The backdoor was always locked, a heavy deadbolt of a lock, almost too difficult to throw back, even for a grown man. The most secure door in the whole house no doubt. So he couldn’t have gotten out that way. And all the doors upstairs creaked with weathered age or slid rough in their tracks, grating plastic on metal. The door off the sunroom, though, held potential.
This was the basement that still haunts my memory: one bedroom, a den and a short connecting hallway that ended in a bathroom. The great room, long and thin, was mirrored to the north by a hallway that connected a half kitchen and laundry room. Then a workroom that in my memory was as big as my entire childhood home, unfinished floors filled with books and wood working tools, the materials of my grandparents’ obsessions.
Beyond that room was the sunroom, and though the door would have been difficult to get to through all the discarded beach toys and household paraphernalia, escape itself would have been simple. The lock would turn under the pressure of tiny fingers, the door swinging open with hardly a nudge. The darkness was so much more complete at my grandparents’ house than anywhere else I ever visited. A country home on a man-made lake, where streetlights were a secondary construction thought and evening brought on sunfish reflected in moonlight.
Sloping lawns, with angles sharp enough that I could never help but run down them, led in two directions. One to the boathouse and beach, places where we knew we were not supposed to be without a supervisory adult. The other path led to the retaining wall, put up by the industrious builders of the lake to create instantaneously deep water, places for fish and snapping turtles to breed out of reach of fishermen’s poles and swimmers’ kicks. We would fish along that concrete wall, feet dangling off the edge, waiting for something to come close enough to the surface to bite.
One step off that ledge, and it was a plunge to the depths.
They dammed in a portion of a runaway river, a muddy wall of reinforced earth full of skeletal remains of creatures that lived where land met water. Imagine the jumble of bones, separated from the entirety of the remains – a femur here, a rib cage there. The dead disassociated.
They laid down sand by the ton, covering the sticky earth with a fresh pebbled surface that would not squelch unpleasantly between the toes. It was to be a luxury bit of land, after all, houses that would sell for the millions to boating enthusiasts that had no desire to muck about on the mud-bottomed river. This lake would be cleaner, stocked to the brim with vibrant, catchable fish, and bordered by designer summer homes.
They did everything they could to bring the lake to life.
I suppose in those days, my grandparents were marginally rich. They built a custom home on the lake, one surrounded by green space that sprawled out along the acreage. By the time I came around, my grandmother had a strawberry garden the size of the entire backyard of my city home, roving vines that burst forth with ruby red fruit all through the summer. They grew corn and tomatoes and pumpkins in a large plot of land that lay kitty-corner from the house.
I never went up to that garden. It was where my grandfather and father buried the carp we caught, huge, ugly gray fish that were inedible. But they made excellent fertilizer once my father had clubbed them to death and submerged them deep underground.
I would stare at the handle of the workroom door, one that was newly locked since my five-year-old cousin had somehow gotten out of the house in the middle of the night. He was found the following morning, floating face down in the lake, body already bloated by the water.
In my seven years, nothing had ever been off limits without explanation. No crossing busy streets, no leaving the classroom during school, no swimming without an adult. But those restrictions were all logical. This locked door, behind which lay the piano and walls and walls of books, treasures which I had always loved when visiting my grandparents’ home every weekend, were suddenly forbidden.
I would stare at the doorknob in the silence that hung heavy in the air in a way that only country quiet could.
And I swear it would creak centimeters back and forth, just the barest hint of someone trying to escape.
Everything is always in motion. Stillness is a superficial comfort. We trust in the sturdiness of the ground, the immobility of walls, the stagnation of our own skin. But the Earth is always moving at least two ways, a dizzying rotation along its revolution, not to mention the constant heaves and sighs of the crust, mantle, core as its own internal unrest spills out to bring us all in. And doors are no more stable than seas, particles dancing in constant, controlled, chaos, crashing and colliding at such steady paces, at such minute spaces that we are left to believe that the whole will never fall. And skin. It’s already dead and even that does not stop its motion, as it sheds and sloughs, leaves markers of itself behind, markers of yourself behind, on every possible surface.
Like a cancer, the darkness spread through the basement. From the workroom, it creep-crawled through the living room and kitchen. I’d have to take a flying leap off the stairs in order to clear it on my way to the den, slamming the door behind me and locking it against whatever lurked out in the hallway.
The dark had nothing to do with night. During the day, rooms dipped in frayed black, either hiding a host of spiders or draping in the perfect contours to suddenly frame the image of a man stained into the wood paneled walls. Either option was equally potential-energy loud, each equally skin-crawling terrifying.
I can’t quite articulate it, but I knew deep in my childhood heart that someone was out there. Before leaving the den, I would crack open the door, breath held, body tensed as I scanned the hallway. Sometimes I would meet his eyes. They weren’t really eyes. There was no body, no corporeal, tangible ghost to behold. But there was the undeniable feeling of connection, like staring out across a room full of strangers and the jolt to the brain feeling when in the sea of faces, you find a pair of eyes already locked on you, watching. It felt like that, the fleeting moment of acknowledgement that he knew that I knew he was out there.
When the moment broke, I had scant seconds to sprint back across the hallway and up the stairs before he would find me again. I’d run hard, take the steps two at a time, biting down on whimpers until I had reached the in the sun lit world of the upstairs. Only then would I peer back down into the darkness. I was certain the entity was my cousin, reliving his last night over and over. But I felt, in the same part of my brain that could see the eyes that were not eyes, that the ghost was a grown man, and not a boy. A scary, hazy memory who filled the basement with pressure and fear.
The ghost, it seemed, was not aging well.
The house knew tragedy before my cousin. My great grandmother had died there of some ailment unknown to me – likely age as she’d been dinosaur ancient when I was a child attempting to not be scared of her glass-eyed doll collection that adorned the walls of her upstairs room.
Grandpa died there, too. I remember him laid out in bed, too sore or too tired to move, his body connected to lifesaving contraptions. I was too young then to understand what they were, to capture the correct memories so that I might be able to piece together what sort of cancer he’d had. Whatever malignancy of bone or tissue it was, it at least was forgiving in the end. Cancer took him in the night. It had been a long road, but at the last, he’d met his destination peacefully.
It had been nothing as terrifying as drowning.
Ghosts stay behind for many reasons – the catchall notion of unfinished business. They haunt their killers, stand watch to give warning, cling vicariously to the vestments of life through that of their loved ones. It is not a happy existence. But at least it is something.
Folklore says that ghosts are born of traumatic acts. They are spirits ripped from bodies, souls locked into one moment of fear and memory, the last memory, the only memory, replaying it over and over, walking the same ground, tracing a path of pain and misery until they are driven insane and decide to take the rest of the world with them.
When my cousin was alive, we’d played a game called “chase the lady.” Perhaps because he had grown up with only brothers to chase, the idea of racing after a girl was enough of a novelty that the game of chase would last for hours. We’d wind around the pool table, run the circular circuit of the basement so hard that we’d slip in socked feet on tile floor, careen through the carp-fertilized field full of desiccated plants that grew wild without my grandfather to tend them, vegetables that were neither planted nor harvested, produce left to rot and freeze in the never-ending cycle of seasons.
We’d shriek as we ran, high pitched notes that laid back the ears of neighborhood dogs. Two years was a big difference when he was five and I was seven, and he never caught me, my legs just that much longer, that much faster. But I could always hear him, just a few steps behind, a pant of breath, a cut-short scream of near joy as his fingers brushed my shirt, almost capturing his prey. His footsteps pounded hard on the dirt, on the tile, on carpet, echoes of his pursuit that would ring in my ears long after the last “chase the lady” had met its end.
Scientists have long been searching for ghosts. They begin as reputable men and women, ones who stray a little too far in the world of psychology or physics, who tip over into quackery, who fall into a darkness no peer review would dare touch.
In the early 1900s, a man, an inventor, lost his son to a tragic accident, a fall from the top of the stairs or a drowning in a bathtub or a dog attack. So certain was he that the whispers he detected just on the edge of his hearing were the words of his dead son that he built a special phonograph, one meant to record messages from the hereafter. He set up the device in the boy’s room, placed the needle on the recording cylinder and waited to capture his son’s words from beyond.
At twelve, I carried a radio the size of my torso and my copy of the Lion King soundtrack and braced myself. It took three attempts to steel my nerves enough to descend the stairs, even though the bright noon day light spilled through the basement’s great room. The only open outlet was behind the couch where the shadows lay heavy, and the whole time I struggled to plug in the radio, I imagined a pale, sunless hand reaching out to grasp my wrist and pull me into forever.
I put in the tape and pressed record. Late night television had taught me about electronic voice phenomenon, that sometimes, somehow, technology could capture what the ear could not. If my ghost had a message – and I was sure that he did and that’s why he still followed me, still watched me – then I finally had a way to let him speak.
The recording session stretched out by minutes, and I had my head buried in my arms, body curled in on itself as the presence grew denser, a chill that broke through the heat of the sun searing through the windows and against my neck. It enveloped me, an unwelcome embrace, until I became afraid that it would steal my soul as well, and I broke, grabbing the radio and pounding back upstairs to my room.
I listened to the recording, certain I would finally be given a reason for my haunting. For five minutes, there was the sound of my haggard breathing. No other voice was heard. All else was static.
I dreamed – I still dream – of the lake flooding. It never happens because of rain. Some other force fills the world with water. The lake is suddenly packed with whales and sharks, deep water animals at home in the newly rejuvenated world. The water rises, consuming the boathouse, the beach, the gardens, until it is right up against the brick and wood, climbing up windows. Soon, the house will become a tomb, water rushing in the flood every hidden nook and cranny, pulling me under.
I always fight to get out of the house, try every door, every window. But they are locked tight against escape. And just as I am panicking, heart racing while a shark hovers outside a window, waiting to be let in, he will always appear, the same incorporeal felt-sense of a pair of eyes finding me across the room. And a window opens out onto dry land.
Always – always – my ghost helps me escape.
At fifteen, after I had decided that I no longer believed in ghosts even though I still couldn’t enter the basement without a heart-racing trill of fear, my grandmother stole a dog. It was some neighborhood dog, a shag of white fur and a quick-to-wag tail. Far from a runaway, every night for a week the father of the family who owned her would come around to fetch the animal. It was the two little girls who finally relented, deciding that a lonely old lady whose husband had died over a decade earlier could use the dog more than they – even though they did bring the dog a Christmas card every year my grandmother was in illicit possession of their pet.
If ghosts weren’t real – as I was sure they weren’t now, my budding scientific mind refuting the idea of something so occult – then the only logical conclusion was that a living person was in the house. Some transient who, like the dog, had been adopted in a fit of loneliness. He must lurk in the workroom – still locked after all these years – and only come out at night, when he and the dog would steal cookies from the pantry and watch the moon rise over the lake. And he’d hover just outside my door while I slept, or tried to sleep, but all I ever managed was hours-long stares at the door knob. At 3 AM every morning, it would twitch, a back and forth so slight that it made no noise, the hesitant urge of a man on the precipice of decision.
The house was in the process of claiming another victim, my grandmother succumbing to dementia and untold cancer. She would wander the upper floor, stolen dog in shadow, talking to herself, or maybe talking to the dead that still lived there, haunting the floorboards and walls. She’d all but stopped eating, and the cookies remained untouched on the pantry shelves. If there had been a transient in the basement, he had long ago starved to death, another ghost for the tally.
The ghost took up residence in the room I slept in – the same room that had once held all of great grandma’s eerily lifelike dolls. Sometimes he stared at me from the closet, and I could feel him breathe with the sway of the wind that howled in winter. Other times, he stood at the threshold of the room, looking in, looking out, a blockade that does not know if he should stay or leave.
I wondered why my cousin did this. He was the only one who had died a terrible death, the only one who should have left a spirit behind. But he’d been young and cheerful and vibrant, not the sort of being who would turn into a malevolent force who would haunt my every move. But it had been eleven long years since he died, a decade of watching his cousins and brothers grow, become something more, live. It would be difficult not to grow angry – lost – left behind.
The lake was dying. Thirty years after it was formed, there was some sort of malignancy in it that caused algae to grow at alarming speed. The past few summers had been far too dry, and the lake receded back, exposing land once sanded by men who thought it was an excellent idea to tame a river. Fish lay exposed on the sand, animals who missed the passage out to deeper water, who died under the baking, suffocating sun.
They said the lake all over had dropped five feet in depth, and our little cove was likely closer to ten. The fall off the retaining wall was now a free fall into water that was hardly over my head. My feet touched bottom. They found the end.
My last night there, I slept on the couch in the living room. The position was too exposed, too wide open and easily attackable, but I had three different escape routes, should the ghost realize that this would be his last-ever chance to finally do what he’d been plotting since I was seven. In the morning, we’d take my grandmother to one of her son’s home to die. No member of my family would be here under the light of the moon ever again.
The night was sticky hot, a summer night not unlike the one when my cousin had slipped out of the sunroom and out of life. In a fevered sleep, I rolled over and looked out the door that led to the Astroturfed deck and there was a roiling mass of black, smoke or demon, a low pitched yowl barely reaching my ears. I did not sleep. And when dawn came, light resolved the mass into a clowder of cats, fighting over the feed that my grandmother had left out for them. But even though I could see them clearly, see their whiskered faces and white-socked feet, I did not believe they were real. It’s simply that the light hid what only the darkness could reveal.
In the weeks before my grandmother died at a house hundreds of miles away, we began the process of removing every trace of my family from the home. Pictures, horded newspapers, the folded flag that she’d received when my grandfather had been buried, one just like what we’d receive when she was laid to rest beside him. The darkness had receded back to the basement, but even then, it pulled further away when we went down there and the workroom was finally unlocked to reveal an empty space, devoid of life, devoid of history, just concrete and memory and unmarked boxes.
It was there that they told me, as we lifted out memories, that my grandfather had not died of cancer. He’d committed suicide in the house I’d slept in every weekend for the majority of my life. His own life gone in the sudden, violent, cessation of a bullet’s path through his brain.
A contrary term.
Perhaps it means to cease to exist.
But cease can also mean stop or halt.
To de-cease. To unstop. To unhalt. To defy stillness.
They are deceased; They are moving.
The car loaded, the rest of the family waiting, I went back to the deck. The cats were gone, off to find another food source. The dog, too, had been returned to its grateful and gracious owners. Shadows lay long on the deck, one that once held wrought iron furniture. I have a single memory of my grandfather sitting there, looking out across the lake as his grandchildren played in the water and fished, a smile on his face, the content sort of smile of a man in deep, abiding love with kin and home.
He was there still, a chill on my spine that was no more lessened now that I knew the truth, knew it was him.
The wind off the lake hit me heavy, a dank smell of decaying fish. I imagined the water rising, lifting the dead aquatic bodies off the sand. Water would rise, cover the lawns to finally rinse away the forever imprints my cousin left behind in the earth when he walked to his death. It would cover the sunroom door, lock it forever. And it would keep rising, rushing up to flood the floors, the walls, the ceiling, would wash clean the remains.
And I’d keep my head above water as long as I could until the window opened once again onto dry land.