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Christmas Ghost Story

Be Patient

The winner of the Christmas ghost story competition.


Holly woke up to frost on her windows. She turned her face into her pillow and muffled her screams. This was the third time in two weeks she had woken up damp with sweat, her pulse racing. Sleep was rejuvenating for most people, a time to reset and let her feelings unwind. Holly could not remember the last time she crawled into her dorm apartment bed with unclenched fists or without a million weighted thoughts. 

Holly had one more semester to go before graduation in the spring. One more semester before the end. What career would she choose, where would she live, what should she eat for dinner? Decisions had to be made, which only made her avoid them more. She had taken to walking around the campus at all hours, attempting to slow down the blood filling her ears and flushing her cheekbones. She was grateful for the chilly air during Christmas break. She preferred the sting of frostbite under her fingernails to the numbing pain that had made its home in every knuckle. 

Once the screams had ended, Holly placed her feet on the carpet and walked over to her desk to grab the glass of water left over from the night before. She drank with her eyes closed, desperate to block out the light a little longer. Her eyes adjusted to the glare of the cloudy sky and scanned her desk again. She found the flyer on top of her laptop, ripped and wrinkled. She had torn it off the notice board too quickly, making sure no one was paying attention.

Volunteers needed for
case study on anxiety
in college students—
45-minute noise therapy session with discussion
$50 cash reimbursement, Albert Hall, call to claim spot

She read the advertisement for the eighth time, muttering the number as she tapped the screen of her phone. 

“What could it hurt?” her roommate had said last night when she showed her the flyer. “Anything is better than walking around like you’re dying.” 

When Holly left later that morning, she was struck by the absence of students, most of them already gone for the holiday. Her own mother had called a week ago to make sure she wasn’t coming home in a last attempt to persuade her daughter to take a break. But Holly brushed her off, claiming to need the extra time for job applications, straining her voice down an octave. She could not risk a breakdown at home. Not when she was so close to finishing school.

Albert Hall was as quiet and empty as the school lawns. Holly found the classroom she was told to report to and pulled open the door. Inside were a couple of chairs and a brunette student in a lab coat sitting at the front desk, scribbling notes in a planner and lip syncing to a song in her head. She looked up at the sound of the door closing and smiled.

“Good afternoon! Are you here for the study?”

Holly nodded her head and stepped forward, “Hi, I’m Hol–”

“No names please,” the student interrupted. “You are the first to show up. You will be Patient A. How are you today, Patient A?”

“Well, I guess. I mean, I’m here.”

The student scribbled some more. Her pony tail swung faster and faster with every nod. “And how would you rate your anxiety right now? Out of ten, ten being the highest.”

It took Holly a minute to evaluate herself. Her nose was tingling and she realized she had been tapping her thumb and pointer finger to the rhythm of the student’s swinging hair. “I’d say about a six right now, but I woke up closer to a nine.”

More nodding and hair flipping, more scratches on the lined paper. The next moment, as if summoned, a door behind the desk opened. Out strode a short, curly-haired student, no older than Holly. She was also wearing a lab coat and carried a clear box in both her hands. The room behind her was darkened like a nightclub. A red hue floated somewhere in the blackness. 

“Thank you so much for participating, Patient A,” she chirped as she stepped aside to direct Holly into the interior room. “We are going to be having our session in here.”

Holly opened and closed her mouth, trying to unlock her jaw to respond. When nothing came out, she forced her feet a little faster into the room. The room was a third of the size of the first one, with only two plastic chairs and a floor lamp glowing red. The air was warm and clammy against Holly’s skin. She pressed against the side of her neck, patting down the pulsing vein that had started to drum.  

The curly-haired student placed the box in her hands on the floor and started to rummage through her supplies. “I am going to hand you a pair of earbuds connected to this recorder. You are going to hear some white noise, maybe some ocean sounds, relaxing music, that sort of thing. I’m also going to ask that you put this eye mask on to help block out the rest of the light in the room.” She handed over a terrycloth eye mask with an elastic band. “After thirty minutes, I’ll tap you on the shoulder and you can remove your mask. Then I’ll have some follow up questions to ask. Sound good?”

“Yes.” Holly answered quickly, collecting the eye mask and sitting down in the first chair. She had already started to place the earbuds in her ears, careful to not pull the cable out of the recorder. 

“I’ll be in this chair,” she pointed to the spare across from Holly.  “If at any time you need me, just let me know.” Holly pushed the mask over her eyes as the music started.

The music was twinkle lights, stars in the summer. The lightness of the flutes playing was pleasant. She felt the corners of her mouth rise a little, going back to a camping trip when she was twelve, standing beneath the night sky. Her breath slowed in her memory as she contemplated the endless universe. Peace. That was her next thought. How peaceful is th—

Be patient. 

Holly felt her eyebrows rise beneath the eye mask. Did the other woman say something? The flute changed to ocean waves, a rouge seagull in the distance. 

Be patient. Be patient. Take care. 

The words were cold inside Holly’s ears, raspy and icy. They seemed to ride the waves in the background, fighting through the water to reach her. 

Be patient. Be patient.

Was this her inner voice, this whisper that felt like dead weight? Holly scrunched up her eyes, tightening her entire body to focus on the voice. Be patient for what? 

Be patient. Be patient. Take care. Be patient.

Louder and louder it sounded. It loomed. The waves broke on imaginary sands and the voice clawed closer and closer. Holly could almost feel the winter wind outlining her face. Had the curly-haired student opened the door to cool off the room? 

Be patient. Be patient. Be patient. Take care. Be patient.

Then there was silence. Absolute, deafening silence. The image of a dorm room flashed behind Holly’s eyes. The double bunk bed was pressed to the left side wall, allowing two small desks to sit side by side. This room had a colorful rug and music posters. There were twinkle lights wrapped around the windowsill. 

Be patient.

Another flash of two women sitting on the colorful rug. One was petite and dark haired, wearing a striped dress. The other was in her pajamas, wet hair pulled back in a double braid. They were arguing about something, pulling each other’s hair, clothes, hands. A police report, torn into confetti, spread around underneath them. 

Be patient.

The woman in the striped dress shouted: “He—I don’t believe you! No one else will either!” She grabbed a braid in each hand and twisted them around the woman’s throat.

Be patient. Be patient. Take care. 

The woman in the striped dress sobbed on the floor, rolling the carpet up. “Sorry,” she whispered into the fabric. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t—sorry.”

Be patient. Be patient. Take care.

It was dark again. Holly’s arms were pressed against her body. She tried to lift up a leg but it wouldn’t budge. Her eyes were wide open, and she felt threads of wool pressing into her face. Her chest swelled with panic, but no breath escaped her lips. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” was all she heard until the words were drowned out by the ocean, frigid waves soaking through the rug.

Holly screamed and ripped out the earbuds, causing the recorder to fly across the room and shatter against the wall. The curly-haired student reached out to grab her shoulders as Holly clawed off her eye mask.

“What the hell was that?” Her hands were trembling as she tried to push herself to her feet. Her voice was raw and raised, filling the air like lightning. “What did you do? I thought it was just supposed to be white noise.”

The curly-haired student straightened her coat nonchalantly. “It is. What did you hear?”

“She’s dead! The woman killed her and she’s dead. I was dead!”

“It’s pretty warm in here. Did you fall asleep? Dreamt something?”

“I heard their voices. The dead one, she kept saying to be patient. Over and over, again and again. Be patient. Take care.” Holly placed her hands on her chest, pushing her lungs back. 

“You must have dreamed it. Do you usually have nightmares? I’m supposed to ask you how anxious you feel now for the session.”

Holly tried to laugh but it came out more like a stutter. “I’m a twelve on the scale.”

The curly-haired student attempted to match her smile but kept her distance. She collected all her supplies before opening the door for Holly. “Thank you again for your participation. You can collect your fee at the desk.” 

Holly walked through the doorway, grateful for the movement and light coming in through the windows. It had started to snow, started to cover the brown grass in white. She turned towards the desk and waited for the student to pull out a few bills. A door opened and closed behind her shoulder. 


Holly went rigid. She felt the sting of salt water and her throat closed up. The student looked past her and motioned to the newcomer to step forward. “Are you here for the study?”

“Yes,” she replied, smoothing out her dress. “Sorry I’m a bit late. I’ve had trouble sleeping and didn’t hear my alarm.”

“No worries,” the student replied. She picked up her pen to start scribbling. “You will be Patient B. And how are you today, Patient B?”

Holly locked eyes with the curly-haired student in the doorway to the interior room. 

“Be patient,” Holly gasped, tracing her own throat. “Patient B. Take care.”

Ree Brannigan is the winner of The Lamp’s Christmas ghost story competition. 

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Ree Brannigan is the winner of The Lamp’s Christmas ghost story competition