I met Mrs. Elvira Johnson in January 1945, a scant one week after I returned home from the war. I had been away since the middle of 1942, and it seemed that, in my absence, the family who had owned the aged and foreboding Victorian on the corner of Grove Street and Mechan Way had died, leaving the house and all of their worldly goods to an obscure relative. No one in town knew them all that well, but they had lived there since the turn of the century, and were considered decent, god-fearing people.
How my mother came to associate with the widow Johnson is beyond me. I've never asked her, and she's never volunteered the information, so I guess you could say we're at a stalemate. How I came to meet her, however, is well-known...to me, at least. In December of the previous year, while traipsing across Europe with a large group of men my own age, I was shot several times by an ill-tempered German fellow in a funny helmet. He wasn't a good shot, and only managed to shatter my fibula. Of course, that was the end of my time in the army; I was shipped home, thanked by my country, and left to fend for myself while the other boys made their last march on Berlin, only to be beat to the punch by Ivan. As I have said, I was home less than a week, recuperating and reading pulp magazines, when Mrs. Elvira called. I hobbled from my room into the parlor at my mother's insistence (war injuries must never get in the way of social politeness, she would say), and found, installed on the couch, the most ancient creature I have ever witnessed, and I stormed the beaches of Sicily, where women never die. She looked to be around a century old, with deep lines in her narrow, yellow face. When she spoke, it was with the dirt-clogged quality you'd expect to hear from the mouth of a long buried corpse.
Though hideous, I found her to be a smart and pleasant woman. We spoke at length on the war in Europe, and she held her own splendidly. Her son, she told me, was killed in France in 1918...perhaps which is why she asked me how many jerries I had shot, and called five a "Goodish" number. "You got ten Italians though, and in my book, they're just as bad."
I expressed my sympathies, of course, and for a while she spoke of her son. In fact, that's all she spoke of for the next two hours. I didn't "hold it against" her, so to speak, but I did grow bored...until she told me something which I found fantastic in a bizarre sort of way.
It seemed that the widow Johnson had moved several times since her son had died, and each time, she told me, she picked a room out for his things and arranged them as closely to the way he had them as he could. She also told me that the main reason she took the house in town was because she and her son had lived in a Victorian, and she was pleased that she would be able to "Bring him home."
As the afternoon drew heavily on, we bid farewell, and I returned to my room. Interesting old woman.
I had no idea.
Over the next several years, I saw a lot of the widow. My mother and I hosted her for dinner at least twice a week, and she returned the favor with slightly less frequency. I really did like her, and came to admire her in a way I had never admired a woman other than my mother. She was always full of laughter, hospitality, and warmth. And stories...she was a master of the art if there ever was one. She could have easily made a career writing autobiographical novels; she quite reminded me of Wodehouse, to be honest.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Elvira died in March 1950. At least it was quick and painless. Spry as ever, she went to bed one night and didn't wake up. The end.
Her funeral was woefully underatteneded; poor women had no one in the world but me and my mother.
Which is why we wound up with her house.
Mother insisted that I should have it, as, truth be told, I had been closer with the kindly old matron. I agreed, and took it over as soon as I was allowed.
Now here comes the part of my story that I doubt anyone will believe. It's outrageous, of that I am fully aware, but...by God, it happened.
Living alone was a novel concept to me, so I moved in as quickly as I could, as I said, which means that I was in residence before Mrs. Elvira's things were removed. That first night, I stayed up late on the couch and fell asleep. Some hours later, I was startled awake by a thud on the second floor.
I was prepared to write it off and go back to sleep when I distinctly heard a footstep above my head.
Fearing a robbery, I jumped up, grabbed a flashlight, and proceeded upstairs, my revolver (which I carry under my shoulder) out before me. At the top of the stairs, I heard what sounded like soft weeping.
Swallowing, my heart racing, I crept to the end of the hall, and threw open the door to the son's "room" from which the noises had come.
Imagine my shock, my unending horror, as, in the beam of the light, I saw a white-faced apparition sitting dejectedly upon the bed and crying over a framed photo of a young Mrs. Elvira.
I think I screamed. Or that could have been the phantom, for when he saw me, he opened his mouth and looked as though he would suffer a heart attack.
Here my memory grows somewhat fuzzy. The next thing I fully remember is standing in the threshold and staring down the ghost, who had not disappeared as it probably should have.
"Who are you? What are you doing in my house?"
"Your house?" the shade cried indignantly. "This is my house!"
"You're mad! Who are you?"
"Herbert Johnson. Elvira Johnson's son."
"Ghoul!" I cried. "How dare you impersonate the dead son of my dear friend! I ought to..."
The ghost froze. "Are you Philip Ashton?" he asked.
"I certainly am."
He smiled. "Mother told me about you."
He stood, trailed by my gun, and came toward me. I think I had been deluding myself into possibly believing that the ghost was not, in fact, a ghost, but when he stepped into the spill of light from the hall, there was no mistake.
"Here. Mother told me to give you this when you came."
Suddenly, as if by magic, he held an envelope in his hand. It was not, like him, ghostly.
I took it.
I did. In Mrs. Elvira's shaky hand:
If you are reading this, I am dead. Please allow me to introduce my son, Herbert. In 1918, as I've told you, he stepped on a mine in France and died. Before I had even heard the news, he came home. I ask only one thing of you, dear Philip: take care of the house and Herbert. He's no trouble. In fact, for some queer reason, he cannot leave his room. I think he's attached to his things, and wherever they go, he goes. The house is yours, as is my considerable fortune, but do keep in mind that this is Herbert's home as well. I leave you as his guardian.
I read the note three times before looking back up at the ghost. "Well?" he asked hopefully.
After a long, thoughtful moment, I sighed.
"Pleased to finally meet you, Herbert."