a quiet, ghost-free stay.
After the crates and the crew disappeared into some far corner of the house, Uncle Spence didn’t talk about them again and I didn’t ask. I figured it was just like the time that he’d gotten Harriette and Harrison. He’d been convinced some expert on ancient Egyptian culture could reanimate them and spent weeks trying various, Frankenstein inspired techniques, only to end up with two, still very much dead and dried out bodies.
He’d fired the Egyptologist, but kept the mummies, lifeless as they were.
We were only three days into our two month stay the first time Pat came running to my bedroom.
It was late, far past his bedtime, and I’d just been getting ready to go to sleep myself when I heard him on the other side of my closed door.
“Cindy?” He whispered.
I groaned and rolled out of bed to let him in.
“Why aren’t you in bed?” I asked sternly.
“I can’t sleep,” he was still whispering and his face was pale against the dark.
“‘Cos of the girl.”
“The crying one.”
I tried to keep my expression neutral while I tucked him into my bed, but the first place my mind jumped was to Uncle Spence and his newest collection. That was silly, though, ghosts weren’t real. It was a just a little kid in a strange place.
“I’m sure it was just a bad dream.”
“I don’t think so,” Pat said doubtfully. “I could hear her pretty good even though she sounded far away.”
“Maybe you heard one of Uncle Spence’s employees. You know he has a lot of people living here. They don’t usually come to our hallway when they know we’re in bed, but sound carries so you’ll hear them sometimes anyway.”
“Maybe. Can I stay with you tonight anyway?”
“Just for tonight,” I told him. “You’re too old to be running to other people’s rooms at night, you know that, right?”
“I know,” he said.
“Ok. Love you, booger.”
Pat fell asleep easily enough once we finished our good nights and, the next morning, he didn’t seem at all bothered by what he’d heard. I chalked it up to being his overactive imagination and didn’t mention it again, not even to Spencer. I didn’t want to encourage him.
I put Pat to bed myself the next night and reminded him that he didn’t have to worry about anything he might hear. After a kiss on the forehead and double checking his night light, I left him in his room and walked the long hallway towards mine to surf the net and chat with friends before I went to bed.
After turning the corner, movement at the end of the hall caught my eye and, for just a split second, I could have sworn I saw a young woman with long, dark hair dressed all in white flit past the dark entryway.
With a short yelp, I dove into my room and slammed the door behind me. My heart beat against my ribcage, loud and painful in my ears, and I just stared at the floor, trying to make sense of what I’d seen. A maid? One of Spence’s assistants? A ghost?
Whoever it had been, I slept with my bedside lamp on that night.
I was hesitant to bring it up to Uncle Spence, especially since I really did not believe in ghosts, but between the somewhat creepy atmosphere in certain parts of the house, Pat hearing things, my seeing someone, and knowing that Spence was trying to start some kind of ghost collection, it was hard to remain a complete skeptic.
“I might have seen something last night,” I confessed quietly when Spence and I were alone.
He looked up, surprised, but I also thought I saw something else in his eyes. Concern?
“I’m not sure; a girl maybe? Young, Asian, I think. I’m not really sure.”
“Thanks for telling me,” Spence said and he left it at that.
I had thought he’d be excited or want more details, but he seemed disinterested, as if I hadn’t just told him his crazy – sorry, eccentric – plan might actually be working. It was odd, especially for Spence, who never lacked for enthusiasm where his projects and schemes were concerned.
He vanished for the rest of the day after that.
I didn’t know what to make of my uncle’s behavior, but I tried not to let it get to me too much. Dad always said Spencer could be prone to moods over the most insignificant things, I was probably just witnessing it for the first time.
I put Spence and his odd response out of my mind and went to find Pat so I could take him out for a walk.
The clock showed 1:03 AM when Pat came knocking on my door. I’d only been asleep for a couple of hours, exhausted after a day of chasing Pat around forest trails, and I was instantly irritable upon being woken.
“Cindy,” Pat hissed urgently. “Can I come in?”
Reluctantly, I kicked off the covers and tugged open the door.
“What?” I demanded.
“I hear her again! The girl!”
“I told you, Pat-”
“She’s saying stuff in a weird language. I can’t understand her, but she sounds really scared.”
I again thought of the shipment of Chinese ghosts that Spence had received the day we’d arrived and of the girl I’d seen in the hall and I swallowed hard.
“Fine,” I said, trying to sound dismissive, “let’s go listen.”
Hand in hand, we tiptoed back towards Pat’s room and stood outside his door. The air was tense and nervous between us and I had to tell myself to stop fidgeting; I didn’t want to scare my little brother by letting him know I was starting to get a bit spooked myself. Pat put a finger to his lips, motioning for me to be quiet despite my silence, and we listened.
It was very faint, so much so that I couldn’t hear it over the sound of my own breathing and I had to hold my breath after telling Pat to do the same, but it was there. The sound of a woman crying.
I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it! But how could I not? After what I’d seen and now heard, was it possible that Spence truly did somehow transport ghosts all the way from China?
“Go back to your room,” I hastily instructed Pat. “I’ll be back soon, ok?”
I returned to my own room long enough to grab my phone and hurried in the direction of the sound. I was going to try and get proof so that Spence would definitely believe me when I told him about this in the morning! I also needed the proof so I could believe myself.
I was terrified and exhilarated and goosebumps ran across every inch of my skin. The crying was getting louder, more intense, and every so often there would be words mixed in, but I couldn’t understand them. I got turned around a few times, becoming momentarily lost in the seemingly endless maze that was my uncle’s house, and every piece of furniture rose up in dark, looming shadows.
I almost gave up a few times, but the sadness and desperation in the girl’s voice drove me onward. I was starting to think if I could just get the proof Spence needed to see that ghosts were real, he’d let this particular one go or exorcise her or whatever he’d have to do to set her free.
It sounded like she was being tortured.
Eventually I ended up outside of Harriette and Harrison’s room and, for a moment, I thought maybe the ghost had sought refuge with the mummies. It made sense that the dead would seek out the dead.
But then I heard the voices, hushed and deep, and footsteps and the sound of papers shuffling. I paused, frowning, and I thought of turning back. Clearly there were people in there; didn’t they hear the girl?
Children, even older ones like you and your brother, are far more in tune with the spirit realm than adults. Spence’s voice reminded me quietly.
Slowly, and as quietly as I could, I pushed the door open just wide enough to peek in. I didn’t want to startle the people inside, who I assumed were the caretakers responsible for the mummies, nor did I want to have to explain that I was ghost hunting.
It would never come to that, though, because there was no ghost.
There was only a girl, strung up by her wrists and covered in bleeding cuts and bruises. The flowing white robe she was wearing had been stained in deep, wet red and her hair hung loose around her broken face. One of her eyes was swollen shut and, when she spoke, I could see gaps where teeth should have been. She looked like she was barely older than I was.
Her body heaved with sobs and she was speaking rapidly, desperately, in what I assumed to be a dialect of Chinese to the handful of people in the room, who all ignored her and continued writing things, tapping away on computers, or, in the case of someone I recognized as one of Spence’s preferred mediums, chanting.
An empty tub had been placed between Henrietta and Harrison’s sarcophagi and, in the farthest corner of the room, I caught sight of a pale Chinese man stretched out on a table in what looked to be some kind of ceremonial or official clothing. He was eerily still, his dark eyes fixed sightlessly on the ceiling overhead, and a slow, creeping panic started to slither up my belly.
He’s dead, it whispered.
I stumbled backwards, away from the door, and I ran as fast as I could back down the hall. I didn’t even check over my shoulder to see if anyone had heard me. I threw myself back into my room and I locked myself in, where I dry heaved over the attached bathroom sink.
The police arrived only minutes after I called 911.
The girl, a fifteen year old orphan from rural China, was the only one of the three people brought over in crates to survive my uncle’s attempt at starting a collection of ghosts.
After a trip around the country, Spencer had developed a morbid fascination with Chinese folklore and the spirits that inhabit it. That fascination turned to obsession and, after consulting some of his “paranormal experts”, he was convinced these ghosts were real and that he could capture them, collect them, make them another part of the monument to death that was his home.
What I had assumed were crates of long dead mummies or items that would allow him to commune with the dead were actually holding the three people Spencer had paid to have drugged and flown over to the states.
One was a middle aged woman. She’d been poor and led to believe that she was being brought to America for a work opportunity. She’d been the first to die. She’d been drowned in the empty tub I’d seen in attempt to create some sort of water dwelling ghost.
The second was a young man who had had agreed to come to America in order to make money for his aging parents back in a small village in China. Spencer had wanted to turn him into a jiangshi, a hopping vampire or zombie type creature according to myth. They had strangled him and mystics had attempted to force his spirit to remain in his body to animate it.
The third, the young girl, they were trying to force to commit suicide. Spencer had heard tales of vengeful female ghosts who killed themselves after being wronged in life and came back to exact their revenge. After being assured his mystics could contain her spirit, he’d had the girl beaten and tortured and told repeatedly to kill herself.
Spencer hadn’t anticipated that it would take so long and or that she would be loud enough for Pat and me to hear. He also hadn’t expected her to escape while his team murdered the young man. The night I’d seen her, she’d managed to get away briefly and was trying to find a way out. They recaptured her shortly after I’d run, frightened, into my room.
He’d been so odd when I mentioned it the next day because he had come close to being found out.
Looking back, I can’t believe how foolish and naive I was to believe for even a second that ghosts might actually have existed. If I hadn’t been so stupid, I might have actually saved the man and put a much earlier stop to the girl’s suffering. Because of my inaction, her life is irreparably damaged. I will forever be sorry for that.
I will also forever be sorry for the fact that his wealth allowed him to go to such extremes, that the people who worked for and with him just accepted his plans as part of his “eccentricity” and looked the other way because he stuffed their pockets. No amount of money could ever be worth even one life, much less three.
My uncle was rich, yes, but he wasn’t eccentric. He was batshit insane.