The heavy ceramic angel sitting high on the shelf above the sliding glass door was perfect for what Sham, the ethereal, had in mind. That fat, orange cat had to die. Its death was the only way he could become a real ghost.
Late morning sun shining through the glass door warmed the tiled floor. That cursed cat, Cadmus, loved nothing more than to lay there to sleep.
Sham positioned the angel in just the right spot. At this distance from the floor, the force of the falling figurine should kill the cat easily. Then Cadmus could sleep forever.
With that cat out of the way, Sham could get about doing what he was here to do—scare people. That’s all he needed, just one little scare. That shouldn’t be too hard. Maybe it wouldn’t be … this time.
He kept as silent and still as the statue as Cadmus pranced up to the inviting warm spot. It curled into a nice, little ball, making a perfect, circular target. Sham, in a single, fluid motion, toppled the angel from its precarious perch. He watched as the robed, winged angel fell, head over sandaled feet, directly toward his intended target. It was going to work! The figurine was falling in a path that would land it right in the center of Cadmus’s extended head and neck.
CRASH! The sound of the angel shattering broke the near-absolute quiet of the room.
It had missed! How in all that was incorporeal had it missed?
But he didn’t have time to ponder. Cadmus was up and coming for him. That heavy-bodied feline had already jumped from the tiled floor to the nearby tabletop. And it jumped again as soon as its feet were set.
Cadmus sailed toward him. Its teeth were out and its four claws were extended in his direction. All Sham could do was stare as true death came ever closer. He was about to be erased forever from the corporeal world. Cadmus’s green eyes glinted fiercely, pinning Sham to his spot atop the high shelving as good as any witch’s spell might have.
Its forelegs shot out. The claws extended to their fullest. Sham smelt the animal stink waft ahead of the approaching beast. He felt the wind push at him as the claws pierced the air just in front of where he floated.
Then the claws fell and imbedded into the shelving. They raked gouges into the cheap, compressed wood as Cadmus’s weight settled.
The cat’s body swung, fully extended, below the edge of the creaking plank.
Cadmus was momentarily trapped.
“Cadmus how could you?” wailed Jennifer. She was the female one of the two living in the house. “Mark! Come quick! Your cat just broke the antique my great aunt left us in her will.”
“So that makes him my cat now?” Mark yelled from the other room. “What happened to Cadmus being our cat?”
Sham didn’t bother to stay and find out who really owned the dreaded cat. He took his chance and fled for his afterlife.
He heard the washing machine running and thanked the kelpies above for the reprieve. He floated into the laundry room and settled himself in the corner where the wall met the roof. Cadmus wouldn’t come in there. The cat was scared to near hysteria when it came to washing machines.
As his aura settled to a less frizzy, wave-like ambience he thought of his next move. Time was running out. He had to get rid of that cat before the sun set. Ghosts couldn’t live where a cat lived. That was one of the rules. And with his testing in just a few hours, he’d be disqualified if the ghost judges found out there was a housecat living here. He couldn’t be disqualified, not again. This was his last chance. He had run out of appeals. He had to pass his final ghost test tonight.
He had it!
He floated from the laundry room and into the den. Mark and Jennifer were watching television. He saw no sign of Cadmus. Perhaps the cat was back to sleeping in the sun. Or, maybe it had gotten in trouble enough that it was lying low under one of the beds.
He made his slow way to the kitchen. On the stove was a large cast iron skillet, and in that skillet was bacon grease. Cadmus had been going crazy over that bacon this morning. That grease would make the perfect bait.
After careful inspection to ensure that Cadmus wasn’t hiding somewhere nearby, he descended down to the stovetop. The grease in the pan had hardened to a nasty, gritty white. The dirty spoons were in the sink. He grabbed the smallest metal one and skimmed low over the countertop, back to the pan on the stove. He got a good dollop of his bait and left the kitchen, skirted the den, and entered the hallway.
The room at the end of hall was the place where the male one, Mark, painted. He had a drafting table and a few canvases set up. Sham stuck the end of the spoon in an open electric plug. A slight buzz told him he had made good contact. The gray grease in the spoon started to melt. He floated to the nearest canvas and hid behind it to wait.
The cat came trotting into the room as if on cue. Sham could not have asked for better timing. This was going to work!
Cadmus darted to the spoon like a younger, skinnier, version of itself. When it got near to the spoon it slowed. For an instant Sham thought that Cadmus had caught on to the trap, but no, it was just doing was all cats do. It sniffed around the edges before fully committing to the treat.
One of Cadmus’s whiskers got too close. An arc of blue fire shot from the spoon to the cat’s nose. A shriek echoed off the walls as Cadmus leaped away. The spoon was dislodged from the socket. All of Sham’s collected grease dribbled into the carpet. He looked to Cadmus, hoping the leap had been nothing but a final death throe, but such wasn’t the case. Cadmus crouched, its feet tucked neatly under it. It tongue licked at the smoldering end of a burnt whisker. The cat’s eyes were a glaring green intensity directed right at him.
He screamed and floated away as Cadmus leaped to the canvas he was hiding behind. The cat shredded the canvas with one good tug of it claws. It leaped again, to the next canvas, ripping it too as it tried to get to Sham.
For his part, Sham floated faster than he thought possible. But, he knew it was no use. The cat, by instinct or plain dumb happenstance, had positioned itself to effectively block the door, Sham’s only way out.
Cadmus hopped to the drafting table and crouch-walked up to its highest point. Sham took refuge in the far, upper corner of the room, but it was no good. Cadmus could make the jump. Those claws would rip his ethereal tissue to shreds.
Cadmus seemed to know it had won as well. It took its time. It crouched low in preparation to spring. Its eyes were wide, its pupils dilated.
Mark came barging in. He took one look at the situation and grabbed Cadmus by the scruff. With a single heave, he tossed the heavy-bodied cat to the hall.
“Jennifer, get your cat!” Mark called as he eyed the damage Cadmus had made. “He has ruined every one of my projects back here! What has gotten into that cat today?”
“Maybe he needs more attention,” Jennifer called back.
“And why does it smell like bacon in here?” Mark added.
Sham slipped past the furious Mark and sought refuge in a less hostile environment. He needed time to think, and to once again calm down. For the second time in one day, he had almost died true.
He ventured in a shocked haze to the master bedroom. He usually didn’t spend much time in there. The live ones slept there. And since he was forbidden to scare the living unless properly supervised, or until he passed his sanctioned ghost testing, he tried to stay away from the temptation.
But there was a vaulted ceiling in there, and it was high enough for his fear of Cadmus to go away.
He floated a circle around the shaft of the ceiling fan while he fretted over his dilemma. For the umpteenth time, he cursed selecting this house as the site for his testing. But what was he supposed to do? He had been left with little choice. This house was one of the new ones. The other incorporeal beings hadn’t scoped it out yet. So, naturally, he had jumped on it, had registered it and everything, just to keep the others away. How was he to know that the living beings owned a housecat? He had not had the time to check it out properly. No spirit had.
It had been the last house available that met the specs for his testing, though. And there was no telling how long it would be before another came up. However long was too long. He was tired of failing over and over again. He was going to pass the test tonight. It was such a simple test. All the ghosts said so. All he had to do was scare somebody.
If only he could get that cat out of the house.
Outside cats were okay. Maybe he’d been going about this all wrong. He didn’t necessarily have to kill the cat. It just couldn’t be there during the short amount of time it took for him to pass his test.
He waited till the 6’oclock news came on before slipping from the master bedroom and into the hall. The sun was starting to set. It was now or never. He had one shot at this.
“See Mark,” Jennifer said from the den. “All Cadmus needed was a little cuddle time.”
Sham froze at the end of the hall.
“Yeah, looks like,” Mark said.
“Cadmus has already taught us so much about caring for a little one,” Jennifer added. “You’re going to be a good dad.”
“Not as good as you’re going to be a mom.”
Sham couldn’t wait any longer. The sun had already turned from yellow to orange in its descent.
He eased around the corner and looked down onto the den.
The two living sat on the couch. They had their faces smashed together. Cadmus, sitting between them, had its head turned up. Its piercing green eyes had already found Sham.
BOO? Sham’s voice was more a whimper than anything remotely scary.
“MEOWRR,” Cadmus growled deep in its throat. Sham started his shaky way across the ceiling.
Cadmus jumped to Mark’s lap and then vaulted up toward Sham.
“HEY!” Mark yelled. “Easy with the claws, Cadmus!”
The cat didn’t come anywhere near high enough to threaten Sham, but still Sham shrank away. With a glance to the ever-setting sun, he forced himself to stay in the room. This wouldn’t work unless the two living saw it.
BOOOOO… He taunted the cat as loudly as he could manage while he slid back and forth along the ceiling.
“MEOWRR, FITT FITT,” Cadmus growled. It jumped over and over up toward him, never coming close, but always coming near enough to almost scare the shade out of him.
“What’s wrong with Cadmus?” Jennifer asked. Mark didn’t answer.
BOOOOO… Sham kept at it. The sun was nearly down. He got more brazen in his attempts; reckless, even. He hovered above the television. Cadmus jumped up atop the entertainment center and launched itself at him. Sham floated toward the couch. He wanted Cadmus to hit the live ones.
But he had underestimated the cat’s speed. Cadmus was coming. The height of the entertainment center had given it all the added altitude it needed to reach him. Cadmus was going to hit him and there was nothing he could do about it.
His attention was so fixed on his advancing death that he had not noticed that Mark had stood from the couch. He bounced from the living one’s outstretched hand.
Mark caught Cadmus in mid-air right in from of Sham’s ethereal face.
“MIERRR,” Cadmus growled as it twisted in Mark’s grip. Sham dropped down and floated away as the angry feline tried in vain to reach him.
Mark opened the door to the outside and tossed Cadmus into the yard.
Yes! It had worked!
“Mark?” Jennifer asked. “You threw Cadmus outside. How are we going to be good parents if you throw Cadmus outside when he’s having a tantrum? We can’t throw our baby outside if its crying, you know.”
Mark grabbed Jennifer by the hand and brought her to her feet. “Babies have tantrums—cats don’t, not at nothing, anyway.”
“There is something else here.”
She looked around, her eyes passing right through Sham. Of course she couldn’t see him. Only real ghosts and the higher-ups had the power to make themselves visible.
“Come with me,” Mark said. He led her from the room and into the hall. Sham went to follow, when three ghosts slipped through the wall and into the room.
“Honored sirs,” he said at once. He had been through this so many times that he knew the drill by rote.
“Ethereal Sham, we have arrived at the appointed time and in the proper frame to witness your final appeal for acceptance into the Guild of Ghosts.”
Sham couldn’t tell which of the three had spoken. They had each arrived as floating white orbs, the official frame for testing.
“Thank you for the chance,” Sham said with a bow. “I’ll not let you down.”
He had added the sentiment on purpose. It was unneeded and probably not worth the specter air he’d spent to say it, but this was his last chance. He might as well say what he wished.
“This is a waste of time,” one said, “just like the other times.”
Sham fought hard to keep his aura in check.
“Why does it smell of cat in here?” another asked.
“An outside cat is all,” Sham said, pointing to the window. Cadmus was on the outside window ledge MEOWING its fool head off.
“You are lucky to have found a suitable house at all,” a ghost said. “Domestic cat breeding has really gotten out of hand in today’s age.”
“A review of the rules then,” one ghost said.
“As if he needs reminding,” another said.
“He has attempted this trial more times than any spirit in the realm—and still, nothing.”
“When will he learn that some spirits aren’t made to scare?”
“Excuse me,” Sham interrupted. He hated how they talked about him as if weren’t there. “You mentioned the regulation rules…”
“Yes, quickly then. We will grant you the power to reveal yourself, but you may do so for only a fraction of time and only in the peripheral of a living one’s vision. Do you remember the list of acceptable noises and motions?”
“I am well aware,” Sham said flatly. Mark and Jennifer would be back any time. He would show them what he could do. He’d pass this test in a flash.
“Normal sounds are fine—knocks, thuds, creaks. Some laughter and whispers and the like are acceptable within a very fine range.
“I know the limits of the test,” Sham said. “Thank you.”
He could hear Mark and Jennifer returning as they walked the hall back toward the kitchen and den. As soon as they entered, he went into action. He used the powers granted him by the council for just this purpose. The powers were a parody of what real Ghosts could do, but still; even just those small added abilities let Sham know that all the humiliation he had taken over the years was worth it.
He placed horrific visions at the corner of their vision. He caused a few of the cabinet doors to creak. He cackled a bit in their ears. He needed their attention so that he might truly frighten them. He blew a little cold, dead air in their faces then turned the television off and back on. None of it worked. They walked on, straight to the kitchen table.
He pulled out his ace. Jennifer and Mark had been talking about having a baby since the first time he’d seen them. He gave them the sound of a distant thump and followed that with a baby’s cry. Surely, that would get Jennifer’s attention.
But no, they both had their attention focused on the items in their hands.
“Are you sure about this Mark?” Jennifer asked. “I heard that stuff was real. You could bring a demon over to this side.
“You bet it’s real,” Mark answered.
“I say,” one of the ghosts popped up, breaking protocol. The ghost judges were supposed to remain silence during testing. “Is that what I think it is?”
“My great grandfather gave this to me,” Mark said.
“That is what you think it is,” another of the ghosts added. “A Ouija board is being prepared.”
“But why must I use my candle holders?” Jennifer asked in a whine. “They were my mother’s favorite. ‘Glass from the old country’ she says.”
“They are old,” Mark said. “Old is important. And you care about them. That will make this work better.”
Sham had stopped trying to spook them. He stared in horror as his last and only chance at Ghosthood went up in specter smoke.
“Why are they attempting a connection now?” one of the orbs asked suspiciously.
“What have you done?” another cried.
“Only a true ghost can resist the Ouija call.”
Jennifer lit the candles while Mark killed the lights.
“You will betray our presence, Sham,” a ghost wailed. “Do you know the damage you might cause?”
“We will have to consult with the Witches to get this fixed.”
“We hate dealing with the Witches, half in—half out … and their blasted, black cats, never knowing if they are going to kill you true.”
Sham could feel the pull of the board even as they spoke. When Jennifer and Mark put their fingers to the pointer he floated in that direction.
“Blast you, Sham,” one of the ghosts cursed. “I will see you staked to the light for this, mark my words!”
“Spirit,” Mark said. He was talking directly to Sham. The feeling was surreal.
“Come to us and speak,” Mark continued. Sham came closer as bidden. He could not stop himself.
The orbs still floated, watching. They were bound to stay for the time of his testing.
Though compelled to obey, Sham did turn his eyes enough to catch their glowing presence. Was this how his dreams were to end, him making a complete fool out of himself, being used by a couple of live beings?
No. He would not go out like this. He struggled as he floated ever closer to the pair of living hands that lightly touched the Ouija pointer.
He passed close to one of the candles. Using every bit of power he had, he pushed the candle until it began to topple.
“My candle!” Jennifer screamed. She tore her hand from the pointer and grabbed for the heirloom.
“My board!” Mark’s excitement echoed Jennifer’s own. He jerked the board away from the descending fire.
Sham continued toward the table, carried as he was by the original force of the Ouija board. When he reached the tabletop he experienced a most odd sensation. The table felt pliable. It felt soft. Before he knew it, he was passing through it. The taste of cleaning oil and wood pressed tight against him.
How had he done that? Only the true Ghosts or higher ups could pass through the physical.
He turned his attention to the three orbs floating nearby.
“The living beings were frightened. You passed the trial,” one said.
“They were fearful for the safety of their possessions,” another said.
“You are one lucky spook.”
Sham rose to once again float through the table. Mark and Jennifer were re-setting the board, but he no longer felt the pull he had moments ago.
He’d won! He had passed the final test!
“Welcome to the Ghosthood,” a ghost said.
He glanced around the darkened room and tried to memorize the moment. This was where his dream had come true. He was finally a member of the Ghosthood.
Outside, on the ledge of the window, Cadmus continued to meow. It eyed Sham with a green-eyed focus that only a cat could achieve. Sham, though he shivered at the intensity directed his way, smiled. He had won.
JASON LAIRAMORE is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who lives in Oklahoma with his beautiful wife and their three monstrously marvelous children. He is a published finalist of the 2012 SQ Mag annual contest and the winner of the 2013 Planetary Stories flash fiction contest. His work is both featured and forthcoming in over 30 publications to include Perihelion Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories, Third Flatiron publications, and Postscripts to Darkness, to name a few.