I flew to Milan with the intention of staying at Pension Carrobbio, a three-story hotel near the Piazza del Duomo. My friend who suggested the place said there were rumors of ghosts on the third floor. But the price was right, so once I arrived, I handed the address to a taxi driver and looked forward to good night’s sleep.
My first impression of the Pension’s worn interior, caged elevator, and dark hallways was something from a horror movie. I suspected this eerie ambiance was the source of the rumors, and I laughed. I considered myself too levelheaded to even consider the notion.
More disturbing was that the first and second floor rooms were all occupied. Since the owner didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian, I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I managed to tell the elderly gentleman that I was willing to stay on the third floor.
“Terzo piano? No.” He shook his head emphatically.
Not knowing anywhere else to go, I persisted and was eventually given a key–a skeleton key unlike the shiny ones hanging behind the front desk. The creaking elevator took me to the silent, gray corridor of the third floor.
I remember clearly the freedom I felt of having the whole floor to myself. After I closed the drapes and unpacked, I walked to the bathroom at the end of the hall. Clad in cotton pajamas, I left the door ajar and didn’t bother to turn on the overhead light.
As I walked past the bathroom mirror, small lights flashed across it, going the opposite direction. The hair on my arms prickled, and my heart pounded. My friend’s warning came rushing back, and this time I couldn’t laugh it off.
The bathroom was pitch dark. There was nothing to create a bright flash. Were those weird flashes the ghosts I’d heard about? I chided myself for such a far-fetched idea, but there was no reasonable explanation. I dashed back to my room and locked the door.
The sensation of someone else in the bathroom had been unsettling. I tried to read a book, but couldn’t concentrate. I kept trying to figure out where the small lights could have come from. Finally, I gave up, turned off the lamp and slid under the covers to sleep.
I woke with a strong feeling that something was wrong. Lying on my side, my sleepy eyes not quite open, I saw what my sixth sense had already grasped. There was a man standing in front of the door. He wore a white shirt and dark pants and had the physique of a younger man. My heart pounded; my mind reeled with questions. Did this stranger mean me personal harm? Was he there to steal money and jewelry? Was he a street gypsy?
Instinct told me to play possum. I pretended I was still sleeping, but kept my eyelids slightly open. This narrowed vision made it possible to track the man’s movements, but not see his face. As he approached the bed, I held my breath. When he moved to the far end of the bed, out of my sight, I exhaled slowly, listening for sounds of rummaging in my suitcase. I heard nothing.
Something had to be done. I gaged the distance to the door. I didn’t know where I’d left the key, but realized if this stranger got in that way, the door must be unlocked. That gave me the option of making a run for safety, tearing down the hall to the staircase…unless he outran me or tackled me before I turned the doorknob.
That’s when I decided to act like I might be waking, thinking perhaps it would scare him away. I mumbled and rolled onto my back, careful to maintain a tight squint, afraid of what eye contact would have brought.
He stood at the foot of my bed, watching me. I wanted him to leave. He approached me from the other side of the bed, along the wall. My muscles tensed. There was no jewelry or money on the nightstand next to my trembling body. That’s when I knew he was coming after me.
If he’d come to harm me, I’d go down swinging. I braced for a fight…but not in the dark. I whirled around and flipped on the light switch. When I turned back, he was gone.
Too frightened to move, not yet convinced I was alone, it took a long time to gather the courage to look over the side of the bed. I saw the tattered rug and nothing else. I sat up, not ready to accept a supernatural explanation. The man had to be somewhere. In the closet? Behind the bidet curtain?
I don’t recall how long it took me to creep out of bed and check both places. I vividly remember glancing at the door and seeing the skeleton key still in the keyhole—locked. That’s when it struck me. I’d just seen a ghost.
Was that possible? Did they really exist? I thought about it some more and realized that the young man had glided rather than walked around the bed. And his white shirt had been a misty beacon in the shadows.
I crawled back into bed, and stared at the ceiling until dawn. No living person could have entered the third floor room. It had to have been a ghost.
I checked out the next day.
In the following years, this memory–unlike a dream–has not faded. I still don’t believe in fairies, goblins, or hobbits, but I’m open to the possibility of another dimension that can’t always be seen–a dimension that holds the spirits of those who traveled this world before us.