From John Burish on writing, It’s Only Me:
This idea came from my fond memories of Halloween as a child and the many stories I’ve heard about my Grandmother on my stepfather’s side of the family. She was an eccentric lady who took great joy in making the kids jump out of their skin.
It’s Only Me
Written By John Burish
Jeffrey’s eyes opened wide. He had fallen asleep, but had no idea where he was.
“Zombies!” the voice cried again. Jeffrey wondered how he would survive this one. Should he lie still or get up and run.
“Zombies, come on! Breakfast is ready!” Just then a pillow slammed against Jeffrey’s head, pulling him out of his dream state.
It was Jimmy, his older brother. “Get out of bed dumb ass, we gotta go to school.”
“Okay, Jimmy quit it!” Jeffrey said as he sat up rubbing his eyes. Jimmy jumped on him and punched him hard in the arm.
“I told you. Call me Jim. NOT Jimmy!” Jim was only two years older than Jeffrey, but thought he was too mature now for a little boys name.
“Jimmy. Jimmy. Jimmy!” The brothers wrestled. This was nothing new. Everyday the brothers competed for the glory of besting each other. However insignificant the task, they would push, punch and claw their way to beat their sibling. First to get dressed. First to use the toothpaste. First to get to the bus stop.
Jimmy was eleven now and had a serious nature. He had come to believe that his little nine-year-old brother was just a kid. Jeffrey was a tough kid though, trained hard through all the years of fighting for supremacy in their shared bedroom.
The boys came rushing down the stairs finally in a ruckus that resembled a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
“Good Lord boys, you keep doing that and you’ll wake the dead,” said their mother, Lorna. A tall lady with a pleasant voice, she carried herself with a grace and ease that defied her haggard appearance.
“Yeah, why you gotta act like little devil-jerks?” said Carol, their stern older sister. She was fifteen and tired of having the annoyance of little brothers. She couldn’t wait to turn sixteen, so she could get her driver’s license and leave whenever she wanted.
“Why do you have to act like little jerks. ‘Got’ is not a word Carol. Let’s speak correctly please.” Lorna put down a plate for each with sunny-side up eggs and bacon. She had put fine lines of ketchup in the yellow center making them look like blood-shot yellow eyes.
“Eeeewwww. Mom!” said Carol.
“Cool!” said the boys. This reminded them that it was that time of year again. Halloween! It was one day away and they would soon scour the neighborhood to see who could get the most free candy.
Lorna made her own plate of bloody egg eyes. She grabbed her cup of coffee and walked across the kitchen to join the kids. Her unique gait was such that she appeared to be gliding across the floor whenever she walked. “I was serious about waking the dead you two. Every year around October in this house…”
“Mom. Don’t.” Carol interjected.
“Have you ever noticed how extra cold it is on your way down the stairs?” she asked the boys. “Or in the hallway near the banister?”
“You’re gonna scare them.” Carol said, although she didn’t mind making her brothers uncomfortable.
“So what. There’s a rickety old window up their above the staircase,” said Jim.
“The people that used to live here told us that the woman they bought the house from lived here for 70 years. Her husband built the house for them with his own bare hands when they were first married and it was the nicest one in town. They would host fine parties and all of the prominent folks in the community would come. Her name was Greta and she loved this house.”
The boys listened as they devoured their breakfast. “So what does that have to do with cold stairs?” Jeffrey asked.
Lorna continued her story. “Greta, in her younger days, would dress in her best Sunday clothes and loved to greet her guests in a grand manner. Her husband would open the door and as the guests entered, she would be standing up on the banister, and call down to the visitors to express her delight. Greta would then descend down the beautiful curved staircase quickly to greet them.”
“I bet she was pretty.” Carol imagined the eloquent dresses that she had seen in old movies.
“She is. She was. But then sadly, her husband had to go off to war and he was tragically killed in battle. Greta was devastated. She withdrew from her friends and the whole community. She put away her beautiful white dresses, and would only wear black. The only time people would see her out of the house was when she would go to the market to buy food.”
“You said she is,” Jimmy said.
“What?” Lorna asked.
“Carol said she bet Greta was pretty and you said she is.” Jimmy was puzzled. “How do you know?”
“Well, because I’ve seen her.” The boys stopped chewing their bacon and looked at their mother. “She still lives here.”
“I have too. Well sort of.” Carol said. “She disappears when you catch her.”
“What are you talking about? Is she still alive?” asked Jeffrey.
Lorna leaned in so she could be discreet, “No honey. She’s as dead as a door nail.” The boys looked at each other confused.
“Years went by, with Greta being a recluse in this house she so adored. She would spend days admiring the beauty in the grain of the wood along the railing and the meticulous craftsmanship of the man she loved.” Lorna lowered her voice, “Some of the townspeople thought she had gone mad.”
“Why was she mad?” asked Jeffrey.
“Not mad. Like crazy.” Carol emphasized the word crazy.
Lorna looked over toward the doorway that led to the foyer. She continued softly the way you would if you did not want someone nearby to hear you. No sense in being impolite, she thought. “She became a very old lady lost in her loneliness. She suffered from dementia.”
“Why was she demented?” asked Jeffrey. Carol laughed.
“Not demented Jeffrey,” his mother clarified, “Dementia. When we get old, our brains get tired of remembering things the right way. So Greta became forgetful and confused. She started to wear her beautiful white dresses again. She would wear them to greet the mailman, or the milkman that came by once a week. She was old and frail so the dress appeared to be loose and a size too big. But it made her happy.”
“So what about the cold stairs. Why are they cold?” Jimmy demanded.
Lorna looked amused and leaned in even more. “Greta’s favorite day became Halloween, because that was the day she would get so many visitors. Every time the door chimes would ring, she would descend the stairs with an old crooked smile and greet her callers. In her mind, she was twenty again. But when she opened the door, she did not like the way her visitors were dressed. They were not dressed appropriately for an elegant dinner party. They were dressed as Hobos and ghosts and witches. She would get angry with the children and scream at them as she chased them off the porch. Then she would calm herself down, go back up the stairs and wait for her “real” dinner guests to arrive. This would happen over and over every Halloween night. Until one year, a group of trick-or-treaters came to the door and Greta was so delighted she came downstairs too quickly. Her body was very old and weak by then. She fell hard and tumbled viciously down the hardwood steps her husband had built. Her torso rotated like a windmill over her legs and her head finally smacked down on the landing.” Lorna smacked the table with her hand as she said this and they all three jumped.
“And that is why every year around this time, she appears. You might see something out of the corner of your eye, but when you look over, it’s gone. Or she might see you as one of her friends and smile at you and let you see her for a moment. If you see her… be polite.”
With that Lorna stood up and began clearing the table. Jimmy and Jeffrey were creeped out. Carol relished seeing her brothers squirm.
“Uh, we gotta go to school! Let’s go, Jeffrey,” said Jimmy as they grabbed their brown bag lunches.
“You have to go to school. Got is not a word,” Lorna said in her motherly tone. “Don’t forget to invite your friends to dinner after trick or treating tonight. We’re going to have Witches stew!”
The boys walked toward the front door and stared uneasily at the bottom of the staircase. On the porch, Jimmy almost tripped over the loose brick again.
It was an old wooden porch with a brick ledge along the sides of the three stairs that led down to the front walk. The corner of the ledge at the top had a brick that had broken loose from years of people sitting on it. It could frequently be found lying on the floor of the porch. That stupid brick, it was a wonder someone hadn’t broke their neck tripping over that. Someone should fix that, Jimmy thought.
The boys walked down the block. There was a crisp breeze and the fall leaves tumbled across the green lawns. They liked their neighborhood, especially around Halloween time. Their neighbors were good about decorating for holidays. Giant spiders could be seen lurking on the bushes. Fake spider webs stretched in every direction.
Some houses even had tombstones and skeletons standing along the sidewalk to scare the kids and zombies climbing out of the ground! Man I can’t wait to get all that candy, thought Jimmy.
Jeffrey became serious. “Have you ever seen the Greta ghost, Jimmy? Jim.”
“Come on. I don’t believe in ghosts. That’s a bunch of bullshit.”
Jeffrey wasn’t so sure. “Mom says that when people die, their spirit lives on and sometimes their ghost stays around to haunt people.”
Jim tried to set him straight, “Grow up Jeffrey. Mom likes all that ghosts and goblins stuff. Witches spells and all that. She reads about it. She’s just trying to scare us.”
Jeffrey knew that Jimmy was thinking about Greta too, but was too “tough” to admit it. As they climbed on the bus to school, Jeffrey decided to think about candy instead of ghosts.
The boys’ mother was famous around the neighborhood for doing strange things, especially during Halloween time. Just last year she got Jimmy and his best friend Billy Reynolds really good. They came home from playing baseball and the house was all-quiet. They were walking down the hall to the bedroom and she jumped out at them from Carol’s room. They both jumped 2 feet high and Billy actually pissed his pants. As she laughed at her prank, the dark wet spot seeped down the front of his jeans all the way past his knees. He ran home, but was too embarrassed to tell anyone about it.
Lorna had a laugh that was full of delight and mischief. You could tell she was pleased with herself, when she would pull off a good scare. The year before that she put a “spell” on Carol and her friend Karen at a sleepover. She told them if ever they weren’t being honest with their parents, they would get little red bumps all over their skin. Each of them were horrified as it came true again and again on different parts of their faces. They stopped lying to their parents for a while, until they realized it was just normal teen hormones causing the unsightly bumps. The friends that were brave enough to come over knew they couldn’t let their guard down. Not knowing what Lorna would do next made them curious.
Another time she held an séance for all the neighborhood kids. She blindfolded each of them included her own three kids and passed around different items for everyone to feel. She described what they were about to hold in their hands as they passed it around. First a human eye ball, taken from a man who was found dead in the woods. Next, she passed around a bloody heart. And then his brain! Of course they were actually a peeled grape, a cold steak and a bowl of pasta with olive oil.
It was all in good fun for Lorna.
Jimmy and Jeffrey burst in the door that evening with red cheeks. They had been playing tackle football with Billy Reynolds and a few other kids from down the block. They were having a blast rolling around in the leaves, their hands so cold from the crisp fall weather, they could barely feel their fingers. They forgot all about Lorna’s tale of a ghostly old lady, until they saw the staircase.
At bedtime, Jeffrey wandered out into the hall while brushing his teeth. He thought he saw Carol over near the banister out of the corner of his eye.
“What are you look-“ his question muffled by toothpaste, as he looked over, the image disappeared. He peeked into Carol’s doorway and she was sitting on her bed reading. The hair stood up on the back of Jeffrey’s neck. He quickly spit the toothpaste in the bathroom sink, rinsed and shut the light off. He carefully walked into the hallway toward his bedroom. He had to look again, so he turned around just for a second to make sure no one was there at the top of the stairs. Jeffrey jumped into his bed and pulled up the covers, the light still on.
Jimmy was down in the kitchen because he was hungry. He grabbed a banana and took a big bite. Lorna glided through on her way to the living room. She was holding one of her weird books.
“Goodnight Jimmy. Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” she smirked.
As usual, there were candles lit in every room. Lorna preferred candles to using electricity late at night. The flames danced a little as she floated by and sat gently on the couch. With a slight smile she opened her book and started to read.
Jimmy blew out the candle on the kitchen table and threw his banana peel in the trash. He walked out of the kitchen and started up the stairs. He stopped, taking a careful look around. That’s when he noticed he could see his breath. It was slight, but he could actually see his breath. He took inventory of his senses and realized how cold it was on the stairs. He looked at the skin on his arm. Goose bumps.
He looked up at the old rickety window. It was closed, but maybe there was a draft coming through, Jimmy thought. He scanned up to the top of the banister, looking for any signs of Greta. As he took another step up, and then another, the chill went away. Jimmy felt strange. He imagined himself in a nice suit from the olden days and taking the hand of a beautiful lady as he bent over and gently kissed it.
Jimmy snapped out of it. What the hell, he thought. He trudged up the stairs. As he reached the top he paused. He thought he felt the air move around him on the left, like a little breeze. He could’ve sworn somebody just walked by, but when he looked, there was nothing.
Jimmy hurried into his room. Jeffrey was still under his covers. Jimmy turned off the light and jumped in bed.
“No, leave it on!” Jeffrey pleaded.
“We’re not sleeping with the light on, stupid. Turn on your night light, “ Jimmy said acting like nothing was wrong. Jeffrey came out from under his covers and clicked on the small lamp that was on his nightstand. He was glad Jimmy was in the room now. He didn’t want to be alone.
It took a long time for the shivering boys to finally go to sleep. They were lying there staring at the ceiling, trying very hard not to think about Greta.
By the time the boys put on their costumes the next evening, they had forgotten about their fears. They were now focused on more important matters. Halloween was finally here! They came stumbling down the stairs in a hurry, pushing and wrestling as usual.
“I’m going to get more candy than anybody’s ever seen!!” boasted Jimmy.
“I’m going to get more than the candy store!!” replied Jeffrey.
Lorna was in the kitchen stirring a gigantic black pot that sat on the stove.
“You guys have fun. Remember don’t eat the candy until I check it first! Bring it all back here.”
Carol and her pimple-faced friend Karen were the chaperones. They were much too old for trick or treating, but secretly wished they could. Lorna would stay behind and hand out candy while the stew simmered. The kids gathered in the front yard. Billy Reynolds was dressed like Alfred E Neuman from MAD magazine. Jeffrey’s friends from across the street were Batman and Robin.
Jimmy was dressed like one of those tough guys that rode motorcycles. He had a white shirt and a black leather jacket and Carol even helped him slick back his hair.
Jeffrey loved his costume this year. He was Dracula, with a long black cape and those teeth that made it look like he had fangs.
They could hardly contain themselves as they started down the block. They ran up to the first house holding out their pillowcases and plastic pumpkins. After each house they would excitedly brag about what they scored, while hustling to the next door.
“Hey, what’s your Mom making for us this year?” asked Billy, “Blood sandwiches?”
“Witches stew!” Jeffrey replied.
“Is it gonna have rat guts in it?” laughed Batman.
“Or maggots?” asked Robin.
“Oh it’ll be way worse than that, boys. You’ll have to come back to our house to find out!” Carol teased.
They continued on their way making sure they hit every door. Yelling “trick or treat” as loud as they could. Some houses looked a little scarier than others, so they dared Jimmy to go first. Of course, he claimed not to be scared.
This is the best, Jeffrey thought! People just giving you free milk duds and Kit Kats and licorice all night! It was almost better than Christmas! The boys could not believe their good fortune, as they wound through the whole neighborhood. It was getting later now and dark and the number of trick-or-treaters had dwindled.
Carol made the announcement, “Alright boys, it’s time to head back. Two more houses and that’s it, okay?”
As Jimmy saw the last handful of candy plop into his bag, he took off running.
“I’ll meet you back at the house!” he told Carol. Jeffrey was too busy talking to Batman and Robin to notice that his brother was way ahead.
Jimmy was smart. He knew that Mom always had to go through everyone’s candy to make sure there were not pins or razor blades stuck in there by some demented weirdo. If you didn’t get there first, you had to wait longer to eat all the good stuff. He slung his pillowcase over his shoulder as he hustled down the sidewalk. It was pleasingly heavy, no doubt he would beat Jeffrey this year, he thought.
“Mom!” Jimmy burst through the door and left it open for the others. There were even more candles than usual and they cast dim shadows along the old walls. Jimmy smelled the pungent aroma of the Witches Stew that filled the house.
“Mom!” He made his way to the kitchen.
“I’ll be out in a minute,” Lorna yelled from another room. Jimmy looked over and saw the light on under the bathroom door down the hall. He took the opportunity to look into the pot. Despite the gruesome description of ingredients, Jimmy actually loved his mom’s Halloween stew. She claimed it had owl’s eyes and frog toes and bat blood and all kinds of gross stuff in it, but he knew it tasted like vegetable beef with some extra spices and that was good enough. It smelled delicious and he was starving.
He heard a familiar creek of the wood floor from upstairs. Strange, he thought, Dad works late and Mom was in the bathroom. Maybe Jeffrey ran all the way back. Jimmy walked out of the kitchen and looked out the front door. Nobody was on the porch. The foyer was empty and he turned around to look up the old staircase.
A chill came over him. It was colder in the house than it was outside. He froze as he looked up and saw the full ghostly image of Greta standing at the top of the stairs. Jimmy’s jaw dropped and he stood there frozen in fear.
Greta was a magnificent spirit with a wrinkled face and an old white dress that hung off her skinny frame like a curtain. She had a maniacal smile and hair like a rat’s nest. She lifted a bony finger to her mouth and said, “Shhhhhh…”
Jimmy was going crazy inside his head, but outside, his body did nothing. He tried to call for his Mom but nothing came out of his open mouth. He had never been so scared. Greta glided down the stairs quickly and with each step, Jimmy backed further away.
“Shhhh. It’s only me,” Greta smiled. “It’s only meeeee.”
Jimmy stumbled back and tripped over something and fell hard on his butt. It was the near empty bowl of candy that Lorna was using for trick or treaters. Greta kept coming toward him.
“G-get away!” he gasped as he pushed backwards with his feet. He felt the threshold of the front door as he backed on the porch, still on his butt. Mom wasn’t lying, he thought, her story was true!
“Shhh. I’m waiting to greet the others. It’s only meeeeee…” Greta said in a whisper.
Jimmy’s hands kept shuffling back on the hardwood floor of the porch. His right hand scraped against the loose brick that was lying under the ledge. He couldn’t take his eyes off the ghostly apparition, but his hand searched behind him desperately for the brick. He landed his palm on the brick and wrapped his fingers around it. With all his might he stood up and threw it at Greta,
Jimmy was good at throwing baseballs and footballs, and apparently bricks as well.
The brick flew straight for Greta’s head. The ghostly image froze for a moment and then collapsed in a heap on the floor. Jimmy’s heart raced as he stared at Greta’s wrinkled white face. He was astonished as dark red blood ran through her ratty hair and trickled down her cheekbone. Ghosts don’t bleed, do they? He wondered. Jeffrey and the other kids had come up quickly behind him on the porch.
“Whoooaaa,” Jeffrey marveled. Greta began moaning.
Carol pushed her way through the other kids and looked down at Greta. “You got to be kidding me, Jimmy!”
The ghost of Greta kept moaning and said, “Got is not a word, Carol. Jimmy, you’re grounded.”
John Burish is an actor, writer and director with experience in both stage (“Modigliani”, The Heidi Chronicles”, “Carbondale Dreams”, and “Waiting for Lefty”) and film (“INVERSE”, “In-World War”, “Project Joe”, “Written By”) and is one of the founding members of a short-film production company called the Annex Film Group.
He has also written and directed many short films including the Annex’s award winning “Robbie’s Withdrawal” and “A Real Doozy”.
Currently John is finishing his fourth feature screenplay “Next Year”, which was recently optioned by Remote Films.
John lives in Los Angeles with his wife and spends much of his time working way too many hours in film production. He is the proud father of two trick-or-treaters.