Gene Heister emerged from the kitchen, clutching the cardboard box that once held the ashes of his wife, Jean.
“That’s what she was in, all right,” said Heister, 73, grinning wildly. The snow-haired man set the box down along a wall and then eased himself into a chair at the dining room table.
He passed me a photograph with the reddish image in the corner that may or may not be the back of his dead wife’s head.
With the October twilight bleeding faintly through the windows of his modest north Spokane home, Heister cleared his throat.
“You always hear about ghosts,” the old man said, “but I never really believed.” Heister paused a moment, letting his words sift through the air like untethered cobwebs.
“But now,” he added, his voice trailing off as he looked again at the eerie snapshot, “I’m believing in something now.”
I ‘m a sucker for a ghost story, especially on Halloween.
Don’t take me for a chump. I don’t actually believe in spooks, specters or clumsy spirits who can’t walk around at night without crashing into things.
Despite my disbelief, I love that goosebump feeling when a ghastly tale is told.
Anyone who shares my predilection for poltergeists will be excited to learn that some of our local ghouls have been given prominent play in a new book.
Margaret Read MacDonald - a Bothell, Wash., children’s librarian - has compiled a treasure chest filled with moldering bones: “Ghost Stories from the Pacific Northwest” ($14.95, August House.)
The book has yet to arrive, but Auntie’s Bookstore, 402 W. Main, is taking orders. The collection is filled with chills such as - pause for eerie organ music - the “Attendant Ghost of Vancouver General Hospital.”
That story is about a 1975 burn victim who clung to life three months before he gave up the ghost. “I’m very tired,” the young man said. “I’ve had so much pain.”
His heart stopped the next day, but the man didn’t check out. Nurses spotted him standing in a room. Radios inexplicably blared. Hospital patients felt his clammy presence.
“After writing the book, I tend to kind of believe in ghosts,” MacDonald told me.
Spokane is well represented with tales such as the long-dead Mr. McCloud, who haunted Realtor Irma Breesnee. “From the first day I moved in,” she said, “I had very strong feelings that there was somebody with me all the time.”
Or the ghost who shattered every breakable item in landscaper Bob Lund’s home. “We were the only ones in the house at the time all the glass broke,” he said. “The only ones alive, anyway.”
Gene Heister’s strange photograph, the story with which we began, is too fresh for any book.
I visited Heister the other day to eyeball the evidence and hear how he fulfilled his wife, Jean’s, last request. “Don’t bury my ashes,” the woman, who died of cancer last spring, told her husband.
In July, Heister drove off in his van to leave a little of Jean in every state. “She loved to travel,” he explained.
At the Continental Divide, Heister got an unsettling taste that this journey might not be so smooth. A sudden gust of wind blew a cup of Jean’s ashes all over Heister and the inside of the van.
Shaken, the man drove on until he found a vista outside Sheridan, Wyo. The retired machinist stepped out and sprinkled ashes at the edge of a bluff. The panorama was so grand Heister took aim with his Polaroid camera.
As the snapshot developed, Heister gasped. There, in the left lower corner, was a thumb-sized reddish spot.
The smudge, to me, looks like the result of faulty developer. Heister, however, thinks it may be the back of a red-haired woman’s head.
“Jean had red hair in her prime,” he says.
After he saw the picture, Heister was so upset he drove to the East Coast to visit relatives. He didn’t touch the ashes for four weeks.
On the trip home, he felt himself pulled to that familiar high ground near Sheridan. Heister walked to the vantage and poured out the rest of his wife’s remains.
“I figured that was a good place to drop them, so I did,” he says, looking again at the photo. “You know, maybe she was trying to tell me something.”
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