It was a very long time ago, but it is still one of my clearest memories. I had been bundled off to the wilds of Maine for 8 weeks in a summer camp. 8 weeks of woodcraft, marching up and down through the dense Maine woods and sleeping on double bunk cots during long nights of homesickness. But the homesickness wears off, as does the excitement of being far away in an unfamiliar place. It becomes tedious, the days getting longer and longer with each trumpet call to breakfast or announcement of “Today is really special!”
I hungered for civilization. In the rough sawn cabins the call of plaster and sheetrock rang in my ears. I yearned for asphalt roads and the ring of the telephone. Which is why when I heard about the 2 day Art trip going to Bar Harbor, I flew to the sign-up sheet.
10 of us, the unruly denizens of the art and crafts building, clambered into two Ford vans and began the long sweet rumble down the camp’s dirt roads to the hustle and bustle of the big city. The ride was long, as any drive in Maine is inevitably long. All things are distant in that great state. But soon we saw other cars, other people, and best of all none of them were likely to burst into the Chewonki camp song at a moment’s notice.
I spent a wonderful afternoon in all of the 2 shops of Bar harbor. It was there I purchased (using my entire summer’s allowance) the succor of my soul for the rest of that long, long summer. It was a small blue transistor radio, definitely illegal in camp terms but small enough to hide under my pillow at night.
I forget what we actually came to Bar Harbor to see, but the people and the ships in the bay were wonderful. I felt like I could breathe again. We ran over the wharves and bounced from dock to street in an endless celebration of town and sea life.
It happened that night. This was a two day trip, so we needed a place for 10 campers and two counselors to find rest and sanctuary. Anywhere would do so long as it was free. Our night’s destination turned out to lie at the end of a long winding gravel drive deep in the scruffy overgrown woods. Held “in the family” of one of the two counselors, the house had long been uninhabited, a large expensive relic of a richer past. It was big, not just for Maine, but for just about any resort community from the Hamptons to St. Moritz. A great house hidden in the woods with an entry hall wide enough for two matching staircases to wind their twin ways to a darkened and balconied second floor. That second floor ringed the space above entry hall. It’s surrounding hallway open and in full view, bordered only by a heavy rail and balusters.
The eight doors, set symmetrically in twos around that balcony hallway, called us to explore. However, our safaris were short lived and loudly curtailed by our counselors. No doubt they did not look forward to explaining any subsequent injuries, to the house or ourselves, to anxious camp administrators or infuriated parents. Who could know if the ancient stairs would welcome, or even stand the pounding of ten pairs of feet rushing to investigative glory. Our place was the floor of the entry hall, sturdy and easily wide enough for 10 campers to lay out their sleeping bags.
After a rough dinner of beens and hot dogs, and a pudding saved only by it’s coagulation into a firm sugary semi-solid (even though it turned a purply-black in the process) we laid ourselves out for the night. Long after the whispers died away and the shouts of sleepy counselors stopped echoing in the massive room, I laid awake thrilling to the sounds of CKLW in Chicago. Civilization was on the air!
Interrupting my listening pleasure was a gasping, or short intakes of breath, that came intermittently from my fellow campers. It wasn’t the sound of nubile snoring in preparation for a adult life of being sent to the couch for the rest of the night, it was the sounds of surprise. I really didn’t do more than sneer in frustration at the interruption until the guy next to me suddenly and firmly pulled his sleeping bag over his head.
Fearing that the sounds of Chicago had wafted out of hiding, I looked around to check my exposure. No one was looking at me, but they were all looking pointedly up toward the top of two staircases. My eyes followed theirs, obeying the herd instinct, perhaps sensing danger.
There was nothing at the top of the stairs. Just banisters from the two elegant staircases meeting on a landing which had a short flight of 2 or 3 long steps to where it met the second floor. It was a platform of sorts, something to stand regally on and survey the guests below. An empty platform, with nary a werewolf or hungry vampire to threaten 10 frightened campers and two exhausted, snoring counselors.
However as my eyes adjusted to the moon light, which streamed in from the wide and dirty skylight above, I did begin to see what the others saw. Not on the platform but far above it. Above the open balcony that rimmed the second floor, there were lines and shapes on the blank featureless wall that rose from the ceiling of the second floor almost to the skylight.
As clouds passed the unseen moon the lines and shapes faded in and out. It was a regular pattern made of right angles and soon formed itself into the image of a balustered railing and supports of yet another floor. Once I had the image firmly fixed in my mind it became clearer, the fading and growing light only enhancing my sense of perception. It was, to all intents and purposes, a ghost floor projected on the blank expanse of smooth wall going up to the ceiling of the great hall.
There was plenty of room in the rising hall for another floor, in fact this phantom third floor ended just under the level of the skylight. The light streaming in from the skylight was blue and grey, shining stark and bright on the dingy white walls. With each passing moment the ghost floor became clearer and more distinct. It even seemed to have depth as if I could make out doors and little tables in that spectral hall. I was just trying to work out how shadows from the second floor could project up into the light that was clearly coming down into the great hall, when I saw her.
A door opened, a woman in a long dark dress stepped out, looked furtively back and forth on the shadow balcony and then walked quickly along the left side of the great hall and waited for a moment, listening by a door at the end of that side …..
“Shit! Fuck! God damn it! Stop! Get off me, you ass hole! Help!”
My fellow campers had had enough. Eerie indistinct floors were a lot to handle for 11 and 12-year-olds, but people moving on them forcing them into spectral reality had torn our chills into full-on panic. The shouts brought the counselors to life. The counselors, bleary-eyed and startled by the sudden uproar, started shouting as well.
It was at least an hour of dragging escaping campers back from the vans with alternating threats and calming speeches before we were all settled again. 12 flashlights now burned away the darkness of the great hall, although few shone up to the now invisible third floor. There was something deeply wrong about illuminating that section of blank wall high above our heads, as if it was sure to call it and it’s denizen back into existence.
Some of us laid with faces firmly buried in their pillows, others deep in the safety of the very bottom inner recesses of their sleeping bags, but all closer together. We listened and peeked for some sign of the return of an entire floor, starting at shadows and bursting into flights of activity as we oscillated between being scared to trying to scare those around us. It was a long night.
Morning did come, along with a cooler heads and thoughtful questions. While the counselors were occupied (one went for much needed coffee and to spring for 2 dozen donuts, the other trying to get 12 sleeping bags and backpacks into two vans) a few of us began to dare each other up the stairs.
It wasn’t 3 or 4 minutes before a hardy group of double dare’rs were roaming the second floor, opening rooms and closets and shouting “Boooooo” at each other. Just as the remaining counselor was calling us down, he was the actual Art teacher, an educated man who obviously thought we might listen to reason, two of us found it. One of the rooms, opposite to the top of stairs on the other side of the floor, wasn’t a room at all. The door opened to reveal a staircase marching up to a landing and then turning further upwards into darkness.
By this time we’d been outside in the daylight and seen the tiny windows of the third level of the house, it was no longer a phantom level, just unattainable. However, now we’d found the way and shouting boys armed with trusty flashlights soon broke through the locked and nailed door at the top of the winding stair case. However, that was an accident, I swear, and had nothing whatever to do with Jimmy “The Boot” Swenson. It was probably like that before we even got there, sir.
The revealed hallway was chilling. A fine carved railing, smaller than the one below, ringed the darkened floor. The doors here were smaller and set closer, but most chilling of all was a wall that had been erected just outside of the rail. The entire floor had been essentially boarded up, sealed off from the great hall it oversaw. The ceiling was lower as well, making the humid darkness of the third floor seem very close.
Opening the first door was the hardest, especially when it just popped wide open at the first touch of my hand. Kind of like having the doors to a gaping elevator shaft suddenly fly open in front of you. Inside was a room smaller than the ones below on the second floor, furnished simply with bed and chest of drawers, but none the less chilling for the tiny window set in the wall. No woman here, thank goodness. I was relieved, and yet still chilled as we turned back into the pitch black of the hallway.
One by one the doors opened to reveal more small rooms or large closets set with shelves as we worked our way around the right side of the floor. We came to the room over the great staircases below and hesitated. This was the room from which the woman came, a place of palpable dread for us. The hallway felt colder and darker than it had just moments ago, it was no wonder the shout made us all jump.
“Hey! You jerks! This isn’t your house, get downstairs right NOW! WHO BROKE THIS DOOR!”
The Art teacher was bellowing from the stairs on the other side of the floor. Sensing the awful end of adventure, I twisted the door knob anyway, unwilling to give up the chase, and pushed the cold door inward. Someone yelled “Go!” The door slammed shut with a terrific bang and we were all running for the stairs.
On the way home no one admitted driving us off the floor by shouting “Go!” neither did anyone take ownership of closing the door with a frightening bang. To my recollection I was the only one with his hand on the door knob, but I probably pulled it shut when exiting at high speed.
One other, somewhat interesting wrinkle, was one of my compatriots insistence on the ride home that the inner wall of the boarded up hallway, the one that covered up the view of the great hall, was written on. According to him the name “Simon” or possibly “Simone” was scrawled all over it. I never noticed that, and neither it seems did anyone else.
In the passing years I have developed the theory that whatever was used to cover the balconied hallway on that hidden floor had formed itself to the railing in some way, perhaps through cycles of wet and dry seasons. This would account for just the right angle of light revealing the impressions in the wall. I have no explanation for the shape of a woman that moves (could have been the pudding, I suppose), and still doubt that I slammed the door. However, my fondest memories of that summer are still my little blue transistor radio and the sounds of civilization seeping though my pillow.
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011