in Tall Tales

Stories for those who sleep with the lights on

I once met a girl who could read palms.  She didn’t know that she could read palms until she was backpacking through Thailand and an old woman in a rural village grabbed her and pulled her into a hut.  The old woman told her she was marked, that she had the gift, and then, there in that hut in that tiny village, she taught this girl how to read palms (this gal was also a twin, which seems to be relevant for this sort of thing).  The problem, this girl explained to me, was that she couldn’t do it right when she was sober.  Her conscious mind got in the way too much and she overthought things or second guessed herself too much and froze up and didn’t know what to say.  On my birthday she got drunk (and so did I) and she came over and read my palms.

She said that what people don’t realize is that our lives are written on our hands and there is more of the past there than the future.  As we move through life, our palms change.  Lines grow.  Other lines shorten.  Some fade away and still others appear.  Some lines break.  This can make some parts hard to read.  Like my love line.  She couldn’t tell if it meant that I was now in love or if I had been in love.  I thought about my wife and I thought about the gal who said goodbye to me all those years ago, and I didn’t say too much.

But then she started telling me very specific things about my past.  She was accurate down to the very age I was when things happened.  These were things she could not have known about me (she was more a friend of a friend than a friend of mine) and yet she claimed to have read them in my palm.  She knew, for example, that my parents kicked me out when I was seventeen years old (my friend, whose friend she was, did not know this about me).  She showed me where she read it on my hand.  She didn’t use any of the technical jargon you find in books about palm reading – the line of Mars, the girdle of Venus, the Mount of Apollo, the Finger of Saturn… – but she told me a lot about the life I had lived up until then.

She only made one prediction about my future and it was so preposterous that I laughed out loud.  I figured she couldn’t get everything right.


Ruby has the ability to pluck houseflies out of the air.  She has done this regularly ever since she first became interested in flies a year or two ago.  No matter how much I swat at them, I can never seem to hit them.  Ruby just walks over to the window (or wherever the fly is buzzing) and matter-of-factly grabs it with her thumb and forefinger.  She always tells me not to hurt the flies she catches but she also always ends up killing them.  The last fly died when she added it to a potion she was making.  She had been doing some colouring with markers (the colours still stained her fingers) when she decided to try and make a potion.  She mixed up some water, some coloured paper that she shredded, some pompoms and the fly she caught.  She stirred it with her finger and then came to me in amazement:

Look, daddy, the marker is gone!  The potion took the marker away!

And it’s true, there was no longer any marker on her finger.  And while I know the marker was washable, I still kinda wonder a bit about the potion and if I should dump it out our not now that Ruby has gone to her mom’s for a few days.  Can you dump magic potions down the sink?  Are there consequences for doing a thing like that?


I never believed in ghosts until I got a phone call from one.  It was 1:00AM and I was covering the front desk at a shelter where I used to work in Vancouver.  Overnight staff had long talked about a ghost that roamed the building at night and I laughed at the stories and I went looking for the ghost but I never found it (things that roam apart from ghosts: phones, cowboys, James Hetfield).  Sure, the elevator would start up on its own every night around 4AM and go to the ground floor and then to the fourth floor, but I figured that was just a mechanical reset or glitch or something like that (although when I told a resident about these happenings he got all excited and spent several nights in a row sitting in the elevator waiting for this to happen and it never did… but it did start up again after he gave up, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of that, but I didn’t worry too much about it – that elevator broke down half the time, so who the heck knew what it was up to on any given day or night).  People also talked about hearing footsteps in the halls on the fourth floor, even after work was being done and nobody was living on that floor anymore (making it a good place for overnight staff members to go take a nap).  I never heard the footsteps but I did know old buildings make noises and that sometimes, when you’re up all night and you’re over tired, your mind can do funny things.  Other staff members said they also saw the shadow of feet through the crack under a door and once, while outside smoking, a face looking out of a window in an unoccupied room.  I never saw those things though.

I did hear a door open and shut once that was a secured door and only staff had access to that area and I thought maybe a resident had managed to swipe a set of staff keys but all the keys for accounted for and I thought maybe I’d been hearing things.

And then my partner at the time – who was also my shift partner – tried to take a nap on a couch in a closed off common area, accessible only to staff, and she heard knocking coming from an office door next to the room where she was sleeping.  She got up, thinking I was in the office playing a trick on her, but when she unlocked the door, and turned on the light, nobody was there.  She thought maybe she had fallen asleep and dreamed the knocking and so she turned the lights back out, closed the door, and went and laid down again.  Then the knocking started again very loud and very insistently and she fled the room and when I saw her she was white as a, well, you know.  She never again would nap in that room (just like all the other overnight staff members stopped napping on the fourth floor, except for me, and I still never saw or heard anything up there).

Then one night I was covering the front desk and I got a phone call around 1:00AM.  If the call is from an internal phone – ie a phone in the building – the place calling always shows up on the display on the phone (either an extension number or a room name).  The phone said that the computer lab was calling me.  I picked up the phone and said hello and nobody said anything back.  There was no response but there was also no dial tone.  Just silence.  I said hello a few more times and then hung up the phone.  And then I remembered that the computer lab – which was immediately adjacent to the room where my partner would no longer nap, was under construction.  “That’s odd,” I thought, “I don’t think it’s possible to make phone calls from there anymore.”  So a co-worker and I went back to check it out and we opened the lab and turned on the light and, sure enough, there was nothing in the room.  The whole thing was stripped.  No furniture.  No computers.  There was not even any drywall on the walls.  And there was certainly no phone connected anywhere.

That’s when I started to think I might need to reevaluate my views on the existence of ghosts.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when I was trying to sleep on the same couch in the same closed off common room my partner had fled, that I started actually believing.


The other night Ruby asked me if I was afraid of monsters.  I told her that I’m not afraid of monsters – in fact, I said, monsters are afraid of daddy because the truth is that daddy has never met a monster he wasn’t able to vanquish or, more often, turn into a friend.  “Oh,” she said, “that’s because you’re so big.”  And, it’s true, compared to her, I’m enormous.  Then she paused and thought awhile and said, “Not even giants?” We had recently watched the latest version of The BFG and Ruby seemed to think that fear or fearlessness was related to one’s size in relation to others.  “Not even giants,” I said, and she said, “Woh,” and didn’t understand how this could be.

Charlie chipped in, “Are giants real?”  and Ruby said, “giants sleep under the ground” (see previous comment about The BFG) and I thought about Iceland and about pillars of stone that once were trolls and faces in the rocks and hiking in canyons where the cliffs made noises as though they had doors and windows that were opening and closing and footsteps behind Jess and I at Reynisfjara when we both turned around simultaneously and no one was there, and I said, “whatever giants there were fell asleep hundreds of years ago and they have been sleeping so long that they turned into mountains and islands and have forgotten how to wake up.”  My kids seemed satisfied with this answer.


I have come to the conclusion that there is a lot of bullshit and a lot of cons and a lot of people trying to make a quick buck (as well as a lot of people who seem eager to believe any kind of thing, no matter how absurd that belief is to others – in fact, I think that covers about all of us), but I’ve also come to the conclusion that there is a lot more going on in the world than we can possibly imagine.  Just ask any astrophysicist about dark matter and black holes or ask any quantum theorist about other dimensions and how subatomic particles can simply appear ex nihilo (breaking the law of the conservation of energy) and exist awhile – sometimes in multiple places at the same time – before they disappear ad nihilum.  Science is crazier than any ghost story I’ve ever heard, although it doesn’t usually give me goosebumps.


There were enough otherwise level-headed and sensible people believing in ghosts at my workplace that I used to go to the places where they said they saw or heard things, looking to see if I, too, could experience a ghost.  I figured, hey, if a ghost was about, I’d like to meet it.  I wasn’t particularly afraid – I couldn’t imagine how a ghost could hurt me – but I was curious.  My efforts never really came to anything.  I wondered if everyone else was just caught up in a fun story they had all convinced each other was true.  After all, it helped to make the shift more exciting.  Plus, the building was old  and it had been a place where a lot of bad shit went down.  It had been a flophouse and a girl was rumoured to have hung herself there.  That all added to the excitement of the story – had she lived on the fourth floor?  Wouldn’t it be thrilling to live into that story?  It would certainly be more exciting than smoking another cigarette and counting the pigeons roosting on the rooftop patio just to pass the time.

But I also wondered if maybe ghosts only become tangible to people who were afraid of them.  Maybe they needed that energy to manifest – and the more a person was afraid, the more real the ghost could be to that person than to others who were less afraid.  I was, in other words, trying to be open-minded.  I also tried to talk to the ghost and tell it, hey, you can show yourself with me, too.  It’s okay.  I’m not afraid and you don’t have to be afraid of me (because if people could be afraid of ghosts, surely ghosts could be afraid of people and maybe all the fear was just one big misunderstanding).  That didn’t seem to go anywhere though, and I felt a little silly doing it.

And then one night I was napping on the couch where my partner would no longer nap.  There was a set of washrooms attached to that common room.  Sometimes, at night, the pipes in those bathrooms would make noises.  It was an old building, as I said before.  Then, as I laid there half asleep, I noticed that the toilet in one of the bathrooms was flushing over and over.  “I’m dreaming,” I thought and I sat up and rubbed my eyes.  The toilet kept on flushing.  I noticed that the light was also on in that bathroom.  “That’s weird,” I thought, “I don’t think any bathroom lights were on before…  Maybe it’s the ghost!” I got up all excited.  Here, perhaps, was my chance to actually meet “the ghostie” (as the ghost was affectionately called but us more solid, fleshy folks).  As I walked towards the bathroom all my hair began to stand on end and

I slowed down and realized that the tap in that bathroom was also running.

And I swear I heard, maybe not with my ears, but with my mind, and I think it was still something I somehow heard, someone standing at the sink – looking into the mirror, I knew the someone was looking into the mirror – and that someone was talking to him- or herself (or was it something talking to itself?).  I stopped just outside the door.  All I had to do was look in and I would know if the ghostie was there or not.

Instead, I turned and quickly walked away.  After that, I never got another chance.  There were no more knocks on doors or foosteps in the hall or phone calls from disconnected phones or toilets flushing.  Not for me, anyway.  Just shift after shift after shift until my insomnia got so bad that I had to switch to days and then I discovered that the true horror of shelter work is what agencies do to clients in order to preserve or advance their corporate brand status and their connections with wealth and power.  But that, I think, is a story too scary for this time of night and I need to get some sleep.

Night, night.

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