Riley pulled the bed covers over his head, but the damned ghost just moaned louder. He was exhausted after being in the University physics lab past midnight making more time machine modifications. He wished he could find a quieter place to live, but free housing in the “Physics House”, a rundown 50s ranch near campus, was hard to beat.
He sat up. “What do you want?” he asked.
The ghost vanished.
“Thank God.” Riley flopped down.
Riley was having a nice little dream about relaxing under a beach umbrella when the ghost screamed like a banshee.
Riley’s heart pounded. In the moonlight he made out an old grizzled man. He couldn’t spend another night without sleeping. “Stop it, you jackass!”
“I cannot,” the ghost said.
“Who are you?”
The ghost smiled. “I was Tom Beck once. I lived in this house.”
Riley crossed his arms. “Do you have to scream every night?”
“It is the way of the spirit world.”
Riley rolled his eyes. “Not with every spirit…”
“I suffered great pain. My wife divorced me.”
“Did you kill yourself or something?”
“No. I had a long insurance career. I died of pneumonia years later.” Beck rattled his chains and howled. “I was divorced in this house! Ah, the agony! The injustice!”
“She probably left you for complaining too much,” Riley muttered.
The ghost wailed again and vanished.
Riley materialized in 1951 in the cavernous mailroom of Amalgamated Insurance. A young man wearing suspenders and a flowery tie sat on a chair reading the sports section. He cursed and slammed the paper down. “Why do the Yankees get all the good players?” A stack of manila envelopes teetered on the floor.
Riley suppressed a yawn. “Is your name Tom Beck?”
Beck couldn’t have been more than twenty. “Sorry, I was taking a break. I’ll get to the mail right away.” He squinted at Riley. “Who are you?”
Riley was not in a good mood. “My name’s Walter Riley. I’m somebody who needs some rest.”
Beck shrugged. “Why’s that my problem, chief?”
“You’ll understand in a seventy years.” Riley marched up to Beck and punched him in the face.
Beck reeled backwards, scattering the envelopes on the concrete floor. He held his nose. “I ought to call the cops! What’s your problem?”
Riley pressed the remote for the quantum accelerator and rocketed back to the future.
“Divorce! Divorce!” the ghost howled. “Why couldn’t we work it out?” Why?”
Riley threw his pillow, but it passed through the ghost and hit the wall with an anemic thud. “Shut up! I’ll punch you in the damned nose again!” Riley yelled.
“I no longer have a nose. I am in the realm of spirits. Spirits!”
Riley jumped out of bed. “You don’t remember me, chief? Mailroom. 1951. A guy punches you in the nose? Ring a bell? That was me.”
Beck blinked. “You?”
“Yeah, smart guy. And, I’ll go back and hit you again if you don’t stop haunting my house.”
“My boss thought I was crazy. My wife said I’d been drinking. Nobody believed me that you punched me and vanished.”
“Stop your damned whining.”
“They thought I did it to myself.”
“Just let me sleep.”
“They thought I was crazy!” More chain rattling. “CRAZY!”
Even after he had retrieved his pillow and put it over his head, Riley could still hear Beck.
In 1951 again, Riley stood behind a mail-sorting Beck.
Beck tossed a catalog into a slot. “Why do so many people have to mail stuff? Jesus.”
Riley cleared his throat.
Beck spun around. His nose was bandaged. “You again?” He put up his fists in an exaggerated pose like he was auditioning for a boxing movie.
Riley sighed. “I might have overreacted last time, but you have to leave me alone.”
“I don’t even know who you are.”
“I’m sort of haunting you.”
“You’re a ghost?”
“No. I’m from the future. You’re haunting me.“
“I’m a ghost in the future?” Beck’s eyes opened wide. “And they say I’m nuts.”
It took Riley twenty minutes to convince Beck that he was a time traveler. When he disappeared and reappeared with a copy of a 21st century paper, Beck finally settled down.
“Look, man,” Riley said. “You’re a pain in the… You complain a lot. A lot. No wonder your wife divorces you.”
“We’re going to work it out,” Beck said.
Beck sighed. “I guess we don’t. I’ve slept at my folks place since you punched me. She said she was sick of hearing about the attack.”
“I have a feeling that’s not all you complain about.”
“Thanks,” Beck mumbled.
Riley put his hand on Beck’s shoulder. “You might work things out if you were just more positive. You’re kind of… pessimistic.”
“I’m a realist.”
Riley shook his head. “No, you’re annoying. Just listen to me for a minute.”
Riley crawled into bed at one a.m. It had been a long day. Four hours counseling Beck. Then endless tinkering with the time machine. He doubted Beck even listened to him. Still, the threat of repeated punches in the nose seemed to grab his attention.
“Oooh!” an unworldly female voice shrieked from the shadows. “I love this place.”
“Hard to believe we lived here,” Beck’s voice said.
“The new house was bigger when they made you head of premium collections, but this is so quaint,” the female said.
Riley made out the shimmering outline of Beck. A gray-haired grandmotherly apparition floated near him. Riley pretended to be asleep. He didn’t need Beck to recognize him.
Beck winked at Riley.
“Honey, let’s go back to the other house.” Beck pointed a translucent finger at Riley. “Haunting only one person’s no fun.”
“Why’d a fraternity buy our mansion?” the woman wailed. “Why?”
Beck laughed. “Frat boys need scaring.”
The ghosts cackled and vanished.
For the first time in weeks, Riley slept uninterrupted.
Peter Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina where he lives with his surly cat and patient wife. He has had stories published in Asimov’s, Daily Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories and Every Day Fiction. Pete notes that the only advantage a ghost has over the poor soul being haunted is that the ghost is dead. So, how can one level the playing field? Also, Pete is unaware of NC State University having a time machine, but he will continue to look for one as his daily running route takes him past the campus.
This story is sponsored by
Odyssey Writing Workshops — Dedicated to helping writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror improve their work, we offer one of the top workshops in the world each summer; live, interactive online classes each winter; and many free resources.