The boy with the ball: A ghost story?

A guest post by J. H. Bernard

Rockwell Hall is an old stone building which sits at the western most edge of the campus of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Completed in 1958, its architecture hearkens back to the early 20th century when rust belt robber barons peppered our Midwestern cities with their grand gothic cathedrals honoring commercial success and the institution of free enterprise.

Being a Roman Catholic university founded by the Holy Ghost fathers in 1878, there’s a certain irony in this campus hosting a building whose design exemplifies the excesses of modern capitalism at a time when the Church spoke out so fervently against them.

I started my freshmen year at Duquesne in 1997 and soon discovered the Duquesne University Red Masquers – a campus theatre group who made their home on the first floor of that building. My first play was Chekhov’s Three Sisters and, since I had a late class in that building on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I often showed up an hour or two early for rehearsal.

One evening before my fellow cast members arrived, I was having dinner in the theatre when I heard laughter. “Hello,” I said. It returned and sounded like a child. “Is someone there?” Then a small ball bounced out from one of the wings.

I walked onto the stage and picked it up. It was navy blue and had a dark red stripe around its equator and a star of the same color on each pole. When I looked up, a young boy was standing in the wing. He was staring at me.

“Hey, is this your ball?”

He kept staring.

“The ball. Did you drop it?”

Nothing.

Then, I noticed how he was dressed. Keep in mind that we were doing a play first staged in 1901 and this was the day we were to try on costumes. He was dressed in children’s clothes from the early 1900s. I thought he had gotten into the costume shop and decided to play dress up. “What are you wearing?” I said as I stepped toward him. He turn and ran out the stage door and down a flight of steps. “Wait. Your ball, kid.”

I ran after him but once I got to the bottom of the stairwell he was gone. I heard some whistling, it was someone in the tech support department which worked in the basement of this building. “Did you see a little kid run through here,” I asked.

“A kid? No. No kid came through here.”

“Because he left this ball upstairs.” I handed it to the man but he wouldn’t take it.

“Well, I’ll keep my eye out.”

I turned and went back upstairs to the theatre. I placed the ball on one of the prop tables and went back to my dinner. I didn’t think any more of it until I was back stage for one of my entrances and noticed the ball was gone. I asked several other members of the cast and crew but no one had seen it.

Over the years I became pretty familiar with the theatre but I hadn’t seen the boy again. My junior year came along and after being involved with almost a dozen different plays in that theatre, I found myself working on one more. Like before, I had arrived early for rehearsal and was having dinner. Once again, I heard a child’s laugh.

I looked up and the same boy ran out on stage from one of the wings chasing a blue ball. He turned and stared at me but this time I said nothing. This time I froze. It wasn’t the presence of the child that frightened me, it was that it was the same child, same age, was wearing the same outfit, and had the same ball.

This time, the clothes really struck me as odd. He wore shorts with suspenders, a cream colored button down shirt with no collar, black leather shoes that looked like boots, and a cabbie cap. This wasn’t like before where an outfit like this could’ve been picked from the costumes backstage, we were now doing a contemporary play and anything from this period would have still been locked up in the costume shop. He ran off and again I followed losing him in the stairwell. When I got to the bottom, the boy was gone but the ball was left behind.

I spent the next day researching Rockwell Hall. Nothing struck me about the building itself but the place where it stood used to be campus housing for the professors…in the early 1900s. I found a newspaper article on microfilm about a young child who had died after being hit by a streetcar. His father taught history at Duquesne and as I scrolled across there was a picture of a distraught woman. She was the boy’s mother. The child had been playing outside when his ball went into the street. He ran after it and was struck. The mother was holding the ball. It was a black and white picture so the colors weren’t clear but it was a dark ball with a gray stripe in the middle and a gray star at the top.

J.H. Bernard is a writer from Pittsburgh who stalks the outer reaches of consciousness in search of the truth that can't be seen...and how to beat his top score in SOCOM. Read more of his writing at jhbernard.blogspot.com.

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