Readers Report: Haunted
A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Haunted.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
* * *
I pack her boxes when the sun is down. Clem doesn’t have much—some clothes she doesn’t wear, her toys, a few DVDs. I don’t need to pack her bed because she’s already got one at Wendy’s. I stand it up in the corner, rip the wood frame apart with my bare hands when it doesn’t come easily unglued. I throw the uneven pieces in the woods behind the house. They leave bloody streaks on my palms. The noise rustles up a lone doe, who stares back at me with dark eyes.
I have a beer, wait for Ben and Craig to bring my truck back when they’re done with work in town. They think they’re supposed to help me pack, but they don’t realize how little of Clem’s things I actually own. I didn’t realize either. I scratch some ice off the label for “Cowboy Andy’s Taco Pizza” and preheat the oven. I drink two more beers, and the headlights of my truck skirt the tall grass in the front yard. Ben hops out of the cab while it’s still moving.
“What’s up, loser?” he says.
I throw him a Budweiser that he fumbles. The bottle falls on the ground and starts to fizz out a divot in the cap. He rubs it on his shirt, slurps the suds as they foam out.
“Whoops,” I say.
Craig crawls out the driver’s side window. I toss him a beer. He catches and opens it in one motion.
“Not much to pack, I’m afraid,” I say.
“Great,” Craig says.
We load the boxes in one trip. I take the heaviest one, but Craig and I have to switch when I stumble with it. Ben points to the mattress in the corner and asks if I want to bring it. I look at my hands and tell him no.
After it’s all in the truck, we sit on the porch and eat pizza. I cooked it for too long so the crust is brittle and black. It breaks into shards in our mouths; it’s too hot because we didn’t wait long enough; it’s the usual.
We stare at the back of the truck, and it sure looks empty. I’m worried the three boxes I have in there will bounce out during delivery. The three of us finish off our twenty-four pack together, then two packs of cigarettes. Craig has a sixer and we drink that too. The doe comes back and fishes around in some garbage.
“They come because you feed ‘em,” Craig says.
He swigs the rest of his beer, throws it at the deer. The bottle shatters on a tree and the doe bolts down the embankment. You can hear a few crashes in the darkness.
Then crickets start again, the lightning bugs float back. I stand up and stretch my back. It doesn’t hurt so bad right now. I clear my throat loud enough so that Ben doesn’t zone out too much.
“What the hell,” I say. “Let’s grab the mattress too.”
* * *
[After a promotional photograph of Cary Grant meeting Amelia Earhart, 1934.]
She holds a dozen-odd world records, has shaken three presidents’ hands. He is a vaudeville stilt-walker, barely making it in the movies. Nobody knows what is coming.
He is tanned and powdered, hair slicked, laugh lines cultivated deep black and greyscale, already the crisp dimple of The Pictures in his carriage. His voice transatlantic—soft of vowel, hard of T, the accent of no-place, of stage and screen and boarding school, the accent of God in his motion picture cameos.
She is cropped curls, chapped smile, soft knit sweater and crocheted scarf. Lady Lindy, Queen of the Air, light on the stick, playing opera in the cockpit. “Have you flown far?” the Irishman asked when she landed in his pasture. She stood, fleece and leather, ruddy grin: “From America.”
Cary and Amelia lean against her plane, brush shoulders. Shudder of a breeze. She flexes a map between fingers; she points to things and explains.
In three years he will strike silver nitrate, become sophisticated King of comedies fluffy as finger sandwiches. Megawatt master of the double-take, machine-gun banter, the screen kiss—that sexy-chaste press.
That year, she will lose radio contact over the Pacific, scan the wrong waves for her sliver of island runway, transmit into the static crackle:
We must be on you
but cannot see you
but gas is running low—
“Stay there,” says the photographer—another dusting of bronzer against the wind. Reposition Amelia’s map, broadside to the camera. It meanders on, this day of breeze and brushing shoulders. Her inspection of maps and engines, his starstruck silence, debonair ache. This day before they made their crossings—aviatrix and her vaudeville ham, leading man and his ghost. This day before knowing.
* * *
I am staying in a house with low and slanted ceilings. There are many other people in the house, and they are all very loud. Even the people just watching TV are too loud. The noise from the loud people makes it dark, and I can’t breathe.
I call the woman next door for help. She tells me that the house is haunted. The ghosts just want peace and quiet, she says, so if everyone would stop being so loud, the ghosts would leave us alone. No one else seems bothered by the ghosts, but I put on soft music and everyone instinctively quiets. The darkness turns into light, and I no longer feel sick.
I pack my belongings and get ready to leave. I call the woman next door and thank her, then wave goodbye to the hushed group. I open the front door, but before I can step outside, I see the sun move suddenly behind a cloud, and I know it will begin again.
* * *
I haven’t left the house all weekend, but it doesn’t matter because I know everything there is to do out there. It’s 112 degrees and I have no business outside. No one does. The streets are empty and the air is so still it’s like the surface of the moon. But who really knows because I’ve never been there. I’ve barely been here.
The cicadas are from another planet and my eyes burn. I’ve taken to ordering items online and shipping them back, just to confirm I’m not the only one in this city. My sofa is worn in the center and my books are brittle, turned to dust. I haven’t written in weeks and I forget what my voice sounds like.
Someone calls me every day from the same unknown number. I answer it today because what else is there?
I swipe the bar on my phone and don’t speak.
There’s a crumpling noise in the background like a million people rifling through and wadding up a million newspapers. It could have been static. I don’t know.
My name isn’t Reston. It never was, as far as I know.
“This is Josh,” the person says on the other line.
I hang up because I simply need to confirm that other people can find their voice. The vapid air stole mine. Maybe I need a glass of water. I turn on the tap, but it’s dry. I look out the window, but there’s no one outside. Nothing but a wall of dust rolling across the horizon. I step outside to walk toward it, but everything has changed and it’s dark. It feels like midnight in the middle of the day.
I see bald patches of scorched lawn in my wake.
Then, I run.
I realize I’m not wearing shoes and that I told myself I wouldn’t go outside. The pebbly sidewalk tears the soles of my feet and the red stains leave a trail for me to follow back. It’s no longer hot without the sun, and I can’t stop moving and still there’s no one here.
The cicadas warn me that the heat is returning, but I’m already too far for it to matter. I forget how I got here. I close my eyes and let the cloud of dust overtake me.
* * *
The ice broke. I had broken months earlier, when it was still forming and the holidays weren’t too far off. Trees, once cloaked, free of leaves. The fields, once green, brown and graying. The sky, puffed and bright lit, damaged and dim with that melancholy conversation with the earth. It was always my favorite time of year. Hers, too, when the world, and the sky, quieted to a whisper. When mountains hummed with snowpack and the streams from them sang silent. Liquid prayers. The ocean is so far off and the land is so big. We both liked feeling small out there in it. At the equinox we’d stay out too late and stumble out of the cabin with blankets wrapped around us and look up. How many stars are there in the Western Hemisphere? It seems we saw all of them some nights. Ursa Major. Cassiopeia. Orion. That would have been my name? If you had been a boy, I’d say. Let’s get back inside, love. It’s cold outside. And it was cold. The snows had come to the valleys early. We heard from bush pilots and trappers and tramps coming through about the hills not far, thick and thickening. We saw the skies, of course, turn, then turn again, that gnawing change, the spectral presence of another season over the rise, or in the forest, or out by the bend in the river. There was another specter who took her. I followed her tracks, my shotgun over my back, my head flooded with the hopelessness of parenthood, to the river’s edge and no further. They just stopped. Her tracks. Where was she going? Where had she gone? And she’d be gone until another season came, and the ice broke, and they could search again for her body in the shallows.
* * *
The cartoons were almost right: this is what skeletons look like. Through taut skin, there are the curves and caves of bone structure. There’s the jut of ball-and-socket, the precise pelvic curl beneath the blanket, the grid of splinters that map out a foot’s upper arch. That hollow right at each temple, just between ear and eyebrow, where flesh recedes into a sore, dark space. It’s this lobe that does it, this emptiness so close to her brain—it seems carved from something too tender, like a hot spoon slicing through ice cream. If you press hard with your thumbs on both temples at the same time, you die. There are places you don’t touch: the insides of your wrists, the backs of your knees when bent, the concave egg at the base of your neck. Places where the skin is thin and your body feels too precariously alive, rippled with green threads of vein and the elastic twang of tendon. See her crinoline bones lying there and tell yourself you’re something more than a paper-chain of tear-able, crush-able, snap-able, slash-able cutouts, strung together with split pins and dangling from a thread. Power up the meter, work your limbs into one single streak of cartoon motion, and plough right off the page, bytes and specks and 24 bits per pixel and straight ahead to fiction’s infinities.
* * *
So much free parking. So many empty schools. So many aborted and half-developed exurbs, suburbs. Such low rent. So many hollowed-out malls with shifty-eyed security guards and put-upon bored kids. Such cheap produce. So many classmates that never left. What a lovely parks system. What a dirty lake. So many new casinos. What nice turnpike pit stops. What a low sales tax and minimum wage. What a greying population.
They moved here to have children, to make steel or cars, to teach at the college, to work for NASA, to mine salt from underneath Lake Erie. The schools were good. The land was cheap, but there were plentiful amenities. It was a proper city, but not an intimidating one. Eastern time, rustbelt industry, Midwestern sensibilities. Such promise. What times they had.
They call it the Cleveland Brain Drain. We grow, we suck all the nutrients from the dirt, we learn, we save our money, and we leave.
We take jobs in the eastern cities, with their steep rent and narrow streets; we hide in expensive, drafty bars in Chicago or St. Louis, bragging about what we know; we flee to LA or San Fran or France or Lebanon and show everyone back home all the pictures. We are smiling and small against big backdrops.
We come back briefly to collect Christmas presents, roller coaster rides, hugs, memories, estates, condolences. We do not call enough. We spend our money on stupid craft brews that all taste the same—bitter—instead of on plane tickets.
We are statistics. We move by trends, like the grandparents and parents who brought us here. They placed their roots by the veins of salt that ran beneath the lake. We have placed thin roots in the air.
When we visit, we enjoy the low sales tax, eat the 99-cent peaches, roam the empty sidewalks, reflect in the windows of our closed-down high schools, and prepare to leave again. A huge hunk of us stays. But not the brain.
* * *
I waited until night, after everyone went home and the groundskeepers had dug their last plots. I walked through the old Homestead cemetery, trying to remember how many were buried. There were two new ones since last week. The older folks weren’t getting by like in the past. Many of the mill pensions were drying. The economy and all. Retired workers that once got 30K a year were getting less than 17 now, and lawyers were sniffing around for loopholes. There were a lot of folks taking out life insurance policies and waiting for their suicide clauses to expire.
My grandfather passed two years ago. He wasn’t one of the people who got the life insurance just for that purpose, but I’m sure he checked those clauses once things got bad. For Grandpa Hank, after forty years at the Carrie Furnace, it was disgraceful to live off EBT and LIHEAP. ‟Isn’t that what the fucking pension should provide for?” he’d tell my mum.
The kicker, I guess, was when his electric shut off, even with all the assistance he begrudgingly accepted. My grandmother didn’t leave anything behind when she went and he never told my mother or uncles how bad off he was. They needed help as much as he did—he gave them most of the money from his pension checks every month. Half of his kids lost their jobs and the other half were struggling to put their own children through school. Nobody knew how bad off he was ’til my mum visited and found him on the bathroom floor, the electric bill folded up in his shirt pocket. On the back he’d scribbled, “No more light.”
Once his policy was all sorted out my mother and her brothers barely got enough for the funeral, and the house wasn’t worth much.
So at the cemetery now, I waited until dark, walking along the rows, counting off every grave. I paid attention for new ones with someone dying in their sixties or seventies. Most people lived well into their eighties, but I understood some of why they didn’t make it further. I drifted along carrying a bag full of tea candles from the dollar store; I placed one on every grave I passed, lighting them all. I knew it was odd so I waited until dark. There was no reason they couldn’t have light.
* * *
The little house hung over the riverbank on a jut of coquina. It barely deserved the name house: one room with a washroom tacked on. Australian pines wove through the windows and moss littered the floor. Poppa and Sweetie had lived in it while building the big house, and afterward it fell into disrepair, used as storage for yard tools. Since Sera could remember Andi’d whispered in her ear that the little house was haunted.
It surely was now.
Sera sat on the dock, shivering. Late September evenings were too chilly for swimming. She hadn’t been in the river in years, superstitious as a child after the water had eaten Dane. She thought of the night she and Roy had sat on the balcony and seen . . . something. Gram, Granddad, Andi, and Marco were in the living room, watching Jeopardy! Roy pointed. “Look at that.”
“What?” She saw trees, skinny pines and sturdier oaks swaying. A storm headed up the river.
“That.” Roy tapped the glass. “There.”
She saw it too: a pale flutter in the window of the little house. “Somebody in there?”
Roy edged to her, braids brushing her cheek. “Nearest neighbor is like a mile away. Dad said. And we’re all inside.”
Then, they’d bolted down to the living room, to the safety of Gram’s housedress. Now she hauled herself up the dock to the stone lip of the little house’s stoop, and set her hand on the door. It fell open without a creak, though no one had stepped inside in a decade.
She saw a pair of weathered dice where someone—Marco?—had left them under the sink, and a small rubber sandal wedged beneath the armchair. They had been here, Gram and Grandad, her cousins, herself. She closed her eyes and remembered Andi crouched on the bed, holding a flashlight under her chin, promising that the dead body from the graveyard on Crooked Mile would come hunting for the kid who stole its liver.
On the wall hung an unfamiliar portrait. When had a painting of Gram appeared? But there she was: coils of salt-and-pepper hair, deep wrinkled cheeks like molten bronze, her favorite muumuu. It almost looked like one of Sera’s own paintings. She felt the brush in her hand, strong strokes for the jaw and hair, bursts of color for the flowery dress. From the frame Gram winked and said, “I’m home now, baby.”
* * *
He huffed deeply between sentences. I could smell all of the orange sodas he’d already drunk that night.
“I don’t think you get it,” he repeated after every two sentences of failed attempts to get me to understand his love of orange soda. Even when I told him I liked the flavor he wouldn’t leave it alone. “No, man, Sharpe’s orange soda ain’t any old soda.” His teeth chattered, making the sound of bolts rattling around in a piece of Tupperware.
“Sharpe’s has always been there,” he started to explain, his blonde hair falling across his face in a messy clump. “Drank it when I was six after little league games. Drank it on the beach in Venice when I didn’t have anything to eat.” He lit a cigarette and drew hard from it like he wanted to burn himself down.
“I’ll have to track one down sometime,” I relented. I wondered how I always got stuck with my roommate’s friends.
“We’ll grab one at the store after I finish,” he nodded toward his cigarette.
I could see that indulging him would save me time in the long run. “Let’s go,” I urged.
“Let me finish, man.” A tremor of sad desperation quivered in him. “Please.” The whole foundation within him might collapse. A bag of bones held up by nerves alone. A cloud of unease moved between us. He attempted to ease it.
“Look at the awesome pictures I shot at the show last night.” He pulled out an ancient flip phone, mashing buttons. The images were a mess. I could occasionally make out a guitar or microphone. He moved closer to me, flipping forward through the picture gallery.
And then it caught my eye. A close-up of a syringe, its accompanying needle and a hand holding it. I could see it had been taken in my bathroom
“You see it, too?” he asked with demented excitement.
“I see it,” I said angrily. “I don’t care if you’re Ben’s friend, don’t shoot that shit up in my place.” I turned to go.
“You see it though?” His eyes jittered. “At the end of the needle.”
I slowly pulled my eyes off of him and returned them to the screen.
His voice quavered in an uneasy rhythm with the clacking of his teeth. “The demon’s face at the end of the needle. I finally caught him in the photo.”
—Danny De Maio
* * *
Once upon a time it was Ouija Boards
and ghost stories until
adolescence made it lame and
Curiosity lingers, though—who knows
becomes why not. And so
this evolves, too, the investigator
stands where the medium did
(with science on his side!), solstice eve:
fine pink layer clouds burn over
green deciduous dark, late dusk, no moon,
By day summer tourists gawp and make fun,
by night—most nights—quiet
disrupted by patrol or wildlife,
but this night, thrill-seekers
(mostly) and skeptics (few) gather, divide
into teams led by black shirts
one a CO by day—stiff, upright
bearing of someone who
watches his back—who lets energy
settle, opens lines of
communication, effects facets
of his daytime persona
one of the few stratagems to draw out
reluctant spirits, heightening
the drama of restless pacing tracked by
high-tech gewgaws seeking
reactions to entreaties, dramatized counts,
within the bounds of promises kept and
no provocation, moving
cellhouse to cellhouse as if yard murder,
mess-hall tragedy, and
executions without exceptional
antagonists don’t rank
(irrelevant, yes, but thorough), keeping
it lite ’n’ fun amid the
mock gravity of mystery
mongering as fundraiser,
big boy Scooby Doo adventures
forgetting their skeptical
conclusions for the thrill of feeling eight
again: spirit or breeze
(not “nothing”), moan or distant engine?
To resist folie à deux
is to hear only crickets and stillness
The chill? Admitting the weight
of sadness and too much knowledge—
anyone would shudder.
The struggle to breathe? Too many bodies
in stagnant, riot-breeding
buildings and close rooms unsafe with woodrot
rarely opened. Stick
with amusements—the execution botched,
a suicide spectacle
“cheating” the noose (if by cheating you mean
several agonized hours
to avoid a public spectacle)—
and in all cases confuse
facts, compound fictions, ignore ghosts hiding
in plain sight: plenty plowed
under for eighteen holes, orchards lit with
fools’ fire, sacred places
desecrated. Exaggerate small things—
moving chains, unexplained taps
in drafty buildings—based on presumptions
in photogenic settings
that sad equals haunted and energy
anomalies plus wishful
thinking will make it real, suggestion
* * *
You don’t recognize me. Not as someone he knows. Knew.
My pulse stutters in the seconds it takes me to punch your ticket—the preemptive tremors of facing a one-way mirror whose distortions are your own. That we’ve never yet been in the same place is intentional, because if we were, I’d find my own likeness looking back at me. And I do.
There’s no mistaking those shoes of yours, either.
They used to be mine.
I walked and laughed and danced around in them in the same bar right up until close. You can’t guess I’m why they feel so comfortable.
That it’s me who’s broken them in for you.
The paths that crossed weren’t ours—just the lives that might have been.
The glaring sameness in us makes it hard to ignore.
So much overlapping, unsettling similarity, our differences summed up in the width of a single letter. The way we watched our shadows dance in front of cover bands and saw them stretching the length of our lives. What we cast those nights to the sound of twangy guitar and pangs tautening beneath our ribs.
They’re where we live now.
The steps out the pub door that left footprints like canyons were mine. I hope you can’t see it in my face. That they were as reluctant as we are the same but I took them anyway. Assuming I wouldn’t have the sickening fortune to stare straight into the things that never were, except in the shade of someone else’s life.
I hope you can’t know your own ghost. The glimpse that if I’d breathed a little differently, these lives of ours might be reversed. That’s why you’re wearing that ring, and I’m flipping through flashbacks like hangers trying to find your coat. Trying to look indifferent.
It’s not the Saturday I planned, meeting the warm-blooded echo of another life. One where you’re punching tickets while I’ve got better places to be. Somewhere, there’s a split second where we are. There’s a voicemail that lingers, proof of just how close our lives came to being reflections of the other. Somehow.
You know it too.
It’s why you won’t look me in the eye.
I wouldn’t be able to either.
* * *
Mist enveloped her, cooling her skin and limiting her vision. The day had started off bright, but the weather changed so quickly here.
The mist curled and eddied as she walked along the road which she could barely see. Anything past six feet looked like a shadow: dark and featureless.
After a while she realised that she couldn’t even hear her footsteps. Something flickered in the corner of her eye. Fear caused her to run. She didn’t look back for fear of seeing something actually chasing her. Instead, she could feel it; it prickled the back of her neck and made her hands tremble.
She ran until she fell. Her hands scraped the ground and her ankle flared with pain. Eyes straining to see, she waited for her pursuer. When nothing loomed over her, she picked herself up feeling foolish.
On the ground lay her mobile. The screen was cracked; she could see pieces of herself in the broken shards. She tried to phone someone.
The phone beeped.
A recording of a woman’s voice told her, “I’m sorry, but you are unable to contact anyone here.”
Sighing, she kept walking, the pain in her ankle muted to a dull throb. The mist began to thicken. It felt as if it was becoming harder to move through—like it was purposely trying to slow her down.
She didn’t know how far she had walked before she heard the footsteps behind her. They began slowly and measured, then became faster and louder until she was sure they matched her heartbeat.
The ground dipped suddenly as if she was running down a hill and she could hear a busy road up ahead. Hope burst in her chest; if she could make it to the road she would be fine. She ran faster as the ground levelled. Headlights pierced the mist and a horn sounded.
She tumbled through the air, hearing screeching tires and breaking glass. Her bones jarred as she hit the floor. A man wearing a black hoodie, hood covering his face, reached his hand down and helped her up.
He pointed behind her and she turned.
Her body lay like a rag doll in the road, eyes staring. Her phone was next to her; the screen was shattered.
“Don’t be afraid,” he whispered, touching her forehead.
She smelt her mother’s perfume and smiled.
* * *
She opens the drawer to find paper for a list she must write but instead she finds her parents in the form of a wedding cake topper. She pours flour into a measuring cup and out pops her grandmother, curled like a comma. Immigrants from Eastern Europe fly along in the dust motes as they sing songs in a forgotten language. The bathtub is filled with water-drop babies who never made it and if you look closely you can see the people they would have become. They ask you kindly not to add your tears to the mix. Outside in the stack of firewood are all the dogs and cats and pigs and ducks that her people have either loved or eaten, sometimes both—they look like fat little beads but they still have an animal smell and make animal sounds, so listen carefully.
Her body is filled with eggs that will not stop: visitation is their specialty. Even her waste is against her and if she falls over suddenly and dies, her skin cells will tell on her, overshare, spread the tales they could not fit on her laundry. Her fingerprints are clingy, proud to state where she has been, denying her the right to be forgotten. You may even remember seeing her, once, a long time ago. I tell you that memory is unreliable but you insist you saw her, and if not her, then someone just like her. She will not leave you alone, you say, dwells in the corners of your mind. She is like all the others. You treasure every last phantom, each suggestion of ghost. At the end of the day you can be sure they will still be there, hiding in plain sight, haunting you. It is hard to tell where they end and you begin.
* * *
Night, and I’m haunting again. Back to the brick house on Hermitage Drive, back to the hazy foothills of east Tennessee. Each time, I return to my grandparents’ cold, shuttered house, to bump along the walls, to hover over the old green carpet. I float into the storeroom, where my grandmother used to keep shelves of canned foods, cleaning supplies, an old jar of moonshine. I glide up the two flights of stairs to the darkened bedrooms. I caress the old doors as I pass, make them creak on their hinges.
The place is empty; the drapes are pulled. An uneasiness knots my stomach. Sometimes there’s the feeling that there’s another thing in the house with me—a ghost, a ha’int, a something-else. I wake up, heart pounding.
Why wouldn’t I dream of the way I remember this house: sunlight streaming across open newspapers, coffee brewing in the kitchen, all of my relatives gathered together? I just don’t. When I dream of the house in the daylight, it is still all wrong—the house is empty, there are shadows along the stairs, something is making the upstairs floorboards creak.
Once, I dream of reunion. My grandfather has returned; the shutters are thrown open, the place is full of light, furniture. The entire family is celebrating. My grandfather opens his mouth to speak, but the only thing we hear is the buzz of cicadas: whirring, rising. We cup our hands to our ears; he tries again. We hear the wind in the trees, static on the line.
I wake, unsettled.
Ten years after the house is bought by a stranger, it remains empty. It was bought by a Donna someone, but she never moved in. No one knows why.
On Thanksgiving Day, I drive with my mother and aunt to see the place. Ivy snakes into the cracks in the bay windows; it has taken over the living room. The hedges obscure the small white fence. The windows have all been blacked out. We feel sad—and satisfied. We could not bear to see another family here, raking our leaves, sweeping our steps, stringing Christmas lights along our railings.
Of course this house is haunted. Who could measure up, against our fierce love? We’re still there, walking up and down the stairs, opening all the doors. Waiting for everyone to come back home.
* * *
The last night in the house, my parents and I take an inventory. What is broken, what is lost. What was ruined before we got here and what damage we did ourselves. There’s a security deposit on the line so we are meticulous, and it helps that we’re all practiced at finding flaws. There are smoky black streaks on the ceilings from when the chimney flue malfunctioned, patches of discolored carpet underneath leaky windowsills, wooden doorframes splintered or rotted away. This was the house where I grew up. Upon further inspection, it is falling apart. I take photos to show the landlord, although in the end he doesn’t ask any questions and gives the deposit back in full.
But the pictures are still on my phone. Their dark, rushed composition reminds me of images from paranormal shows on television, the kind where a medium walks into a dimly lit room and immediately senses something—a coldness, maybe. Some event has left an impression on this space, she’ll say, human emotion captured within the very walls. It’s usually grisly. The small regrets of life do not get a reenactment: the things you wish you’d said or didn’t, the little unkindnesses. Participants are always seeking forgiveness or resolution. The audience knows the spirit must move on for the show to end, but the urge to stay outlasts everything.
I took other pictures of the house—views from each window, quick visual bookmarks. Looking out into the street from my bedroom, over the neighbors’ rooftops from the second-story balcony where we used to watch fireworks, from the kitchen to the backyard where I fell once from a tree and got three stitches over my left eye. We rented a dumpster to sit at the curb and placed things we no longer wanted in it—junk we’d collected, ill-fitting clothes, VCRs and other anachronisms. So much stuff. Two days after we left, my mother drove back in the middle of the night, dug up the rosebushes from the front yard, and replanted them at the new house where she waits for them to bloom.
I saw the listing for the old house online recently and scrolled through the realtor’s photographs. The owners have renovated, repainted, and laid down vinyl floors designed to look like wood. It’s clean and new; we’ve been erased. Places aren’t haunted, not really, but people are another matter.
* * *
“It’s bats,” the doctor told him. “Worst case I’ve ever seen.”
The man grimaced from the examination table. It all made sense—the sneaking feeling that he was growing denser despite an unchanged outward appearance, his increased appetite, the soft sounds that kept him awake at night.
“I thought for sure I was going crazy,” the man said. His gown crackled when he placed his hands on his thighs.
“It happens from time to time. You’ve got a roomy body cavity is all.”
Here the doctor thumped the man’s sternum. A frantic flapping resounded, muffled by flesh.
“From the sounds of it, I’d say you’ve progressed from Craseonycteridae to Hipposideridae. Maybe even a larger species. They’ll need to be removed, you know. Wouldn’t want a flying fox in there.”
The doctor laughed. The man listened hard for small wings.
The day of the operation, the man wondered how many bats there would be, and what would become of them. He had asked the doctor if he could keep them afterward, the spoils of his surgery. He planned to keep the specimens in a jar somewhere visible to startle company, when he had any, into asking better questions than what do you do for a living.
There were too many. The doctor, confident with the routine procedure, failed to subdue the bats when he cut the man open. Bats as small as mice, dark brown and devil-faced, dozens of them swooped and dove, flapping from the slice in the man’s body in a torrent around and out of the operating room.
The man awoke, stitched and sore, to the doctor handing him an empty jar.
“It’s a shame you missed it. You really had to be there,” the doctor said.
“Oh, no. They’re swift little fuckers. Would have been helpful for my new paper, though.”
The man’s neighbor drove him home. He had been reluctant to ask a favor, but she was happy to give him one.
“Are you okay?” she asked. The man had been silent the whole drive, clutching the empty jar in his lap.
“I mean,” she continued, “to think you were a home for them. A host. And you walking around not even knowing you had company.”
When the man was alone in his house, he thumped his sternum. His wound burned. He heard only the cavernous sound of a drum.
—Sarah Lyn Rogers
* * *
The receiver clicks, she checks her wrist, she gnaws at her lips. She goes about her day. Clouds playfully sneak around the mountain in her dusty hometown and ignore her. She goes to spin class. She sweats and scowls as around her painted housewives fling themselves into throes of Nickelback-inspired passion. She eats an apple. She writes some words down, erases them, scribbles a drawing. She has no idea if it’s any good or not. She forces herself to think about things in a mildly neutral to positive manner, as everyone else must do.
She resists the urge to fall in a crumpled heap, prostrate on the ground, knees sinking into that frothy loam. One minute the glade seems to embrace her with warm arms, pour sunlight over her like honey, reassure her that there is meaning. With the next, long branched shadows ominously loom heavy over fearful eyes. Either way, your memorial stands; either way, she is dumbstruck.
She reminds herself she is not back in that forest.
Instead, she sits alone at a table in a cold café and surrounds herself with unfolded origami of decisions long past. Watches the passersby smile and nod like dolls, exposing wet teeth. She wonders what other people do when the pressure inside their heads builds up to a frenetic whistle like an unattended kettle, locked inside a box of dehydrated muscle. Do they also find themselves paralyzed by fear, by rejection, by the thought of life being snuffed away in an instant? Do they shit their pants when they even begin to try to answer the question is there sense to it? Do dead things beleaguer them? Do ghosts dance in their rearview mirrors too? She turns herself away from the inevitable slack-jawed face of terror. Smiles at a baby, instead.
She sips her coffee and it hates her. It speaks ill of the food that she has eaten earlier, and now they both weigh her down like oily anchors plunging into a deep underwater crevasse.
Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.
You can find Susan Clements at her website and follow her on Twitter.