A ghost story based on true events Written by Glen Donaldson
“Pieces of the puzzle make funny shapes, but they fit together in the end.” It was my father who had once spoken these words. Their aspect is so long forgotten and yet, these many years later, his words would bring comfort in the face of doubt and confusion.
It began with what had been, to that point, a pleasurable and certainly nothing out of the ordinary family holiday; what we liked to call our annual ‘vacation migration’. After a soul-reviving week of abdicating all responsibility amidst palm trees, pool-side drinks and room service, we arrived back home only to realise when unpacking our luggage, that I, as was my habit, had left something behind in the hotel room.
It was to no one’s real surprise that the missing item turned out to be a humble book (not completely humble since it was a hardcover edition). Similar lapses in memory had taken place in hotel rooms and other out and about places earning me the moniker ‘the set and forgetter’. The title of the book in question is not important – but I will tell you nonetheless - THE MYTH OF HELTER SKELTER by Susan Atkins-Whitehouse.
Of significance was the fact that unlike previous times I was not yet ready to consign this minor mishap to the pile of other left behind items and let bygones be. I wanted the book back, not least for the reason that I had expanded some time and effort in getting it in the first place. Purchased on the internet from the U.S., it was, I liked to think, a book of some rare standing for I had never seen it in any local bookshop.
This circumstance alone, I fully admit, hardly allowed it to be considered a ‘rare’ book yet I was not stopped from thinking of it in this way, which only acted to strengthen my resolve to pursue its return.
What I had supposed would be a fairly straightforward process began with me calling Hotel Raven’s Nest and being ‘patched thru’ to their lost property section. After providing our room number (it is of no consequence but again I will share this with you ... 119) I was asked to provide a description of the left item. This was greeted with the news that no such item meeting this description had been located but if indeed it did turn up at a later time I would be contacted.
Time moves turtle-slow both when your hand is placed on a hot stove and when you are purposefully waiting for something to happen. When almost three long weeks had passed without any contact from the hotel, I was tempted at this – what I now know to be early stage – to simply discontinue my quest for the book’s return and commence making alternate arrangements to order a replacement copy over the internet.
This I realised would expose as flimsy self-delusion my belief that the book was in some way rare and so this thought was cast aside. In its place came two far more practical and analytical ones. The first was that I could mentally picture where in the room the book had been left (in plain view atop a wooden bedside table).
The second thought that clung to me and I to it was that the attendant who entered room 119 after we had left must have seen the book and seized it prior to the next guests checking into the room. Of these two things, I was completely certain. Following the thread of these two points, a logical person would have concluded that Hotel Raven’s Nest did indeed have my book, whether at this time they realised it or not.
I phoned Hotel Raven’s Nest again, this time speaking to a different staff member. She explained in a well practised cheery voice I placed as being not a day over twenty years old that she would ‘look into it’ and call me straight back. Ten minutes later the phone rang and Ms. Bubbly’s voice began to explain that the hotel had now located my missing book, adding that the reason for the week’s long delay was the housekeeper who had cleaned room 119 had gone on holidays herself at the end of that very same day and had only just returned.
Buoyed by the news, I would soon be reunited with THE MYTH OF HELTER SKELTER minus the expense of having to fork out for a substitute copy, I chose to cast aside the nagging and complicating thought of exactly what Hotel Raven’s Nests’ housekeeper going on vacation had to with my book not being located for three weeks.
Was this housemaid also a scholar of the 1969 Hollywood murders that killed off the sixties hippie movement, or were they simply seeking some by-the-pool holiday reading? Did the book, my book, intended for my holiday reading in fact accompany this mystery person on their holidays? Such thoughts soon faded to trifles as I consoled myself with the fact that soon enough my precious book would be home. Two days later, around lunchtime, I was standing at the far end of our hallway about to replace the battery in our kitchen clock when there was a knock at the door.
The blurred landscape of our wire-mesh security door had been breached by the brilliant golden beams of a fluorescent yellow vest-wearing courier person asking me to sign for a parcel. The book had arrived! I strode with energized steps back down the hallway from which I had come headed for the lounge, tearing open the reinforced jiffy bag wrapping as I went.
What my eyes came next to gaze upon was not what anyone would have expected. This was indeed a book and definitely one sent by Hotel Raven’s Nest according to the details of the addressee on the outside of the bag, only not my book and not the one I had left in room 119. I continued to stare transfixed at what lay in my hands, the rhythm of my breathing now a degree more shallow than some moments before.
The book before me had a periwinkle blue front cover embossed with purple lettering. Unbelievably, in what I would come to view much later as a mockingly ironic title, the book was named YOU WISH YOU KNEW by Zilpha Keatley Snider, who I guessed to be female ( I am tempted once more to advise that this fact is of no consequence. Yet considering the unmitigated strangeness of what is about to unfold, I think it best events be interpreted as they will.
Later it may turn out to be of some benefit to us both). My breathing may have changed but now my mind joined in and assumed a similar canter as I began to process this fused amusing-unusual-slightly annoying turn of events. It appeared that in addition to the usual collection of cell phone chargers, bottles of champagne, false teeth, the occasional nurse’s uniform and various other assorted items left behind in hotel rooms, Hotel Raven’s Nest also had an ample supply of forgotten reading material.
After a quick read of the imposter book’s back cover blurb I determined that YOU WISH YOU KNEW was the story of a scheming, malevolent computer named P.E.T. that brings about the near-extinction of humanity as an act of revenge for its own tortured existence. Immediately clear were two things – (1) this was no Pulitzer-prize winner and (2) I would not be willing to accept this accidental trade.
I called Hotel Raven’s Nest the following day, listening with ear-cocked interest to the mix of surprise (mostly) and amusement (undercurrents) contained in the voice of the hotel person forced to hear the news that another mistake had been made. Ending the call I consoled myself with the thought that had what just played out on the phone been a scene from an M. Night Shyamalan supernatural thriller, the hotel supervisor would have assured me they had never sent such a book, had no record of me staying there and indeed didn’t have nor ever had had a room 119.
Mercifully instead I’d been told to wait a few more days for the return of my original book and assured that if I could send them back YOU WISH YOU KNEW they would refund the postage. And so it was that another week went by without any further development in what was turning out to be a strange case of literary mishap co-authored by my own carelessness and Hotel Raven’s Nests’ friendly inefficiency.
This in turn forced my hand to mentally draw up another deadline for its return which I decided - for no particular reason- would be by the afternoon of the eighth day. When this arrived I was actually in the process of dialing the hotel’s number when I was interrupted by knocking on the door. After inching a few steps to my left I could see down the hallway and through the frosted glass paneling next to the front door the yellow glow of what I assumed to be the courier guy. When I opened the door and found out it was he, I focused immediately on the package in his hands.
It was certainly the size of a book and I could see as I turned it over in my hands before agreeing to sign the grey signature tablet that indeed the addressee was the by now all too familiar Hotel Raven’s Nest. Signed, sealed and delivered! I retreated back inside with the package, closing the door behind me. There was some mild suspense attached to this moment and I wanted to be alone when it happened.
Already I had a funny feeling creeping up my left leg and my heart rate was a few beats ahead of its regular setting. The horizontal angle of my first tear revealed nothing except the colour of the inner lining of the bag – 1970’s business suit brown. It was the second tear, more downward in its trajectory that was sufficient to reveal that lightning did indeed strike twice and that, incredibly, this again was not my book! Things now truly had turned helter skelter and thoughts fifty shades of weird came rushing all at once.
Either someone was deliberately playing tricks or Hotel Raven’s Nest was dabbling in some kind of side business book exchange. The book now in my hands was titled THE OMEN MACHINE written by Thaddeus Murkowski.
I could sense that my naturally curious but certainly by now conspiratorially inclined mind had reached the point of being willing to latch on to almost any explanation for these bumbling events and so, without much effort on my part, the title of this latest unwanted book began to take on a somewhat humorous and readily symbolic meaning. An omen indeed. But of what? That more college humour practical jokes or downright ineptitude – depending on which theory you signed up to – were set to follow?
Returning the wrong book not once but twice to a guest who had left theirs by mistake in a hotel room while on holiday was incompetence bordering on the supernatural. I had once witnessed a friend, late at night and after one too many drinks, attempt to access an Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) with his car keys. If that sort of mindlessness rated towards the upper end of the dumb and dumber continuum, than the mess up I had found myself ensnared by was, comparatively speaking, likely conceived by a less seriously muddled mind – but only just.
Someone, as my daughter’s favourite cartoon character Yogi Bear, was fond of saying, had a serious ‘kink in their think.’ Fighting against every combative instinct in my body, I decided then and there, while still reluctantly holding the unfortunate sequel in the imposter book series, that I had been left with little choice but to carry out the 3rd decree of Sunzi’s defining military rulebook THE ART OF WAR and mount a ‘strategic withdrawal’ from what was now clear to me was some high school humour styled mischievous game initiated by one of Hotel Raven’s Nests’ junior employees designed to relieve job tedium.
I would not call them again but instead deign to accept this latest paperback doppelganger into my possession and attempt to order my original book again online. And that is exactly what I did. Two months passed during which time I ordered and received a replacement copy of THE MYTH OF HELTER SKELTER while all the time THE OMEN MACHINE lay happily gathering dust in a discarded corner of our garage. Then a most curious thing happened.
One day while hard at work polishing my beloved all-terrain, high-performance Excalibur E-Trac series metal detector in the garage, my four year old daughter wandered in and began idly playing with the contents of a plastic basket full of miscellaneous knick-knacks, toys and other items which had also become the final resting place for what had come to be known around our house as Hotel Raven’s Nest ‘joke book’. Reaching through into the basket and handling each item momentarily before discarding it for the next in her typical four-year-olds way, she eventually came to the book and began to mindlessly fan thru its pages. At some point in her doing this a slip of paper which had been lodged amongst its pages emerged and floated like a leaf to the cold concrete floor below.
“Paper down”, she noted in her characteristically literal way. This raised my attention sufficiently that I stopped what I was doing, walked over to where she was standing, bent down and picked up the faintly lined bit of paper. It was rectangular in shape and about the size of my daughter’s hand. This scrap of paper was also quite obviously aged. Its corn silk-white colour bore a striking resemblance to the ceiling stain that had recently become visible in our attic.
On it were handwritten faded sentences in the shaky and squished yet overly deliberate style of what was clearly a child’s writing. Nearly all the letters had long loops that resembled the heads of needles. I stared at the piece of paper for a moment longer and then for reasons unknown to me, folded it in half and inserted it into the top pocket of my shirt.
I resumed my garage cleaning and the rest of the day passed as normal. The next morning while preparing a load of clothes washing, my wife called out to me from our laundry room asking whether I wanted the piece of paper she had discovered in the pocket of the shirt I had been wearing the previous day. I will confess now that a feeling of mild surprise came over me seconds after answering, “Yes, keep it”.
Sometime later this time travelling postcard from the past assumed pride of place on our kitchen fridge alongside a calendar from a local real estate company, and with the help of a vibrating dragonfly magnet this is where it came to rest for the next few weeks. Later, for reasons and circumstances I am now unable to fully recall, the decision was made to remove a scrap of paper from its place on the fridge door and I commenced using it as a bookmark.
My replacement copy of THE MYTH OF HELTER SKELTER, the book I had endured some small misadventure to repossess, was by now occupying me for a good half hour each night before bedtime. My nightly ritual was that before snuffing out the bedside light I would carefully wedge the faded scrap of paper – my slightly mysterious and definitely unintended memento from the good folk at Hotel Raven’s Nest – into the book with just the top two inches poking out like some kind of submarine periscope from the top, fold it closed then reach over and place it on the small table next to the bed.
Being a person whose intellectual vanity was sometimes stroked by the self-perceived ability to identify the shards of symbolism that would now and then wash up on life’s shore, I was not slow to gaze upon the possible meanings on offer here. My converted bookmark decorated in some unknown child’s scribble was, in essence, a bridge between misadventure and bumbling on the one hand and resolution, return and old school happy endings on the other.
Not everything, however, was resolved. For it was around this time that a sphinx-like riddle began to envelop my life like a heavy fog. There was no denying there was something curious about my newly acquired ‘bookmark’ that at this moment, I could not exactly place my finger on. On more than one occasion, and if I am to be completely honest, for considerably longer than just fleeting glances, I had examined the words and writing on the scrap of paper before finally turning over to go to sleep.
The sentences appeared to be passages from a child’s diary which documented what was by all accounts a fairly unremarkable few days. Entries included – “Had a shower”, “Had dinner” and “Went to bed”. There were misspellings, including the word hilarious written as ‘halaris’. I also now was able to observe that a very small fragment was missing from the bottom right-hand corner of the paper and that in this torn corner, one could discern a faded outline of what looked to be a cartoon characters oversized shoes – the type that resembled Vienna loaf bread and complete with laces.
The angle of the serration meant that the rest of the cartoon character was missing. Then there was the writing itself. A spidery tiny scrawl full of overly deliberate, signature triangular pennant heads and writing that, at a glance, looked like people in a movie who’d all been reduced to skinny versions of themselves due to the constraints of ‘narrow-view’ format.
The mystery embedded within this scrap piece of paper which had fallen from the pages of a mistakenly received second-hand book slowly began to expand like heat from a radiator. This minor mind worm had the effect of being infuriating simply because I had some very vague sense of recognition about it, yet try as I might I could place neither its source nor origin. It reminded me of the way I would sometimes be gripped by the need to recall a person’s name, a movie title, the year in which an event had occurred or some other temporarily misplaced morsel of knowledge, unable to relinquish the mental quest until I had been satisfied – often with the aid of an internet search – that the paltry knowledge gap had been filled and the puzzle could be shelved.
This was not the only quest for answers I embarked upon around this time, for a series of unexplained events began to unfold over the next few months. The first occurred when I was standing in line down one day at my local post office. The mobile phone of another customer in the shop sounded and all present had been treated to the opening bars of “Haunted Melody” by the old-time American singer Al Jolson. I recognised it immediately as the fact that this had been my Father’s favourite song and at his request had been played at his funeral.
That someone else would have this song as their mobile phone ring tone was unusual on so many levels not least being the song was nearly eighty years old. Next came the strange occurrence that around this same time both my wife and I’s fingernails began to taste bitter. I had been a lifelong chewer - so this was immediately apparent – and thankfully also explainable. We had both eaten a serving of Malaysian razor clams and I was left to conclude that this adverse reaction was our body’s way of working thru some mild form of ciguatera poisoning.
Unrelated to this but adding also to our surprise was the discovery that our regular brand of toothpaste would no longer foam. We went as far as emailing the manufacturer who assured us that no change in production methods had occurred that would cause this to happen nor had anyone else reported a similar complaint. During this same period I also began having a reoccurring dream. It centered on a mysterious black cat that made no attempt to disguise its annoyance at an inability to complete the final clue in a newspaper crossword puzzle; that clue being ‘a twelve letter word meaning a variety of commercially grown peanuts’.
I commenced to assist my fantasy feline friend and believed a quick Google search would readily deliver me the answer but after trawling the internet obsessively until my fingers hurt I was no closer to unmasking the answer to this cryptic clue. We also suffered the indignity of having our letterbox stolen – or should I say decapitated - since whoever was responsible did at least leave the wooden post upon which the metal container had formally rested still embedded in the ground. Added to this home brand voodoo was a nightly mystery sound we began to hear after everyone had bedded down for the night. It was as though someone or something was softly scratching at the walls.
It was intriguing and more than a little creepy, until it was discovered during a routine pest control inspection that, behold... we had termites! Yikes! That was an expensive shock but at least we had the answer to our nocturnal mystery sound. Not so explainable, especially for a pair of non-techies such as my wife and I, was what happened on several occasions with our mobile phones. If I had not witnessed with my own eyes, I would scarcely have believed what took place. I had been sitting on our kitchen bench one Saturday morning surveying that week’s television guide.
My phone, which was in plain sight on the marble bench top in front of me, first lit up then sounded a number of rings to signal there was an incoming call. As I raised the phone to my ear to answer, the phone went dead. Immediately I checked the received calls listing and discovered that the caller had been my wife. This was somewhat irregular bordering on impossible since at that moment she had been relaxing in our lounge directly in front of me with her phone, we both discovered after going to look for it, resting atop of a small table in our main bedroom.
At this point even a rational person may have started to entertain the idea that all was not as it once had been in our house since the arrival of THE OMEN MACHINE and its mystery shrouded ‘postcard from the past’ slip of paper. Taken individually, these events of the past few months may all have had logical explanations even if they had not all yet revealed themselves as such.
But seen collectively, as a series of incidents that had been set in motion since that first fateful day when my original book had been left behind in the hotel room, these odd occurrences, while not exactly sending me into a state of what Agatha Christie might have described as ‘overmastering fear’ did, nonetheless, at the very least appeal to my sense of imagination.
If this rampant weirdness wasn’t enough events then took on a decidedly mournful and possibly sinister tone when it was learnt that my wife’s beauty therapist, who she had visited regularly for the past few years, had been killed in a late night wet weather car accident. Perhaps none of these unfortunate matters were linked but rather I had chosen to link them; stringing circumstances together to unwittingly forge some kind of black magic necklace that now lay clinging around my neck. Yet still there lingered the very real question of my new converted bookmark.
What was it about this thirty-plus year old paper artefact that continued to perplex me? Then one night several weeks later, a massive thunderstorm helped to bring the answer. That night, like a television screen on the blink, the sky turned flashing silver as a wicked electrical storm complete with thunder that snapped the air like a deafening whip drove across the city.
It was the sort of display of nature that, as a boy, would have put the existence of God beyond all doubt – for a good few weeks anyway. The next morning, amidst the post-storm negatively charged ionized air and with the bookmark again the subject of my gaze, the answer I had been seeking and the pathway out of the mental labyrinth I had erected around this mystical totem came hurtling toward me. Without warning and without effort, in a ghost-iphany as unpredictable as an eight ball snooker break, I was allowed for the first time to see clearly and with real understanding what had been before my eyes all along.
The handwriting on the piece of paper that had served as my bookmark these past few months was my own! ‘Surreal’ barely touched on the feeling of holding something in my hand that I now knew had somehow traveled across the mists of time to occupy my present. To hold some unlikely heirloom of antiquity – in essence a piece of the ten year old version of myself – was like the experience of watching someone else play me in a movie - only this was me! My wife was the first to doubt whether it was possible to recognise one’s own handwriting as a child close to forty years later.
A number of work colleagues reacted with like skepticism when I shared with them the story. But even the strongest laboratory made super- metals can’t approach the might of certainty that comes from knowing -truly knowing. Everything indeed fitted. I really had kept a diary for a short time around the age of nine or ten. I remember well it had been kept hidden in a bed sock under my mattress.
I was also now able to recall that when the inescapable fact finally dawned that most of my daily entries had started to sound the same – one day being much like the other - I stopped writing. My short foray into keeping a journal had quickly begun to feel like a waste of time and definitely had not delivered the soul-enriching benefits espoused by sage magazine advice common around this time.
The torn-off comic book character shoes in the corner now also made sense as, like a great rush of water, surges of memory allowed other details to be regathered. My short life diary had in fact been a Charlie Brown type (de rigour for children in the 1970’s) with a small comic picture and humorous quote from one of the Peanut’s characters adorning the bottom right hand corner of each page.
Having exactly a dozen letters, the name Charlie Brown also meant that providence had smiled upon the cryptic crossword/ black cat dream mystery. Pieces of the puzzle make funny shapes but they fit together in the end. The truism my father had neglected to add was that not every puzzle is intended to be solved. Still the unanswered question remained how it was possible that someone else – someone who had once stayed or worked at the same hotel I had stayed – could possibly have come into possession of a piece of paper of such flimsy consequence that had once belonged to me as a child. My only insight – and it was a thought fragment at best – was that I knew I had stayed at Hotel Raven’s Nest as a child myself.
Several times in fact as part of my own parent’s annual holidays. It was one of the traditions from a parallel life known as childhood that I had carried into my adult life with my own family. From here, unfortunately, this pathway of illumination only ran away into dark corners. My father, practical joker and man of many sayings that he was, had also been heard to advise that “even the cleverest puzzle has a solution”.
Surely though the delivery of a ghost text some forty years later into my very hands was beyond the means of any one person or group of persons – even factoring in a thousand conspiratorial twists of fate along the way? Not even the mathematically divine realms of chaos theory could accommodate this circumstance. Could they? The answer was a resounding ‘No’ but also an emphatic ‘Yes’ because, well... it had happened.
The meaning of what had taken place over this period and exactly why this ghost from the past, in the guise of a dead journal fragment, had decided to visit me was another matter entirely. After some time spent trying to peel back this oracle’s many layers I began to feel as though my mental world was collapsing around me.
This whole mystifying charade had become something like a jigsaw puzzle with forty million pieces that when finished spelt out the words “Go outside”. I knew nothing whet my intelligence like passionate suspicion, yet I had to admit I didn’t fully understand. It was time to walk away.
The ghost diary experience just now described ended up consuming my family and I for close on six months. It sponsored some changes in how I regarded my life and the lives of those closest to me. It also led to the issuing of an edict from my wife that no books be taken on our next holiday and that all hotel rooms be triple-checked prior to our leaving. For a thirsty reader like myself this was bittersweet but in the end, with all things considered, I was happy to comply.
STORY CREDIT: GLEN DONALDSON | QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA.
Try tapping on one. Let us know how you feel about this article!