For the past week, I've been in serious pimp mode promoting my new novel 324 Abercorn
. Since the novel takes place in Savannah, I thought it might be fun to share with people the first story I ever wrote set in the city. This was written in the early 2000s, right after I made my very first visit to Savannah with some friends of mine. In fact, I made myself and my friends the main characters of the tale. I actually published this story three times, in two different magazines and an anthology, but it has never appeared in any of my collections. Hope you enjoy.
THE BEST GHOST TOUR IN SAVANNAH
“We’re gonna be late,” Mark said, checking his Scooby Doo watch again. Tiny ghosts floated across the face, the hands creeping toward 9:30.
“We’ll make it, I’m sure it’s just around the corner,” Kasey said, her eyes darting between the map in her hands and the street signs. They were currently walking down Lincoln, about to intersect with E. Congress. “If either you or Robin want to take over navigation, I’ll gladly give up the map.”
Mark was more than happy to let Kasey play the role of unofficial leader of the trio. This was the first time in Savannah for all of them; it was well after dark; all the streets looked alike; and they’d already missed the first two walking tours they’d tried for.
It seemed a rocky start to their vacation, and yet Mark was certainly having the time of his life. It was different; it was exciting; it was fun. It was an adventure.
“I think this is it,” Kasey said as they turned left onto Congress. One of Savannah’s many squares lay ahead of them, little islands of nature and rest in the midst of the historic district. “And we’ve got one and a half minutes to spare.”
“Then why are we the only ones here?” Mark asked. Many tourists strolled the streets a
round the square but no group gathered for the start of a tour.
“This is Reynolds Square,” Robin said, indicating a sign at the square’s entrance. “The brochure said the tour started in Johnson Square.”
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Kasey said, unfolding the map and scrutinizing it once again. “I was positive this was it.”
“The streets move around,” Mark said with a certain amusement in his voice. “Just when we think we know where we’re going, these fuckin’ streets rearrange themselves.”
“You read too many horror novels,” Kasey said. “Okay, I’ve got it now. We’re in front of Reynolds Square on E. Congress. Warren Square is two blocks to our right, which means Johnson Square is two blocks to our left.”
“Damn, how many squares does this town have?” Robin asked, adjusting the straps of the backpack she carried around like a beloved albatross.
“I’ll take Whoopi Goldberg to block,” Mark said as they headed off to the left.
It was already past 9:30 so the trio quickened their pace. Up ahead, Mark could see another square, a large phallic stone monument thrusting up from its center. He exchanged a high-five with Robin when he saw the sign announcing they were entering Johnson Square.
His joy abated somewhat when he noticed this square was also deserted. The three wandered over to a bench near the center of the park and sat down.
“Where the hell is everybody?” Kasey said. “This is the right place.”
“Maybe the tour started already,” Robin said, rubbing her feet.
“We’re only ten minutes late,” Mark said, looking down the nearby streets. “You’d think they’d still be close.”
“Maybe no one else showed up for the tour,” Robin said, “and the guide left.”
“Well, shit,” Kasey said. “We’ve been walking around for an hour and missed all three tours. How pathetic is that?”
“Oh, come on,” Mark said. He was sitting in the middle and placed an arm around both of his friends. “We’ve still had a good time, took our own little tour of Savannah.”
“Yeah, and my feet are killing me,” Robin said. “These shoes were a mistake. How ‘bout we head back to the car?”
All three got very quiet, and Mark could see that they were all thinking the same thing. Kasey was the first to give voice to it.
“Did anyone happen to pay attention to where we parked the car?”
Of course, Mark knew they hadn’t. They’d been running late to catch the first tour at 8:30 and had found it nearly impossible to find a parking space. Kasey had finally spotted one, risking an illegal U-turn to secure it, and they’d rushed into the historic district without bothering to check what street they’d parked on.
Mark threw his head back and yelled at the intersecting branches above them, “We’re never getting back to the motel!”
“Excuse me; are you here for the ghost tour?”
The voice was low and gentle, coming from behind them. Mark turned to find a man in his early to mid-thirties, light brown hair—a little too long and curling at the ends—large brown eyes and a pouty mouth. He wore a plain white T-shirt with kakhi pants and sneakers. His skin was pale, luminous in the darkness.
“Yes,” Kasey said. “We thought we missed it.”
“Not at all,” the stranger said, a small smile touching his lips. “I’m just running late is all. Got unavoidably detained. I was afraid everyone would have left.”
“We were actually just about to leave,” Mark said. “Luckily, we were too tired to get off the bench.”
“I hope you’re not too tired,” the stranger said, his smile widening. “If you’re going to go on this tour, you’ve got more walking to do. My name is Jonah, and I’m your guide through the spirited streets of Savannah this evening.”
Jonah did not offer his hand, but he did bow slightly, and his manner immediately put Mark at ease.
“So Jonah,” Mark said, “you don’t mind giving a tour for just the three of us?”
“Oh no. Why, I once gave a tour to just one tourist. It was probably the best tour I’ve ever given. No children crying for their parents to carry them, no lovebirds in the back loudly sucking face, no stragglers forcing the rest of the group to slow our pace. Just me and this charming older gentleman who was enraptured with everything I had to say.”
“I know the feeling,” Kasey said with a bright smile. “Are you a native of Savannah?”
“Can’t claim that honor,” Jonah said. “Moved here about twelve years ago. I’ve been giving tours for ten years, and specifically ghost tours for five. I love this city. It’s a great place to live, the kind of city you’d hope to die in. And if the subjects of my tour are any indication, even the dead can’t bring themselves to leave this place.”
“Well, we gonna see any ghosts tonight, you think?” Mark asked.
Jonah said nothing for a moment, one corner of his mouth turned up in a secretive smile, his eyes twinkling with an amused mischief. “You never know,” he said finally. “The spirits of Savannah are all around us; you might just glimpse one or two if you keep your eyes peeled and your minds open.”
“Okay then, let’s go glimpse some ghosts,” Mark said, clapping his hands like a small child. This was just his thing, ghosts and goblins and horror tales; that was the stuff that got his blood pumping.
“So, it’s thirteen dollars a piece, right?” Kasey asked, digging her wallet out of her purse.
“Don’t worry about that now,” Jonah said, holding up a hand. “We’ll fool with money after the tour.”
“Sounds good to me,” Robin said. “So, where do we start?”
“Well, right here,” Jonah said, spreading his arms. “I want you guys to start by just looking around you. I mean, really looking. Take it all in, Savannah. The grand houses, the hanging moss, the atmosphere. Forget the cars and the tourists and the evil Starbucks that sprout up like poisonous mushrooms. See the city for what she truly is, a lovely older woman with all her youthful beauty still intact.”
Mark looked around him as instructed, Kasey and Robin doing the same. Savannah was indeed a glorious city, with the air of a place untouched by the grinding momentum of time, a land frozen in a simpler, purer period. Mark found it wasn’t at all difficult to look beyond the cars parked on the streets, the random strobe-flash of tourists’ cameras, the electric lights shining in the darkness. There was so much of the past still visible and vibrant—houses built centuries before and lovingly maintained, trees that had seen Civil War soldiers marching past them, even the quaint horse-drawn carriages that carried lovers along the streets of this magical city.
“Do you see?” Jonah whispered, eyes closed and breathing deeply as if absorbing the very essence of Savannah into himself. “Can you see the past? Can you feel it, alive and active? The past is not dead, it is not dormant; it exists even now, through a sheer curtain. We can see the outline of shapes behind the curtain, make out images. And if we reach out, we can push the curtain aside and see clearly what lies beyond, step into it even. That, my friends, is Savannah’s curse.”
“Curse?” Kasey said, her voice hushed, a church voice. “How can you say this place is cursed?”
“Yes, it’s beautiful,” Robin said, staring intently at a strand of moss hanging like Mardi Gras beads from the branch of a nearby tree.
Mark opened his mouth to add something but found no words adequate.
“Oh, it is a curse,” Jonah said. “Cursed by Dr. John M. Harney in the early 1820s. Harney had run a local newspaper in Savannah, The Georgian. It was not a success, and Harney became bitter. He ended up selling the paper and leaving the city. Before he did, he published a curse in The Georgian, a curse which still rings in the ears of Savannah. The curse goes: ‘Cursed be the winds that blew me to your strand, your houses are board, and your alleys are sand! Now to finish my curses upon your ill city, and express in few words all the sum of my ditty, I leave you, Savannah, a curse that is far the worst of all curses—to remain as you are!’”
Silence enfolded the square as if someone turned off the world’s sound. The hum of tires on pavement, the murmur of the passing crowds, the twittering music of birds and insects in the night—all melted away, leaving behind a quiet as perfect and complete as death. Mark was hesitant to even let out a breath, afraid to disturb the serenity of the moment.
His eyes widened as he truly began to see. Yes, this place was cursed; its evidence was all around. All the trappings of modern society—the cars, the streetlamps, the grinding music from open windows—seemed ethereal, ghostly, easily dismissed as a madman’s hallucinations. It was the relics of the past, the buildings and trees that had stood for centuries, that were the most solid, that were the most real. It was clear that this place, this beautiful city, had changed little since Mr. Harney had dealt out his curse.
“Let the ghost hunt begin,” Jonah said, breaking the silence.
Mark swayed on his feet, unbalanced and dizzy, while Robin gave her head a vigorous shake, her lovely brown ringlets dancing about her face. Kasey put a hand on the back of the bench to steady herself.
“I guess we’re even more tired than we thought,” Kasey said with an uncertain chuckle.
“It will get easier,” Jonah assured. “Once the tour really gets started, your fatigue will be forgotten.”
“I, for one, am feeling rejuvenated already,” Kasey said, sidling up to Jonah. “Lead the way; I’m right behind you.”
“Like a little bitch in heat,” Mark whispered to Robin and the two laughed.
“Well then,” Jonah said, taking Kasey’s elbow like a proper gentleman and leading her from the square, “I believe we may find our first ghost in Wright Square, which is about four quick blocks south of us.”
“Wait a sec,” Robin said, fiddling with the straps of her backpack again. “You mean to tell me that this tour met in Johnson Square just for us to walk four blocks to a different square for the tour to actually begin? Fuck this shit; I’m going to the Krispy Chick.”
Kasey shot a wilting glance over her shoulder.
“This is a walking tour, after all,” Jonah pointed out. “Just more opportunity to take in the beauty of Savannah.”
Without a word, Mark slipped Robin’s backpack off her back and slung it over his own shoulders. The four left Johnson Square and headed down Bull Street.
Kasey stayed by Jonah’s side, laughing and tossing her fashionably-short blonde hair and swatting the tour guide playfully on the arm and shoulder. Mark hung back a few steps with Robin, keeping an eye out in case they passed the car. Mark was indeed getting a second wind, enjoying being in this strange place with all the worries and responsibilities of his normal life far behind him. He worked with Robin and Kasey, and all of them were dissatisfied with their jobs and their lives. This trip was more than a mere vacation for them; it was an attempt to keep their sanity.
It took the group only a few minutes to reach Wright Square. Mark thought Wright looked very much like Johnson, only this square had a monument with large stone columns in the center. A greasy looking man with flowing gray hair trailing behind sped through the square on a bicycle, forcing Mark off the walkway.
“That’s Crazy George,” Jonah said with an affectionate grin. “He’s one of Savannah’s more colorful living residents.”
“Well, I certainly hope the dead residents are more courteous,” Robin said.
“Oh, the dead are always more courteous,” Jonah said. “Our pettiness and pointless cruelty dies along with our bodies.”
“So you’re saying you believe the living are more monstrous than the dead,” Mark said, nodding. “Interesting concept. Hell, maybe ghosts feel like we’re haunting them.”
“Such a cynical view,” Kasey said.
“There are always exceptions, my dear,” Jonah said, running a finger lightly down Kasey’s cheek. “Shining beacons of light in the darkness.”
Mark exchanged a knowing glance with Robin, and Robin muttered, “Smooth,” under her breath.
“Now then,” Jonah said, clapping his hands together, “here we are in Wright Square. This square was actually the site of a historical event over two hundred and fifty years ago. Do any of you know what that event was?”
“Birth of Cher?” Mark ventured.
Jonah made a point of ignoring the comment and continued; “In the year 1735, the first woman ever to be hanged in Georgia was hanged right here in Wright Square. Her name was Alice Riley.”
“What was her crime?” Mark asked.
“Who’d she kill?” This from Robin.
“Her employer, William Wise. She was one of his house servants, and rumor has it also his sometimes lover. Some theorize Alice was a witch, others that she was merely a vindictive servant tired of a life of servitude. All that is known for certain is that she murdered Mr. Wise; she never denied it. And in 1735, she hung from the gallows here in the heart of Savannah, forever a footnote in history, earning the infamous title of ‘First Woman Hanged in Georgia.’”
“I’m guessing her story doesn’t end there,” Kasey said, eyes darting from one patch of shadow to another.
“Not at all,” Jonah said, placing a comforting arm around Kasey’s shoulders. “Many believe that Alice’s spirit did not find peace when the noose snapped her neck. Some say she wanders this city still, restless and searching. Perhaps even watching over her descendants.”
“So Alice had children then?” Mark asked.
“Just one…a son. Born in Alice’s jail cell and ripped from her arms just before she was led to the gallows to pass from this life into the realm of legend.”
“Wise’s child?” Robin guessed.
“That is the commonly-held belief, but it is mere speculation. Truth is there was another servant to whom Alice was also…linked. Richard White, he was actually Alice’s accomplice in Mr. Wise’s murder. The two ran off together into the woods that surrounded Savannah at that time. They eluded capture for several days, but captured they eventually were. White was hanged immediately, but Alice confessed her condition and a doctor confirmed that she was with-child. It was decided that her death sentence would be postponed until after the birth of the child.
“For nine months, Alice sat in a dingy cell, her belly growing full and ripe. The jailhouse, a small wooden building, stood just on the edge of this square. Everyday of that nine-month sentence, Alice had to look out the window and see the gallows that waited patiently for her, waiting for one life to begin so that another could end. An exquisite form of torture.”
“Wicked cool,” Mark said with a smile.
“I think it sounds awful,” Kasey said, wrapping her arms around herself.
“I agree,” Jonah said. “Alice’s punishment far exceeded the severity of her crime, in my opinion.”
“Well, she did kill someone,” Robin reminded. “Whatever her reasons for it, she was guilty of murder.”
“I am not saying she did not deserve to be executed. I am not one of those liberal nuts who spout all that ‘Turn the other cheek’ nonsense. I’m a strict “Eye for an eye’ type of fellow. However, death is one thing. The kind of living death that Alice was subjected to is quite another. Nine months to contemplate her fate, nine months of imagining her death, nine months of feeling the life growing inside her, a child she would never get to name or raise or sing lullabies to. The pain and fear she must have known, the oppressive weight that must have sat on her shoulders, threatening to crush her, and then the final horrible moments when they snatched her wailing baby from her arms and led her to the gallows.”
Jonah’s eyes had taken on a misty, distant cast, and his breath was coming in harsh gasps. His cheeks were flushed and he pulled Kasey closer to him.
“Jonah, are you okay?” Kasey asked.
And then it happened. Not all at once, not a sudden transition. Something gradual, subtle at first then gaining momentum. Mark did not even notice it until Robin spoke.
“Is it me or is it getting darker? Did all the streetlights go out?”
“The cars,” Mark said, looking at the streets outside the square. “There were cars parked against the curbs; now they’re gone.”
Kasey reached out and grabbed Mark’s arm, unconsciously digging her nails into his flesh. “Look,” she said, pointing toward the center of the square. “Tell me I’m crazy; tell me I’m not seeing that.”
Mark turned his gaze to the square’s monument. Only the monument was no longer there. In its place was a large wooden structure with rickety wooden steps leading up to a high platform. Above the platform, suspended from a sturdy beam, was a rope with a noose tied at its end.
“What’s happening?” Kasey asked in a strained, high-pitched voice. Hysteria was clearly audible just below the surface.
Robin and Kasey huddled close to Mark, grasping his hands like children lost in a dark fairytale forest.
“Do not fear,” Jonah said, his eyes losing that far-away sheen. He stepped toward the trio but halted when they cringed back. “I apologize, I did not intend to bring you here.”
“Where exactly is here?” Mark mustered the courage to ask.
“Well, here is still Savannah, that much has not changed. The when, on the other hand, has changed considerably.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Robin said, taking a bold step toward Jonah. “And don’t give me riddles.”
“Again, I am sorry,” Jonah said. “I let my emotions get the best of me. It was a mistake, my bringing you here, but now that we are here, we cannot leave until we bear witness.”
“Witness to what?” Mark said.
In answer, Jonah stepped aside and directed his attention to the center of the square. Across the way, a group of people in peculiar, old-fashioned clothing were exiting a wooden building that Mark was sure had not been there earlier. At first Mark thought the group was comprised solely of men, but then he noticed one woman who walked in the midst of the men. One woman with her head hanging down and her hands bound behind her.
“Alice Riley,” Mark said in a whisper.
The three stood frozen, transfixed, unable to turn their eyes away from the scene playing out before them. Torches were lighted around the gallows, casting an ever-dancing orange glow throughout the square, not so much illuminating anything as painting everything in a garish Halloween light.
The group reached the gallows, and one of them led Alice Riley up the wooden steps and instructed her to stand at the front, just under the rope. The noose was fitted around her neck, and only then did she look up. When she did, her eyes honed in on the trio. She met each of their gazes for several seconds, and when her eyes fell on Mark it sent an icy chill up his spine, a chill he was certain he would carry with him until the very last days of his life.
A trapdoor beneath Alice’s feet suddenly gave way and Alice plummeted toward the ground below. The noose around her throat prevented her from hitting the ground, however, the rope tightening and efficiently snapping her neck. Mark heard the terrible sound even from across the square. Without the cacophony of modern society, sound carried great distances with crystal clarity. That sound, the brittle twig crunch, he was also sure he would carry to his grave.
Alice dangled like some macabre piñata, Death’s pendulum, while the group of men gathered around. Only then did Mark realize he and his friends were not alone. Men and women in the same peculiar dress were all around, walking closer to the gallows. It was a public spectacle, Alice’s execution, perhaps an entertaining night out on the town for these people.
“I want to go home,” Kasey said, her voice wet and muffled with tears. “We’ve bore witness, now I want to go.”
“Yes, it is time to go,” Jonah said solemnly. “Pity we can only bear witness to the past and not alter it. But that is just maudlin conjecture. Here, feel the past slip away like silk through your fingers. Feel what was melting away and what is building itself around you. Close your eyes and let yesterday become today.”
Mark did as instructed, still clasping his friends’ hands with desperate ferocity. The ground seemed to sway beneath him and his stomach lurched as if taking a steep hill in a fast car.
And then he heard it. A blaring car horn and some indecipherable but angry words shouted in the distance. He opened his eyes and trained his gaze immediately on the center of the square. The gallows were gone; the peculiarly dressed group of onlookers was gone; Alice was gone. Instead was the monument with the stone columns. The streetlamps were back, glowing with renewed vigor. The small wooden prison was replaced by a large stone building of unmistakable modern architecture.
Mark dropped to his hands and knees, retching and gagging. Kasey crumpled to the ground next to him, weeping softly into her hands. Robin was the only one who managed to maintain her feet, but her skin had gone ashy and her upper lip quivered.
“I’m dreadfully sorry,” Jonah said, standing over them. “That was more of a ghost tour than any of you bargained for, I’ve no doubt. I should not have even given a tour tonight, but my sense of responsibility is too strong I suppose.”
“How’d you do that?” Mark croaked. “Are you some kind of warlock or something?” The question sounded ridiculous even as it left Mark’s lips, but no more ridiculous than the events that had just transpired.
Instead of answering Mark’s question, Jonah said, “I think in light of what has taken place, we will forgo the remainder of tonight’s tour.”
Jonah turned and began walking away from them, out of the square. Mark watched him go, mute with shock, until the guide disappeared in a particularly deep pocket of shadow. Mark and his friends remained huddled together on the ground for some time before finding the strength to get up and search for the car.
* * *
Mark awoke at around noon the following morning. It had taken them an hour and a half to find the car last night, the three of them searching in silence, not yet ready to discuss the strange tour they had taken. When they finally reached the motel, they’d fallen into bed, Kasey and Robin sharing one and Mark taking the other, all without a word.
Mark stretched, wishing he could lull himself into believing last night had been a dream, but he knew it had not been. He experienced a brief flutter of panic when he saw that he was alone in the motel room, but then the bathroom door opened and Robin stepped out toweling off her damp hair.
“Morning,” Mark said, throwing back the covers. “Where’s Kasey?”
“Went to get some coffee. How are you feeling this morning?”
Mark shrugged. “I thought it would all seem less bizarre and scary in the light of day, but…”
“It’s just as bizarre and scary now as it was last night,” Robin finished.
Mark started and Robin squealed when the door to the motel room burst open and slammed against the far wall. Kasey rushed in, sloshing coffee from a paper cup all over the threadbare carpet and waving a crumpled newspaper in her right fist.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Robin said with a sharp edge in her voice.
“Look at this,” Kasey said, laying the paper on Mark’s bed. The paper was opened to the local section and Kasey was gesturing wildly to an article in the far left corner. The headline read, “POPULAR GUIDE KILLED IN ACCIDENT.” An eerie quiet filled the room as they all read the article.
“Jonah Simpson, age 34, was killed at approximately 9:25 last night when he was struck by an automobile. Mr. Simpson had been giving walking tours of the historic district for ten years, and for the past five years had been the guide of what many tourists dubbed ‘The Best Ghost Tour in Savannah.’ In fact, Mr. Simpson had been on his way to lead his final tour of the night when a Ford Bronco…”
“It can’t be, can it?” Kasey said, her voice breaking. “It must be a mistake.”
But Mark knew it was no mistake. A small black-and-white picture accompanied the article. Despite its grainy quality, he clearly recognized Jonah.
“A ghost tour from a ghost,” Robin mused, sitting down on the bed.
“Should we tell anybody?” Mark asked.
“Oh yeah, great idea,” Kasey said. “Everyone will think we’re loonies.”
“But something happened to us,” Mark said. “Something…otherworldly, something supernatural. We can’t just forget it, can we?”
The three looked from one to another then back at the photo of Jonah Simpson. No, Mark knew none of them were likely to forget what had happened. Not as long as they lived.
Thanks folks! If you enjoyed this tale and want to read more about haunted Savannah, you can purchase my new novel here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08B4YJGZK/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i0