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by Sharon Wilfong about a year ago · updated 6 months ago
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Guilt Lingers

A bare bulb, mounted on a post, stands tall, center stage. Its naked light exposes dangers that lurk in the darkest corners, ladders, lighting equipment, paint cans, and props—all the things behind the curtain.

It's early morning.

Wind howling through the rafters sings a mournful song. The opening verse of another late fall day breaking in the Pacific Northwest. Tree branches scratch the surface of the roof.

Rain bursts, and bits of debris skid across the shingles.

A sunrise symphony.

On the stage, the Ghostlight flickers, joining nature's orchestra in its crescendo. The Ghostlight becomes brighter, hotter.

Pushed past its wattage, it explodes, leaving the theatre pitch dark.


Outside, the rain continues relentlessly as Abby, Vanity Theatre's stage manager, makes her way into the front of the house. Holding the lobby door open with her backend, she shakes off her bright yellow umbrella making sure to close it as she brings it inside.

Well, it's not the 5th Ave, she thinks. But this job is the first step in the right direction.

Even though it's small, Vanity Theatre is a challenge in all the right ways. The actors need wrangling the way actors do. And there's always something on set that needs addressing.

Abby loves the hands-on training. She thinks Dave's hard to figure out, though. One minute he's all flirty and excited to show her the ropes. Then the guy turns and tries to make her feel guilty for not doing enough.

She's lost in a recent argument with him. As she organizes the lobby, she thinks about how he gets weirdly jealous for someone who's supposed to be her boss.

She can hear her mama's voice now, even though she tries to get it out of her head.

"Don't be foolish, Abby," she says out loud in her best impression of mama.

She surveys the room with her hands on her hips— Wonder Woman, ready to take on the patriarchy.

A remarkably realistic plastic skull mocks her from its perch by the theatre doors.

"Creep," She says to the skull as she turns it slightly to avert its gaze.

A loud crash. A resounding thud from inside the theatre. And a moan that almost sounds as if it came from Abby's own throat interrupts her train of thought.

The theatre doors slowly open and lock into position, Abby stops short. She listens, eyes wide.



Abby runs outside in a panic.

Threatening storm clouds hang thick in the sky, and a mist covers the ground giving the landscape an otherworldly effect.

It seems much later now.

Abby doesn't notice as she works up the nerve to enter through the backstage doors, hoping to find out what happened. She sees that the stage lights are on, and Dave is working on the Ghostlight.

"How did he get here so fast?" She thinks.

Her heart is racing even more now than before. The last time she saw Dave, he was such a jerk. She can't face him right now.


Dave, Vanity Theatre's technical director, isn't in the mood to deal with the Ghostlight. It's just like the producers to ignore that they need an automatic system. Instead, they make him waste his time dealing with this archaic—

"Peace of sh. . ." He says as he struggles with the old light.

The power surge fried the connections—again. Frustrated, Dave rips the wires from the hollow post without bothering to put on gloves.

He closes his eyes as he feels inside the pockets of the utility belt that he tossed on the floor earlier. Wrapping his fingers around a ball of wire, he pulls his hand out of the cavernous compartment, snagging a hangnail on the belt's frayed edge.

"FUU…" he swears.

A heavy thud comes from backstage—the wind wails as if in answer.

"Hey, Hello? I'm on stage." Dave calls out, half expecting it to be the janitor who's been threatening to come and clean up after him.

No response.

Dave examines the jagged hangnail that now has a little puddle of blood pooling up around the cuticle. He wipes it on the leg of his jeans, grimacing in pain as the raw skin drags across the denim.

Paint cans and metal things falling, crashing, ring out from backstage, breaking the silence.

Dave springs up, painfully, like a worn-out jack-in-the-box. The backstage door opens with a screech and closes. BANG —echoing through the empty theatre like a prison cell door slamming.

The silence settles back in. Wary, Dave grabs his flashlight, which thankfully isn't in the utility belt.

He searches through the darkness and almost trips over a ladder lying on the ground. It knocked several cans of blood-red paint onto the floor.

Looking up from the floor, the phosphorescence prop skull from their production of Hamlet smiles menacingly. It's dangerously close to the paint.

Dave had to work hard to get them to spend the extra money so the troupe could have that particular skull. Abby insisted. He picks it up and holds it high, Shakesperean-actor style, staring intensely into its eyes. The greenish glow gives Dave a ghastly appearance.

He returns the prop to a disorganized table.

The all but forgotten puddle of paint pulses as if attempting to take a breath, and a chill breeze sweeps through the air across the back of Dave's neck.

A sensation that someone else is in the room causes him to turn in time to witness what looks like a face covered in blood.

It appears to rise from the theatre floor.

Dave stares in disbelief, mouth hanging slack-jawed. Unable to move, the man helplessly watches as the face writhes in shock and pain, then recedes into the spill.

Dave's exhaustion overtakes him. He must be hallucinating from lack of sleep. He feels as if his work boots are concrete blocks.

Each step toward the Ghostlight convinces him that he's too tired to be here right now. It'll be a couple of days before the troupe is back for dressed rehearsal.

"I'll do it later," he thinks. "After this production wraps, I am out of here for good."

"You hear that?" he says.

The sound of his voice slips free, a desperate squeak from a rat trying to escape the rattrap.

Dave gives one last quick look around, his face filled with frustration and an air of regret. Broken down, he leaves the theatre through the front door, making sure to turn on all the lights on his way out.

His is the only vehicle left in the lot at this time of night. Most days, he's the first to get here and the last to leave. The only one he can think of, who could ever beat him in, or walked out later, was Abby.

A visage of loneliness, Dave cranks up the old red Toyota and heads home.


Abby straightens the prop table. Then she goes out front and begins marking positions on the stage floor. She hears the actors filing in backstage and sees Dave in the tech booth above, setting light cues. Curiously, no one has come out to check in with her. They're usually all over her to the point that she has to puff up a little to get them to focus.

Dave calls out on the overhead, "Okay, folks, let's get into position."

Two actors walk to center stage and stand in the spotlight.

"Thanks for the help Dave, but they don't have their marks yet," says Abby under her breath.

She's annoyed that Dave is trying to undermine her authority. Look at him shouting out orders to the actors instead of worrying about his own work.

"Wonder what I did this time," she hisses.

Abby attempts to position Megan on her mark. But the actress playing Ophelia ignores her instructions.

"Okay, not sure what your problem is, Megan, but you need to acknowledge me, at least," says Abby.

Nothing. The woman doesn't even flinch. Abby turns to Megan's scene partner, Josh, directing him to his spot. He doesn't respond either.

The spotlight strobes momentarily.

"What is wrong with you people?"

They both ignore her.

An ear-splitting metallic screech comes out of nowhere, sending the troupe running to the green room. On stage, Megan and Josh cover their ears. They see Dave's shadow as he tosses his headset onto his chair and climbs out of the tech booth.

Abby is already gone when Megan and Josh exit the stage to join the rest of the troupe.


"Nothin is workin right, ya'll. The lights are actin' crazy, and what was that sound? Weirdest feedback I ever heard. It feels like we're cursed or somethin." Megan confesses.

"What, like we said Mac—" Josh is cut off before he can finish saying, Macbeth.

"—Don't say it," the group chimes.

Josh laughs. "MacDonalds, Macintosh, MacGyver."

"Oh, you think that's fuuuunny?" asks Megan, indignant.

"In fact, I do," says Josh.

Their fevered conversation stops when Dave enters the room.

"I think we're gonna call it a day, folks," says Dave.

Megan stands up, determined to have a say.

"Okay, but what was that, Dave? You didn't hear that awful noise?"

"What do you want me to say? It was feedback. You heard it. You all know how the electrical has been over the past few weeks."

"I don't know, the Ghostlight blowing up every night seems like a weird coinciden—"

Dave cuts Megan off, sweeping his arm over the group like a demented orchestra conductor.

"Don't get them all fired up."

"I'm not trying to get anyone worked up, just saying that the Ghostlight..."

Dave shakes a small stack of notebook paper in the air.

"Look, I have notes from the other night. Take these, and let's get out of here tonight. We can pick up from the top tomorrow afternoon."

Megan isn't satisfied. "Fine, but what about the Ghostlight?"

"I fixed the damn Ghostlight, Abby."

Suddenly, the spotlight is on Dave, who remains silent. He feels as if the air is getting sucked from his lungs. Handing the actors their notes without acknowledging the name slip, he herds them out of the green room, into the lobby, and out the front door.

Dave hesitates as he locks the door behind the last actor and turns off the lobby lights. His rising uneasiness is verging on panic.

As he sets the Ghostlight up on center stage, he half expects to get electrocuted when he plugs it in and turns it on. But, nothing happens. Breathing a sigh of relief, he opens the curtains so the light illuminates the back area. Then he exits through the backstage door.


The next night, everyone wants to talk about what happened. And as soon as Dave is out of earshot, the drama begins, with accusations from Megan.

"Ya'll don't really think she would take her own life, do ya?"

"C'mon, Meg, she was always up and down. A real drama queen. She did it to herself. Even the cops said so." Josh offers.

"I don't know. It sure seemed suspicious to me. You know, Dave doesn't even want to talk about it, and they were, like, friends and all."

"Yeah, friends," snorts Josh. "Anyway, it doesn't matter. There's no such thing as ghosts."

"But, the Ghostlight blows up all the time now. I bet it's not fixed yet since last time," says Megan.

"The whole Ghostlight thing is a silly superstition. Theatre people love to make up stories. You know it's all about the drama," says Josh.

"Guys, guys, c'mon. Let's not get crazy. Dave says that he'll fix it. End of story."

Logical Lily to the rescue. She puts the last touches on Megan's hair.

"Okay, girl, let's do this. Break a leg."


Dave is in the tech booth, not in any way, patiently waiting for the actors to get it together and get this show on the road.

"All set," comes Lily's voice over the intercom.

Dave turns the house lights off and places the spotlight on Megan and Josh. They're performing a dressed rehearsal of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Josh as HAMLET: "Ha, ha. Are you honest?"

Dave watches to make sure that the actors remain in the light. They're doing a fine job, and he's beginning to lose interest.

His eyes feel tired. So at first, he's not sure what to make of it when an apparition sweeps onto the stage. It appears to walk right into Megan's body like some sort of phantasmagoria.

"Abby?" Dave whispers.

Megan, dressed as Ophelia, gazes up at the tech booth. Dave processes that somehow he's witnessed (or imagined) Abby's spirit possessing Megan's body.

Josh, didn't see any spirit, but he can't get a response from Megan, so he leans in and touches her shoulder. Her eyes are distant as she turns to look at him.

OPHELIA: "My Lord?"

HAMLET: "Are you fair?"

OPHELIA: "What means your Lordship?"

Disbelief washes over Dave. He puts his head in his hands, covering his eyes with his palms.

He's too tired.

"I need to get out of here right after this production," he thinks.

Then, as if compelled by some unseen force, Dave speaks Hamlet's next line in unison with the actor.

HAMLET and DAVE: "That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty."

OPHELIA: (To Hamlet) "Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?"

Dave stares straight ahead, watching the actress but reliving a memory. He answers.

HAMLET and DAVE: "Ay, truly, for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. I did love you once."

OPHELIA and ABBY: (Looking up at Dave) "Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so."


Megan drops to the floor. Thinking fast, Josh picks her up and carries her to the green room.

Meanwhile, Dave gathers himself to check on Megan without letting on that he's losing his mind. He wipes the sweat that's accumulated across his forehead and swivels his chair to get up.

To his dismay, Abby's apparition appears in front of him, blocking his path. Dumfounded, he stumbles and falls back into his chair.

As he lands, his elbow knocks the intercom switch to the green room into the "talk" position. The actors hear the intercom come on, expecting Dave to tell them that help is on the way. Instead, they hear Dave as he crumbles, confessing his part in Abby's death.

The troupe is silent, taking in the terrified man's words.

"I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. I know you think I did it because... I sent you home because I had to process our…you know, and I was distracted and tired. You know how I don't always put everything away after a hard day. It was like that, you know. But I swear I didn't set you up to get hurt!"


Dave gasps, struggling to breathe as Abby's spirit bears down on him. A heavy pressure fills his chest, making it increasingly difficult to think, to move.

His surroundings are a shifting sheet of fog. To his horror, there's no escape.

Abby is inside him. It is as if he is she and reliving her last moments.


It's dark backstage—Abby is upset over her ongoing power struggle with Dave. She feels like she's losing the battle with him. He left the backstage dark again.

That's proof enough that he doesn't care about her or anything else for that matter.

She sees the glow from the prop skull and decides to head toward it because she knows that's the prop table.

It's so dark.

Abby can't see her hand in front of her face.

Even though she's careful, her foot knocks over a bucket of abandoned mop water melting into the shadows. The young woman trips and slips and sends the ladder and a pile of tools flying.

Something strikes Abby in the head hard, making her see stars right before the impact knocks her out.

Plastic tarp tears free from above. It slips silently, covering her unconscious body. A broken noose-type rope hangs where the ladder had been.

A gallon of blood-red paint spills onto the plastic. It slowly fills in the gaps and ultimately smothers Abby.


Dave's struggle slows, and soon, he is still.


Abby is alone.

Tears stream down her face, her denial fading away as quickly as her 23 years went by. Even now, the theatre calls to her.

There are still nooks and crannies that remain in the dark. Places that need organization. Costumes and props to account for and lighting, and sound to coordinate.

All the things that someone must finish.

All the unfinished things.


A Ghostlight is a bare bulb on a long post that stands tall. Its naked light exposes potential hazards when a theater is unoccupied. If someone is working late, on stage, or behind the curtain, a Ghostlight keeps them from getting hurt.

There's another side to the Ghostlight, however. Theater superstition says it provides light for spirits to see their surroundings and even perform on the stage. A spirit can remain attached to a place for many reasons, and the ghost in my story has her own reason for staying.

When I was in film school, I had an opportunity to write, direct, and produce a short film. I was new to this craft, and all I really knew was that this was an opportunity to experiment. Ghostlight is a ghost story set in a community theater.

It centers around the theater superstition regarding the Ghostlight— a bare bulb mounted on a long post. Theater people use the Ghostlight to shed some light in an otherwise dark theater. It keeps people from getting hurt.

Of course, the superstition goes that the light is actually for the spirits that occupy the theater. In this story, guilt holds a spirit captive in the theater where she passed away.

I revised the story and published it on Vocal. But my first attempt to tell the tale was a short film. I was trying for an Alfred Hitchcock meets German Expressionism vibe. For me, the practical effects are the best part of the short film version.

Thank you for viewing!

About the author

Sharon Wilfong

“It's never too late to be what you might have been.” — George Eliot

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