It was no surprise to the others that Mr. Tonks was late for assembly. He was, after all, as he was never loath to emphasize, the oldest ghost in Princeton and the power that came with such seniority allowed him a certain leeway with petty things like rules and regulations — even the rules he had himself created. The younger ghosts considered him a bully but to Mrs. Maples, once a member of George Washington’s household and an unfortunate victim of drowning-by-crinoline, such behavior was to be expected from an aristocrat.
“You cannot fault him, my dears: it is the English way” she said for the hundredth time from the comfortable seat of her invisible rocking chair — like the crinoline, it had partaken in her demise and was consequently bestowed with eternal time in the not-quite-afterlife — and butted Tweezers with her musket. Tweezers knew better than to argue. The most recent addition to the Princeton assembly, he had no memory of the distant time that Mr. Tonks and Mrs. Maples called their own, but since taking a tumble off a bridge in Trenton in an attempt to change a certain M to an F in the mid-1990s, he had become more acquainted with colonial customs than he had ever thought possible. Being a Princeton ghost, it seemed, was to maintain an air of great wisdom even when one knew almost nothing. Inexplicably, you also had to carry a musket. To Tweezers, both characteristics were decidedly pre-modern. He found himself wishing for a friend.
Tweezers curled into the shallow gap between the tiger’s paws and kept quiet. He liked this time of day, when shadows deepened into inkiness and silence fell over campus like a thick, mottled blanket. The living hurried from lamp post to lamp post in narrow strips of faint light, unaware of invisible eyes peering at them from the steps of Adams Mall. To Tweezers, they were as magical and mysterious as the undead had once been to his living self, but his fascination with the living was not shared by the older ghosts.
“But Mrs. Maples” chirped Tiny Susan from atop the other tiger. “He makes us come here and it is past my bedtime and now mama’s going to be angry with me.” Tweezers wanted to tell the poltergeist that her mom had been sleeping peacefully in the Princeton cemetery for two centuries but such reminders never went over well. Ghosts, he had learned quickly, resented the fact that they were no longer alive, and the less you reminded them of their change in materiality, the better.
“Here he comes now!”
Mr. Tonks arrived in a huff, cravat crooked, columnar top hat askew. But it was not his discombobulated appearance that suggested to Tweezers that something was amiss; it was the fact that Mr. Tonks did not capitalize on the opportunity to make an entrance. Instead of gliding gracefully across Cannon Green — his lawn, as he liked to call it — he came careening down the gravel path, shouting wildly in a manner decidedly un-gentlemanlike.
“My friends! My friends! Gather near! Oh! Oh! The sign in the sky that we have long admired — the arch of light below two glittering suns! Knowledge has come to me regarding its deeper meaning! Alas, it is too much to bear!” Mr. Tonks was talking about the reunion fireworks, of course. Tweezers was surprised by the topic. For the Princeton ghosts, the fireworks were a point of contention. Something about the explosion of nitrates against the sky caused their form to solidify, generating compact tissue where otherwise there was just air. For a few precious hours, the ghosts could walk among the living: solid, lifelike, visible — being bumped into rather than walked through.
Unfortunately, and this was the reason for their resentment, no one paid them the slightest attention. Tweezers suspected it was because of the lack of orange in their clothing but the older ghosts saw it as a great insult to their glory. How dared those sniveling solids not say excuse me, or good evening sir, or would you like a brandy to ward off the chill? Consequently, the fireworks were rarely spoken of. Yet, the feeling of a weighted body getting heavier and denser as the sky exploded into a rain of stars was too delicious to avoid, and even Mr. Tonks would leave his beloved attic in Nassau Hall to watch the myriad of miniature suns light up the evening, flesh filling out the sleeves of his velvet overcoat.
“The sign in the sky” repeated Mr. Tonks dramatically when he realized that no one was going to ask him a question. Mr. Tonks loved questions best of all. “It is the impression of a — human — face. Dear Mrs. Maples, do not faint!” (Ghosts could not faint but Mrs. Maples was an expert performer.)
“It is called a smiley” squeaked Tiny Susan. “I heard some children say it.”
“A smiley! Yes-yes! This is its devilish name! Friends, I am alarmed —grieved, very deeply! Indeed, I stand agape at this atrocious deed. This sign in the sky, this smiley — it has a deeper meaning — a grave and wicked one.” The ghosts drew closer. They could not help it. Whenever one of them was charged with extra energy, they had to get nearer, and for once, Mr. Tonks’ antics felt genuine rather than the usual theatrics.
“My friends, listen well” Mr. Tonks whispered, top hat tilting perilously. “The smiley, that human face: it means that the Princeton living — oh it is too hideous to utter! The Princeton living … do … not … believe … in … ghosts.”
“What does it mean?” Professor Charvet, the only ghost-academic in the assembly and chair of the French Department in a distant time when being chair of the French Department made you the equal of Racine, had a bit of a hearing problem when it came to Mr. Tonks. To Tweezers, it seemed to be a question of who got more of Mrs. Maples’ attention but chances were that meeting your end beneath a fallen bookcase did strange things to your head. Professor Charvet certainly looked a bit worse for wear, monocle and all. The ghosts leaned closer.
“It means” said Mr. Tonks, his eyes narrowed to slits “that every time the solids make that sign, they are taunting us. They are saying: you do not exist.” Mrs. Maples gasped. One of the musketeers started crying.
“It means” Tweezers piped up — himself so surprised that he almost stopped speaking — “that they are happy.” Professor Charvet seized the opportunity to silence Mr. Tonks’ monologue.
“Why, yes, young man, that’s naturellement what it means! The living are happy to believe we do not exist!” That was not what Tweezers had meant but there was no stopping the professor now.
“Mr. Tonks, little boy, dear friends” the professor said conspiratorially, inching closer to Mrs. Maples. “We must join in a common cause to restore our glory. We must fight these ignorant solids.”
“What must we do?” whispered Mrs. Maples. A surge of electricity rippled through the assembly. For once, Mr. Tonks and Professor Charvet were on the same page. This, felt Tweezers, was going to end badly.
“The living must be taught a lesson they will never forget.”
In hindsight, Tweezers should have seen it coming. Mr. Tonks and Professor Charvet both lived next to Cannon Green, where the solids were the most bothersome. Centuries of disturbances had made the old ghosts irritable. The Princeton Walkabout Company had been a particular nuisance for years, trampling all over Mr. Tonks’ lawn, disturbing Professor Charvet’s quiet studies, while pretending to look for ghosts with plastic contraptions not fit to find one’s own two feet. Preposterous! As soon as the decision had been made to target the Company, the two old gentleman-ghosts seemed to have forgotten their animosity — indeed, Mrs. Maples felt quite abandoned — and began plotting their revenge.
Tweezers had to admit that the colonial ghosts had a knack for devious schemes. He had the idea that revenge was something akin to painting a scary message on the wall of Clio Hall — the ghostly equivalent of his own bridge adventure — but the old ghosts wanted to inflict more permanent damage on the living. Spray paint? How about blood? Writing a message on a wall? How about blowing up the building?
“They must learn to never slight us again” said Professor Charvet grimly and scattered a stack of parchments across Mr. Tonks’ table, almost knocking over Mrs. Maples’ jar of gun powder. The parchments contained detailed drawings of the entire town, made in the professor’s spindly hand. A large X marked a specific spot: Cannon Green. Over in the corner, eerie blue flames flickered from the palms of Tiny Susan, who had been recruited for her fiery tendencies. Tweezers felt uneasy, and not only about the fireworks Tiny Susan had stolen. ’It is a misunderstanding!’ he wanted to say. ’That is not what the smiley means at all!’ But as the most recent arrival to the Princeton not-quite-afterlife, he did not dare speak up, and the plotting continued, the stack of parchments growing every day. In late October, they were ready.
Dim halos around the crowns of lamp posts; a scent of sulfur on the chill wind; pale clouds whispering from an inky sky — the Walkabout Company could not have asked for a better setting for their famous Halloween tour. The guide smiled to his party.
“Gather close, my friends, or the ghosts will catch you!” he offered jovially as he shepherded his little flock across Nassau Street. Nassau Hall loomed dark beyond the gates. On evenings like this, thought the tour guide, the building looked particularly ancient — otherworldly, almost. With a little bit of imagination one could almost hear muskets being fired on the little patch of grass just beyond the old building, ghosts patrolling the attic. The tour guide smiled to himself. On nights like this, tips were always excellent.
“The weird lady in the costume we just saw is just some person” a child complained to his mother. “You said this was the real thing. Where are the real ghosts?”
“Shush Nathaniel, there are no real ghosts. This is just for fun, a little adventure” the mother replied.
“Now, some of you have heard of the battle of Princeton, I take it.” The tour guide liked this part the best: Cannon Green was an excellent backdrop for his monologue. The best part of the job was that he got to hear his own voice. The tour guide loved having an audience. Now, the participants gathered around him, and standing atop the partially buried cannon, the guide launched into a passionate account of smoke billowing from burning cloaks, the sound of fury as cannons and muskets were fired, the screams of death and agony as soldiers fell and died. Colonial times! Freedom! Princeton — at the dawn of America! Annoyingly, the small boy Nathaniel and his friend did not seem to care: instead of hanging on to his every word, they were drawing smileys in the gravel. Children — such untrustworthy creatures.
“And so the cannons were fired…” the tour guide exclaimed, hands raised, his voice building in a perfect crescendo — BOOM. What? Someone screamed. The tour guide was so startled that he fell off his cannon. Had a car backfired? Was there a gunman loose?
“What was that?” shrieked a young man.
“Nothing, nothing at all” the tour guide tried to say but his mouth was full of dirt.
“A cannon!” howled a lawyer. “Someone fired a cannon! In Princeton! That’s illegal!”
“Ha ha, just a little sound effect to make the tour more authentic! There is no need to get bent out of shape.” Theatrics or no theatrics, the tour guide was a professional. “Here now, please take one of these tools and see if you can find one of Princeton’s fallen ones. See if you can detect a Princeton ghost! Would you like an EMF meter?” The last was directed to the boy Nathaniel, who seemed undeterred by the mysterious cannon as the rest of the party scattered across Cannon Green, beeping contraptions in hand.
“Now, you can find ghosts in many ways, but the most important thing to know is that you can never truly see them. But your instruments can!” The tour guide climbed back onto his cannon.
“Hey mister” said the boy and tugged on his leg. “That fake ghost lady you showed us earlier, we could see her. So why can’t you show us the real ghosts? Can’t you just call them? Like, with a signal in the sky, like in Batman?” The tour guide was beginning to wish that children not be allowed on the tour.
“And what sign would that be?” he asked. The little boy shrugged. Then the chubby hand that had been clutching the pant leg rose into the air.
“What are those flames?” In the dark between Clio and Whig Halls, where the two Bengal tigers held court at Adams Mall, eerie blue fire had begun to climb through the evening mists.
“Hmm those are just energy lights” the tour guide improvised but was suddenly overcome with a desire to leave his flock and rush back to the modern comforts of Nassau Street. The flames wove themselves into fantastic shapes — a face — a smile! — creeping closer and growing larger each second, but without illuminating anything. Some of the tour participants noticed.
“Is this also for the sake of authenticity?” asked the lawyer suspiciously. The tour guide was about to say something but he could not, could not, because there was something clutching at his throat, something cold, something damp, something dead and invisible and entirely too terrible to imagine.
“Are those fireworks?” asked someone else as lights suddenly flickered around the Green, dotting a neat circle in ghostlike white, only to swiftly disappear. The air grew thick with the scent of nitrates. Somewhere unseen but near, too near, a bird cawed.
“You guys have really outdone yourselves this year” said the lawyer to the tour guide. “Hey, what’s that over there?” The circle of light blossomed up again, the odor growing stronger, but this time the lights did not go out.
“Those are not the same as before” said Nathaniel’s mother. “Those are not fireworks. Those are eyes.” Shapes were beginning to take form in the mist.
“Hey mister, you said you can’t see them. Then who are they?” The little boy Nathaniel pointed and the tour guide tried to look, tried to fight the damp hands that were clutching and grabbing and clawing at his throat, but he could not, because suddenly his own hands found purchase around two spindly, ancient wrists covered in velvet.
“Hey, mister,” shouted the little boy at the same time that several ladies began to scream. “Hey mister, there’s a guy in a top hat hugging you!” Then a musket went off, and another one, and another, and all at once Cannon Green was filled with fire, and the mist with flesh, and the participants did what any ordinary person will do when attacked by ghosts: they fled. Helter-skelter in a wailing mass of arms and legs, the party tried to leave Cannon Green, but everywhere they turned, the mist solidified into terrible, horrible things, things staring with burning eyes, laughing like no living person could ever laugh. Ancient hands grabbed at scarves, claw-like fingers scratched at purses. The living had become sheep, shepherded by the dead.
“It is the end of the world!” screeched the lawyer before falling over the writhing tour guide, trampling an elderly gentleman with a top hat, and knocking out all three of them in the process.
“It’s the end of the world! The end of the world! Fire! Ghosts! There are ghosts on Cannon Green!”
The little boy Nathaniel looked up. In his excitement, he had toppled over, but he had seen most of the attack. Amazing! Most of the ghosts were old, he thought: they wore funny clothes and seemed a bit wonky in the head, but terribly determined to chase the living people off the Green. But the ghost in front of him did not seem wonky: he looked like any ordinary middle schooler with the exception that he carried an old rifle and had a spray can sticking out of his pocket. They looked at each other.
“Hey” said Tweezers tentatively.
“Hey!” said Nathaniel and scrambled to his feet. “You are real! You are really real! That’s what I’ve been saying to my mom all along — sometimes I see shapes in the shadows, especially when I’m walking down the sidewalk. You are real! I’m so stoked!” Tweezers shrugged but Nathaniel could see that the ghost was pleased.
“We are always here, you know. Just send us a signal and we will come. You know, like in Batman” he said. Nathaniel’s heart started beating faster. This was almost too good to be true. Quickly, he drew a sign in the gravel. Leaning closer, Tweezers had to laugh. Nathaniel joined in, although he did not get the joke, and Tweezers bumped him on the shoulder in the friendliest of manners.
“Yes, of course! That is just the sign” said the youngest Princeton ghost, his smile a perfect imitation of the drawing on the ground.
Ljung is a classical archaeologist by training. She splits her time between home in Rocky Hill, Princeton University, where she teaches academic writing to freshmen, and Portugal, where she runs an excavation.