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When the Lights Go Out

by Paul Combs 2 months ago in Horror

A short story

When the Lights Go Out
Photo by Jessica Furtney on Unsplash

As is the case so often in my life, I should have known it was a bad idea from the start. In my defense, there was a lot of foolish optimism running around as we neared the end of 1983, especially after Reagan invaded Granada in October and smoked all those Cubans; he was so much tougher than Carter had been. I was newly and happily discharged from the Army, in the longest-lasting relationship of my life (six months and counting), and eager to experience all Savannah had to offer. As the Hostess City of the South, she owed me no less.

This ill-advised optimism is the only reason I had agreed to the idea of sharing a house with my girlfriend’s best friend’s boyfriend (try saying that three times fast). It was not ill-advised because I didn’t like Joey; on the contrary, he was great. He had a job, hated country music, and drank the same bourbon as me, which is about all you can ask for in a roommate. The problem was that as soon as Becky suggested it to me one night, I knew it was doomed even as I said yes.

Shannon had already talked to Joey, and I’m sure he thought the same thing I did. We clearly couldn’t say no since we were already spending all our time together, as happens with guys who date best friends. The thing you can never bring up is that if one of the couples split up in such an arrangement, the guys never get to remain friends. They say they will, but in the end it’s too awkward. In any split of this type, your ex-girlfriend gets the couch, the Cat Stevens records (thank God), and your former best buddy. It sucks, but rules are rules.

Joey and I fully understood this dynamic as the four of us toured what is still the coolest house I have ever set foot in. Located on Bryan Street near Warren Square, it was close enough to the River Street bars we basically lived in that we could crawl home without risking a DUI. It had hardwood floors, two stories and a basement, and legend had it that it was the last house in Savannah to remove the Stars and Bars from the front porch when Sherman took the city. Being from Arizona I had no dog in that centuries-long fight, but it did add a touch of historical character.

It was clear from the girls’ reaction to the place that while they would not be moving in with us (well-bred Southern ladies did not cohabitate prior to marriage) we would have little say in decorating the place and soon they would have more clothes and accoutrements at our house than at their own. What worried me more than this, though, was the rent; it had to be considerably more than we could afford, even pooling our resources. When I asked the leasing agent how much it cost, my worries increased; the amount was far too low for a house in this neighborhood.

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked. “Roof leaks? Foundation shifting? Black mold?”

Before she could answer, the front door slammed shut. She jumped about a foot off the ground, but having been around artillery and small-arms fire for years I was immune to sudden noises; I simply stared at the door. It was solid wood and heavy. There was no breeze coming through the house since all the windows were closed. It was odd. I turned back to her and waited for an answer.

“This property has been a tad difficult to lease,” she said. “Given its size, we’ve had mostly young families looking at it, and they have been hesitant because of the house’s history.”

“It’s history? What about its history?”

“It’s silly, really,” she said in a tone that indicated she did not think it silly at all. “There are occasionally, very occasionally, strange noises and things like that that frighten our more skittish prospects.”

“You mean like a door slamming for no reason?”

“Quite,” she said, putting on her best Scarlett O’Hara smile. “But two strapping young men like yourselves aren’t put off by something as silly as that.”

She had used the word “silly” twice in four sentences. That was enough to put me off more than some ghost. At that moment, Joey walked up to us, having finished examining the upstairs.

“So, what’s it going to set us back?” he asked me. When I told him the price, he arched an eyebrow. “Black mold?”

“Nope. Ghosts.”

He laughed. Annette the leasing agent did not.

“You’re serious?” he asked.

“I’m not sure, but she is,” I said, nodding toward Annette. “Plus, the front door did just slam right in front of me.”

“For that rent every door in the place can slam all day. And you know ghosts aren’t real, right?”

I didn’t reply. Joey didn’t know, and I couldn’t tell him, about some of the strange things I’d seen in the jungles of Colombia and Bolivia during the time I was officially nowhere near the jungles of Colombia and Bolivia battling cocaine cartels. Some weird shit happens in the jungle, shit you just can’t explain away. He sighed and turned back to Annette.

“Who or what is the house supposedly haunted by?” he asked. He was about to go full philosophy major logical on her, I could tell. She stood no chance.

“Well, of course this is all just rumor,” she said, her tone turning conspiratorial and her voice dropping lest the girls hear her and get spooked, robbing her of a commission. “But there have been several untimely deaths reported over the years.” The word “untimely” had six syllables; God, I loved Southern women.

“In a house this old, I suspect there would be,” Joey replied.

“Yes, but some have left, shall we say, a negative energy in the house, or so people claim.”

“The same people who burn sage in their house and collect crystals, I imagine,” he said. “Aside from these rumors, do you have any facts?”

She hesitated for just a second and then her shoulders slumped.

“I guess I have to tell you regardless,” she said, “what with that new law those liberals in Atlanta just passed. Four years ago, a young man shot himself in the basement. He was the son of the owners and had supposedly been into drugs and Satanism and things of that nature. The strange occurrences started up with a vengeance after that. No one has stayed here more than a month since then.”

“Then let’s check out the basement,” he said, pushing me toward a door near the stairs.

As he put his hand on the doorknob, a framed print of St. John the Baptist Cathedral, which I knew from the many times I passed it on my way to River Street, flew off the wall and crashed to the ground, shattering the glass front. Both Annette and I took a step back, but Joey pulled the door open, undeterred.

“The door stuck a little,” he said confidently. “Pulling on it shook the picture off the wall.”

“Honey, that picture didn’t fall,” Annette said shakily, “it shot off like a rocket, and before you pulled the door.”

He looked to me, but I just shrugged. Having survived both FARC guerrillas and drug lords, a temperamental poltergeist didn’t worry me. At least not much.

Joey flipped a switch at the top of the basement stairs and headed down, taking the steps two at a time. I started to follow, but noticed that Annette had gone pale, even more than when the picture fell.

“What is it?” I asked.

“The light,” she said, pointing at the illuminated bulb above the stairs.

“What about it.”

“It shouldn’t be on. The power to the entire house has been turned off for the last six months. The owners didn’t want to keep paying an electric bill for a house that sits empty.”

Certain she had to be wrong, I flipped a switch for the hall light. Nothing. I walked into the dining room, which was across from the door to the basement, and tried the light switches there. Same result. I walked back to the basement door and leaned inside.

“Hey, Joe,” I yelled down the stairs, “there’s something weird going on here. Come back upstairs while I go check the electric meter outside.”

“Go ahead,” he yelled back. “I just want to look around a little more. There’s something interesting down here.”

I didn’t feel comfortable leaving him there, but I wasn’t going to argue until I knew for sure Annette was right. I passed the girls coming in from the backyard as I went outside to look for the meter. I found it on the side of the house, the dial as motionless as the leaves in the trees had suddenly become.

I ran back inside, pushing past Becky as she and Shannon discussed drapes or some such nonsense. At the top of the stairs I yelled down again.

“Get up here now, Joey! The light down there is on, but the power to the house is off. I just checked the meter.”

“Don’t be a moron,” he yelled back. “There’s probably a second meter for the basement they forgot to turn off. Come check this out.”

I took one step down and stopped, feeling suddenly cold.

“Come on man, get back up here.”

“Don’t wimp out on me now, soldier boy,” he called up. “You need to see this. There’s what looks like a bloodstain down here, and it’s in the middle of a pentagram. So gnarly.”

Before I could reply I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to see that Annette was even paler than before, which did not seem possible.

“That cannot be there,” she said, shaking her head. “When we couldn’t get the blood completely out with a power washer, we put down an entirely new wood floor.”

“Maybe the blood seeped through?” I ventured, knowing instantly how ridiculous it sounded, so ridiculous she didn’t bother to reply.

I walked quickly to the living room, where the girls were now discussing the layout of furniture, and grabbed Shannon by the arm.

“Come with me,” I said, trying to not sound panicked. Hell, trying to not be panicked. I was supposed to be the tough one here. “Tell Joey to get his ass up here now. Maybe he’ll listen to you.”

“Why?” she asked, knowing nothing of what had been going on. “What is he doing down there? What’s wrong?”

Becky shot me a concerned glance, but I shook my head.

“Just do it. Please.”

She peered down the basement stairs, started to take a step, then stopped.

“Joey,” she called down. “What are you doing down there, baby? Come on back up here and check out this living room.”

He did not reply.

“Joey?” she tried again. “Did you hear me?”


“Michael,” she said, turning to me. “Please go down there and get my boyfriend.”

Damn it. This was suddenly the last thing I wanted to do, yet the one thing I couldn’t avoid.

I screwed up my courage, remembered all the actual threats I had faced before, and headed down the stairs. Right before I reached the bottom, the lights, both above the stairs and in the basement itself, all snapped off, plunging me into total darkness.

“Quit fucking around, girls,” I yelled up the stairs. “Turn the damn lights back on.”

“No one touched the switch,” Becky replied, a tremor in her voice. “We’re flipping it now but nothing’s happening.”

I froze, squinting hard into the basement, trying to make out anything in the blackness.

“Joe,” I said, my voice barely a whisper though I had intended to shout. “Where the hell are you, man?” The cold I had felt initially at the top of the stairs had intensified to the point that I was sure if the lights were on I would see my breath coming out in front of me. At the same time, an inexplicable sense of both sadness and anger washed over me.

Joey didn’t answer. Rather, what I heard was a low, almost guttural laugh that caused me to turn back toward the top of the stairs, ready to bolt even though I couldn’t see six inches in front of me. But before I could take a step a hand clamped down hard on my shoulder.

Instinct and training kicked in. I spun around, knocking the unseen arm away with my left hand as I did. I then threw a hard right jab at where I assumed the head of whatever this was would be. My fist connected with something solid; there was a grunt and then a loud thud. At almost the same moment, the lights came back on.

Joey was sprawled out on the basement floor, rubbing his jaw where my punch had landed. He stared at me in disbelief, and for a second I thought he was going to cry.

“What did you do that for?” he asked, slowly getting to his feet.

“Why the hell didn’t you answer me?” I replied, unconcerned for the moment with either his jaw or his pride.

“Answer you?” he repeated. “I did answer, every time you called me. Also when Shannon did. Didn’t you hear me?”

“We didn’t hear anything,” I said, starting to wonder which one of us was losing their mind. “Why did you turn the light out?”

“I didn’t; I thought you did it to mess with me. But hey, come take a look at this.” He stepped away from the stairs and moved further into the basement. I had no choice but to follow.

The room was large and almost totally empty; no furniture, no storage boxes filled with discarded keepsakes, not even leftover wood from the re-flooring job. It was bare except for a small table in the corner, on which sat a clock radio whose hands had stopped at 3:15. In the center of the room, clearly visible on the light pine flooring, was a black pentagram. Inside it was a huge red stain that extended beyond the points of the star. Clearly this was where the owners’ son had met his end, but according to Annette I should not be able to see it.

“Go stand in the middle of the star,” he said. “I did it, and I got this feeling of euphoria, the kind you get right before your buzz turns into a full-on drunk. It was awesome.”

“Fuck that,” I said. “I am not going near that thing, and neither are you. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

He seemed disappointed, but nodded.

“Fine, you scared little killjoy,” he said.

I started back up the stairs, taking them as fast as my semi-wobbly legs would allow, and it wasn’t until I was almost at the top that I realized Joey wasn’t behind me.

“Goddamn it, Joe,” I yelled. “What the hell are you doing?”

He reappeared at the bottom of the stairs and started up.

“Jesus, calm down,” he said. “I just wanted to stand in the middle of the thing one more time. I told you there were no ghosts here.”

Reaching the top, I stepped onto the small landing where Becky and Shannon had crowded to see what was going on; Annette had stayed in the hallway but was peering around the doorframe. I turned back just in time to see Joey two steps from the top when the lights went out again.

There was a loud crack, a sound that I instantly recognized as a pistol shot, then a tumbling noise. The clock radio downstairs, which was not plugged in even if there had been power, blared out the chorus to “Rainbow in the Dark,” then everything went silent. The lights came on again just long enough to illuminate Joey’s body at the bottom of the stairs, his head turned at an unnatural angle. I knew immediately that his neck was broken.

We told the entire story to the police when they got there, and they, of course, completely dismissed it. How could they not? Their investigation revealed no gunshots, no pentagram on the floor, no bloodstain, and no power to any part of the house, including the basement. In the end, their report stated that Joey had most likely slipped on the darkened stairs, fallen, and broken his neck. A tragic accident, but nothing more.

Shannon was, understandably, in shock. Becky rode with her in the ambulance when the EMTs took her to the hospital. I stayed until the coroner took Joey’s body from the basement, and night had fallen by the time I went around with Annette and one of the cops as she locked the place up and he strung up yellow crime scene tape over the front door.

As I got into my truck to leave, I turned back and took one last look at the house. In an upstairs window on the far left side I saw a face, Joey’s face, smiling broadly at me. Suddenly every light in the house flashed on for a brief second, and then off just as quickly. When I looked back at the window, he was gone. I guess he’d decided to move in after all.

Originally published in Fictions on


Paul Combs

I’m a writer, podcaster, and bookseller whose ultimate goal (besides being a roadie for the E Street Band) is to make reading, writing, and books in general as popular in Texas as high school football. It may take a while.

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