It started off like any other investigation: a quick check to confirm I had my antacids and a mental note of the nearest bathroom. The roll of antacids was in my front pocket, and the closest bathroom was down the hallway, near where my parents were now sleeping. We were visiting my parents' friends, Jolette and Mario Furse, and their two sons, Jack, age 12, and Ollie, age 2, and their house was unremarkable. Unremarkable, that is, except for one thing: an unknown entity was also living there, making it a family of five.

I hadn't expected an investigation here. We'd just come to visit for the weekend, as we did once every few years so my dad could see Mr. Furse, an old college football buddy. But just like I can't choose when I might suddenly need a bathroom, I can't choose when a real-life, true, unexplained phenomenon may present itself. But I always travel with my notebook, antacids, and laser-tag gear, so I was prepared for anything.

Let's get to the facts.

We had just eaten dinner when Jack asked his parents if he could tell us about the "Gray Man." They both seemed uneasy about the topic, exchanging glances of uncertainty, but I sensed paranormal activity afoot, so I insisted Jack continue. The truth awaited. And here's what Jack told us at the dinner table.

About three weeks before, he had been watching television in the family room. It was late. So late, in fact, that his parents and brother had already gone to bed. He was sure of that, and they confirmed so much during his retelling of the incident. Jack was on the couch, half-sleeping, half-watching a television show about zombies. This suggested he may have dreamed the whole thing, or, at least, what he experienced next may have just been zombie-TV hysteria. Jack reported he heard a sound so sharp and abrupt it made him jump. He eyed the family room without moving his head, but it was completely dark, so he saw nothing. It raised goose bumps on his neck, but he continued with his television show, trying to convince himself it was just the creaking of wood and plaster as the house settled, just like his dad had explained away many other things that went bump in the night. But things were very unsettled in that house, as I found out later.

It wasn't more than a minute after the first noise that Jack heard it again. This time, it was more distinct. This one didn't make him jump, as he was already on edge and waiting for something else to happen. But the third one, which followed ten seconds later, made him bolt upright. The sound was unmistakable. It had been a cough.

"Mom, dad, Ollie?" he had asked. But he would have seen his parents or Ollie walking down the steps from the second-floor bedrooms, so he knew it had not been any of them. Besides, Ollie was a solid sleeper, and he had heard his father snoring not five minutes earlier.

From the dining room to his right, toward the garage on the left, something walked across the hallway. It traveled without haste, in no hurry to get to where it was going.
It was completely dark, the television being the only illumination, and the entity appeared to Jack as a gray, non-descript figure, but it had been unmistakably human in general form. A man, too. And he had been grainy with indistinct borders filled with a swirling fog.

Jack screamed and ran up to his parents' bedroom, where he found both sound asleep. Awakened, they were annoyed and assured him it had been his imagination, he had been dreaming, or it was the effects of the pizza and ice cream they'd all eaten that night.

I listened to Jack's story at the dinner table with much interest and was actually pretty well freaked out the whole time. I would suggest to others that when you have guests staying for the weekend at your house, do not tell them about a gray ghost that roams your hallways.

Mr. and Mrs. Furse accompanied Jack's story with jokes and sarcasm, and my parents also did not take the eyewitness report seriously. Although I am a True Believer to the core, I'm also the one whose duty it is, as a paranormal investigator, to search for the truth. Jack was convinced about what he saw, and he was sincere, in my opinion; however, his subjective beliefs were, just as Mrs. Furse had said, capable of being misguided by imagination, dreams, and indigestion.

That was the end of Jack's story. He hadn't heard or seen anything else in the three weeks since it had occurred. At this point, I was ready to write a summary and file it away.

I went to bed that Saturday night at the Furse home at the same time as everybody else, around midnight. The Furses' house was large, as Mr. Furse was president of Ultimate Sportswear, a successful company, so my parents and I each had our own bedroom. Although my parents had their own bathroom in their room, I had to use the one down the hallway. I had been looking up "coughs" in my Encyclopedia of the Unexplained but could find nothing on the subject. So it was past midnight by the time I was ready for sleep. I went down to the bathroom at the end of the hallway, and I swear to you I was not eavesdropping, but I could not help but hear Mr. and Mrs. Furse's voices through a vent in the bathroom ceiling as I stood atop the bathtub edge, eight folded towels, and ten tippy toes.

"I didn't want to scare Custard, Ollie, or Jack, much less Bucky and Angela, but there's something I haven't told you," Mrs. Furse had said from their bedroom. "Last night, I was watching television after you all had gone to bed, and I . . ."

Mr. Furse encouraged her to continue.

"I heard somebody cough," she said. "Just like Jack did."

"It looks like we have a ghost. And he has a cold."

"I'm serious. And then I saw somebody walk across the hallway. He was completely gray. I couldn't see any details, but it was definitely a man. He was translucent, like he was filled with a cloud, because I could see the front porch lights through his body. And he was headed down the hallway toward the garage."

At that moment, I fell off the stack of towels, landing inside the tub hard on my backside.

Mrs. Furse came out of her room and asked through the bathroom door if everything was okay. I told her everything was fine. I had merely fallen off the toilet. I'm not good with stressful situations or thinking very fast, and this was the best thing I could come up with. When she asked me how I managed to do that, I told her I had been washing my feet. Again, I'm not good at this sort of thing. She then asked me why I had been washing my feet, and I said because the dog had been licking chocolate cake off of them during dinner. I thought this was a pretty good recovery, but then she reminded me that we had ice cream for dessert, and they don't even have a dog. When I told her it was good they didn't have a dog because they can be allergic to chocolate and get very sick, this seemed to be good enough for her, because she accepted the explanation (Actually, she said, "That's interesting.") and left me alone. This was a relief, because the Case of the Gray Man Ghost was about to be reopened and an undercover investigation commenced.

Luckily, the Furses had provided me access to a computer, so I returned to my bedroom and conducted more research on coughing-related paranormal activity and looked up the local history for the area.

I poked my head outside the room fifteen minutes later, and everything was quiet. There were no lights on in the house, but I was always prepared, so I just pulled the trigger on my laser-tag pistol to light my way. The glow was blood red and added another dimension of creepiness to what I was already feeling, as well as a stream of new sweat down my temple. The pistol had no ammunition and would provide me only light. But light is all I need to find the truth. I know of no ghost ever discovered by a bullet.

My stomach was churning, but I made it downstairs without my dinner doing an encore appearance. I wanted to recreate what it must have been like for Jack and his mother, so I sat on the couch in the dark. I didn't turn on the television, as Jack had described, but, otherwise, the circumstances were comparable. The Furses lived in the boonies, and to the left, windows looked out over a thick wooded lot well lit by the full moon. Warmer weather had already leeched the brown from the tangles of green briars, but the winter-chewed trees still stood as meatless skeletons, creeping me out nearly as much as the Crooked Tree on Will and Windy's farm back home. Otherwise, I didn't see anything that seemed peculiar outside the window, so I scanned the rest of the family room until I was looking precisely where Jack had described seeing the Gray Man cross the hallway. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I saw no apparitions.

I walked to the same hallway, still in the dark, and stopped where Jack's ghost had once traversed. Jack said the ghost had moved from right to left, so I followed the same path, starting in the dining room, crossing the hallway, and walking down a long corridor. In front of me were no doors except for one at the very end, which lead to the garage.

My fingers curled around the doorknob. It was times like these that made me wonder why I was in the paranormal business. It was dark at the end of the hallway, and hardly any light reached this far. My palms were sweating. In this business, I often find myself at these pivotal moments at which I can either turn and run or forge ahead toward uncertainty. Fear and courage commonly wage wars within me, and I can't deny that most of the time I run to the nearest bathroom, where I have a close encounter with the second kind. For whatever reason, Windy seems able to understand these things about me, even though I don't understand them myself.

The hinges were smooth and silent, and I could hear my heavy breaths echoing inside the garage once I fully opened the door. I fumbled for the light switch, found it, and lit up the whole place.

It was a typical three-car garage, but Mr. and Mrs. Furse parked only two cars in the bays furthest away. The bay directly in front of me was not a parking area for a third car but a warehouse for old stuff. Piles of Furse-family possessions past and preserved fully filled the confines of this section of the garage. I took the steps down to take a closer look at the collection.

The first bay was so packed full of knickknacks and surplus possessions that the Furses had formed a path to navigate it. The path immediately forked left and right, but instead of taking either route, I split them and walked directly toward an old wooden wagon in the middle. The wagon had rotting wood and was not of recent vintage. I guessed it had been purchased from an antique store for purposes of future decoration, and this speculation was confirmed by the presence of a handwritten price tag dangling from its handle indicating a cost of $19.00 at Alva Hawk Antiques. In front of the wagon, an old stone statue of a man walking a horse had a similar tag hanging from it. I felt a minor power there, but this sensation definitely was not what was drawing me to this area. The books in my bedroom back home have taught me to heed these gut feelings I get, so I moved on, seeking something greater, yet still unknown.

To the right of the old wagon was a small pile of Rolling Stones records, and next to them was a crib. Unlike the wagon, this crib was not a collector's piece but was of modern manufacture. Because Ollie was two, it seemed safe to assume that he had recently been transitioned to a full-size bed, and the crib was hauled out to the garage until it could be disassembled. It was constructed of dark wood, and I knew it had been recently placed into the garage because it was not chock full of junk like everything else in the vicinity. Instead, inside the crib was a single object.

Rosemary's baby was not napping in the crib. Instead, on the wire webbing that once supported a mattress was a wooden box. A garage light was right above it and shone down on the lone box like it was a mystical isle inviting me to explore its uncharted secrets. Inexplicably, I walked directly to the crib without a pause of apprehension. Squatting, I pressed my forehead against its side slats. The box inside was old too, maybe purchased at the same time as the wagon and the statue, but lacking a similar price tag to make the connection more definitive. I would have said it was slightly larger than a breadbox, if I knew what a breadbox was, but I'm only eleven years old, so that antiquated term means nothing to me. I can say that 20 iPads would have fit nicely, if that makes things clearer. My detailed study of it through the crib slats revealed the box was made of individual wooden pieces, stacked in crisscrossing layers that alternated like a log-cabin. My eyes climbed seven of these wooden cross-members until they stopped cold at an unfastened metal clasp on the lid.

Standing now, I reached over the left crib post. The lid opened under my guidance, and it took a second for me to determine whether the squeal that followed was from my own throat or the box. In fact, it had come from the rusty hinges.

All of the garage light bulbs popped at once, flashing a blue light onto the floor of the box that revealed it to be empty. Complete darkness followed.

I concluded I had discovered a real-life, true, unexplained phenomenon and decided it was time to suspend my investigation. I headed straight back toward the door through which I had entered the garage, using my laser-tag pistol to light my way.

But before I could reach the steps, I fell. I don't know what tripped me, but when I hurried back up, every inch of skin from my scalp to my bare feet was covered with an icy web of goose bumps. The best-selling ghost reference book,
Shriekanomics, warned that goose bumps indicate a ghost has brushed against you. I looked around in the red light cast by my laser-tag gun, but I saw no specters, although invisibility is the most basic ghost power.

I was in bed seconds later, huffing and puffing, and hiding under a comforter that was not living up to its name. Salty wells filled the corners of my eyes, but no tears actually fell - a small victory. Will and Windy would be laughing at me had they been there, and Windy would have concocted some unflattering nickname for me to mark the occasion, but this time was different. I had actually witnessed real paranormal activity for once.

The morning seemed to have come quickly. I'm not sure if I even slept, and I felt sick all over as a result. My eyes were puffy, my nose was running, and my throat was scratchy and hurting. I had been as still as a granite slab all night, and I thought I might need a quarrier to free my joints, but I arose eventually and went downstairs when I heard others already up.

The four Furses were downstairs at the kitchen table, and my parents were sitting on the couch drinking coffee, all of them dressed for the day already. I discovered it was considerably later than I had thought: noon, to be exact. Mr. Furse was the first to greet me. He asked, "So you must have done some of your investigative work last night, huh?" He had somehow busted me, and I confessed to it. When I inquired how he knew, he directed me to come with him. "I am quite an investigator too," said Mr. Furse. He winked at my parents in the family room as we departed toward the garage. Jack and his smirk came along too.

When we reached the door, he said, "There are two ways I knew. First, the garage lights are malfunctioning, and if you turn them on, the breaker always trips. And I saw the breaker was tripped this morning. Mrs. Furse said you had been up late, and I figured you'd been on one of your searches for truth."

That I had been caught conducting my undercover investigation was embarrassing enough, but that I now knew I had not actually witnessed a paranormal event when the lights had burned out in the garage last night deflated me. "So what was number two?" I asked Mr. Furse.

He opened the door to the garage. Unlike last night, bright sunlight now shined in through large windows. Mr. Furse winked at Jack and then pointed to the cement floor in front of the baby crib. "I saw your footprints."

He smiled. I did not.

"What is that wooden box in the crib?" I asked Mr. Furse.

It seemed like an eternity before he answered, but he eventually did. I peppered him with follow-up questions and asked for clarification on several points.

Without excusing myself, I bumped my way past Jack and his dad, hurrying back into the family room where my parents still sat chatting with Mrs. Furse. "You need to take me somewhere," I told them, as I confirmed the time on my watch. "And now."

They saw the state I was in and had seen me act this way when I was working a hot case. My dad rolled his eyes, but my mom asked, "Are you sure?" I replied in the affirmative, and it took us sixty seconds to go from couch to car. My mom obliged, like she always did, either because she was proud of me or because she felt so sorry for her super-geek son who wore a laser-tag vest on his chest as proudly as if it were a red "S."

The car ride went fast, and we arrived at our destination quickly. My mom waited in the car, while I went and did what I had gone there to do.

That wooden box in the crib in the Furses' messy garage had belonged to Mr. Furse's grandfather. Chucky Furse had been a coal miner, and the box was his prized possession: an old blasting-cap crate he had kept as a memento from his days in the dark shafts. He had died in his home just a few months ago from pneumoconiosis - miners' lung. The box had been in his family room and retrieved by the Furses after he passed away. They'd left it in the garage with his other junk.

Chucky had not been ready to leave this world apparently. His spirit had stuck around, I concluded, hanging out in the wooden box, taking strolls to and from the garage through the Furses' house late at night. He'd spent his whole mining life stuck under a low rock ceiling, and now he was stuck in a wooden box. Maybe he had just needed to stretch his legs. Or maybe all that coal dust made Chucky eager to soothe his throat with a beverage, and he thought he might find the company store just down the hallway.

I'd had my mom drive me there so that his restless spirit could finally find some peace.

As I walked at a brisk pace toward my ultimate destination, I sniffed and stifled a cough. The sickness I had felt when I woke up this morning was not an illness at all. It was Chucky. He was inside me, still gagging from the gray coal dust that had filled his body. I had read before about spirit possessions in the preeminent book on the subject,
He's Just That Into You, so I was well-versed in the subject matter. What had tipped me off that Chucky had taken temporary residence within me early this morning was the black, dusty boot prints on the garage floor that Mr. Furse had pointed out. I had been barefoot last night in the garage - the boot prints were not mine. Although that was not conclusive proof of anything, the other bit of evidence, which Mr. Furse had not even noticed, was that the boot tracks started at the base of the crib and ended abruptly seven steps later - in the precise spot where I had fallen last night. I had not tripped after all. Chucky had chased me after I opened his box, and then he had entered my body, the impact from the spirit possession knocking me to the ground.

When I coughed hard again, I let this one out freely, and I knew it would be my last. It was confirmed that I had exorcised Chucky with that final cough when I got the goose bumps again. That means a ghost has brushed up against you, if you believe
Shriekanomics. And I do believe it, even if Will, Windy, my dad, and many others don't, because I'm a True Believer.

Before I hurried back to my mom's car, I left one of my business cards at the place - a unique stone from the RKPL back home - just in case Chucky ever needed to contact me. I tucked the rock away in a very safe hiding place, so only he'd know where to find it.