It took two days to hike to the spot we’d heard about: a strange house standing alone in the middle of the woods. And if it couldn’t possibly sound any more cliche, the rumors were that the former owners of the house haunted it and killed anyone who dared to enter.
From the outside, it looked unremarkable. Had it not been in the middle of the forest with nothing around but trees and rocks, the house would’ve looked like any other run-down home in a bad area. But the fact remained: it was the only man-made structure for miles. Why, let alone how, anyone would haul construction materials through the inhospitable wilderness to build the place was beyond my or my boyfriend’s understanding.
Being journalists for the high school paper, we came armed with our notebooks and tablets. John tried to peer through the windows, but there was nothing to see. The windows were smoked out – it looked like there’d been a minor fire inside at some point.
The front door was locked, but around the back there was a rusted-out hole in the cellar door. It was just wide enough for John to fit through. No way my boobs were getting through that hole unless I did way more squashing than I was in the mood to do. No, it was okay; John would go through and open the front door for me.
After a bit of squeezing and cursing, John made his way into the cellar. Looking at the ragged, rusty metal he’d just forced himself through, I wondered when he’d last gotten a tetanus booster. With a shudder, I made my way over to the front of the house and waited for him to let me inside.
I waited. And waited. After a couple minutes, I heard John banging on the door from behind to get it open.
“It doesn’t want to move,” he shouted from the other side.
“Can you find something to break it open?,” I called back. “A crowbar or something?”
The banging stopped as he looked around. More waiting. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a doe and her fawn. I was spellbound. Growing up in the city, this had been my first trip into the woods since I was a little girl. I’d never gotten to see deer in real life.
I carefully moved in the direction of the animals, crouching low so I didn’t frighten them, and held out my hand. The ears of the deer perked up and they watched me intently, trying to determine if I was a threat. In my head, I was pleading with them to come over.
“It’s okay guys,” I whispered sweetly. “It’s okay.”
I held my breath as the fawn stepped toward me. It was so close. The mother wasn’t stopping it as it got nearer and nearer – so close that I could see my reflection in its wide, inquisitive eyes.
A massive bang sounded from behind me, making me jump and sending the deer running for their lives. “God damn it, John!,” I yelled, turning around. “You scared them aw–.”
I stopped talking and froze. The door had flown off its hinges onto the front steps. In the doorway stood a thick, bulbous, corpse-like man. He was swollen and burned, almost like he’d been soaked in gasoline for months then set on fire. And in his hand he held the severed head of John, whose eyes stared straight ahead with confused shock.
I screamed and began to run. “Stay away from our home!,” came a voice so loud and powerful it caused me to stumble and fall. I righted myself and looked over my shoulder, tears streaming down my eyes. There was another thing now – a woman – standing shoulder to shoulder with John’s murderer. Her mouth opened and she bellowed, “and don’t fucking come back!”
She lumbered down the steps and picked up the door. She carried it back up, and before she set it back in the remains of its frame, the husband took John’s head and threw in my direction. I heard it hit the ground behind me as I ran, but I never saw his face again. Never, except in my nightmares.
Our family home is famously haunted. By famously, I mean it’s mentioned in the town’s historical records and kids under a certain age won’t ring the doorbell on Halloween. That kind of thing. I’m 24 and I’ve lived here all my life, aside from college. Over the course of those years, I’d never seen anything out of the ordinary. My mom lived here for almost 70, though, and Dad for 50, and they claimed they saw actual ghosts many times. Their parents, too. And so on.
The house was built in 1729. Like most houses nearing their 300th birthdays, it’s had its share of problems. Still does. Obviously, it’s undergone a ton of maintenance over the course of its life, but it was always patch ups rather than overhauls. Therefore, it’s drafty. Everything sags. The electrical system is awful. The plumbing system is even worse. To top it off, all those things make some type of noise: whistling, creaking, humming, groaning, etc. To a superstitious person, it would be easy for them to associate any number of those things with the paranormal. Members of my family, for example, simply think all those natural explanations aren’t good enough.
Unlike most hauntings, the “ghost” we have isn’t a single, recurring entity. The best Mom was able to explain from what she’d seen was this: she’d be doing stuff around the house and something would catch her eye. She’d turn and look, and there’d be the ghostly image of someone who used to live in the house. Sometimes she knew who it was, sometimes she didn’t. They’d be going about their daily routines, entirely oblivious to the fact Mom was watching. One time when Mom was getting out of the shower, she saw the ghost of her grandfather sitting on the toilet, reading the newspaper, while her grandmother brushed her teeth. The moment she yelped with surprise, they disappeared.
I was home during my summer break after my first year in college when Dad died. It was as devastating to Mom and me as anyone would expect. After I returned to school, I started getting emails from Mom talking about how she’d seen Dad around the house. All the sightings were in line with the kind of thing she’d told me about in the past, but I started to worry about the frequency of the reports from her. She was claiming to see him a couple times a week. Before his death, they’d only seen previous residents of the house once every few years. To make matters worse, it seemed like he was scaring her.
Over Christmas break, I convinced her to see a therapist. She began having weekly sessions, which did very little to help with her stress. Her sightings of Dad occurred as frequently as ever. This went on for years.
Following graduation, I moved back home. I got a job at a local accounting firm and started paying off my student loans. Living rent free with Mom was going to make that process go by much faster. I had another reason for living there, too. Mom’s health was in decline. She’d get sick often and spent most of her time wandering aimlessly around the house or sitting in Dad’s old recliner, watching television. I worried about her being alone, so when I wasn’t at work, I made it a point to stay at home. I figured it was the least I could do.
That said, I didn’t want to spend all my time sitting around. I figured since I’d be inheriting the house at some point, I could get some work done to make it feel a little less, well, ancient. There was plenty of old stuff in rooms no one visited that could be brought up to the attic and potentially sold, so I took my time after work and on weekends to deal with it. I hauled lamps and record players and shoeboxes filled with knickknacks up the narrow steps.
Ever since I was old enough to climb the stairs to reach the attic, I’d hated it. It was always hot and stuffy and incredibly dusty, and now that I was filling it with more and more junk, the stuffiness only intensified. I’d been claustrophobic for as long as I could remember. No one else in the family suffered from it, so it appeared to be my own special cross to bear. I did my best to ignore it during my frequent trips up there to drop stuff off, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go as fast as I could to get back down those steps to the cool and spacious second floor.
On the morning of Mom’s 70th birthday, I got up early to make her breakfast in bed. French toast, fried eggs, and spicy sausage. I tiptoed up the stairs with the tray, carefully opened the door, and walked in. She was staring at the ceiling with a look of terror on her face. Her breathing was labored. I left the tray on the dresser and rushed over, asking her what was wrong.
She didn’t answer. Her wide eyes locked on mine. I reached in my pocket for my phone to call 911, but she grabbed my arm in a grip tighter than I thought her frail body could produce.
“Jeanette, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. I stretched my other arm to get my phone from my jeans pocket, but Mom grabbed that one, too. I struggled to get loose while asking over and over what happened and what was wrong. She just kept talking over me.
“We needed money. He made me, Jeanette.”
The grip on my arms loosened and Mom’s labored breathing slowed. Then stopped. I finally dialled 911, but it was too late. I checked her pulse. Nothing. I performed what I knew was a useless attempt at CPR. I stared at her and cried until the ambulance arrived.
I went through the funeral preparations, service, and burial in a fog of misery and confusion. Months went by, and while my mourning period had tapered off, what Mom told me as she died hung like a low cloud over my day-to-day activities. Even though I’d started therapy to help cope with everything I was dealing with, those few sentences plagued me. I’d sit in the house alone while the words danced in my head. I realized I had to move away. I had to sell the house and go away if I wanted to get the closure I so desperately needed.
All the stuff I’d brought to the attic needed to go. When Mom was alive, I kept it because I thought we could have a tag sale at some point and she could tell me what to sell and what should be kept for sentimental purposes. Nothing had sentiment anymore. It all had to go. I rented a dumpster, had it delivered to the front yard, and I got to work bringing it all down.
It was an unbearably-hot August. The attic must have been 120 degrees and the process of moving all the junk was kicking up a lot of the dust. I cursed myself for not having a mask or anything, but I was on autopilot to get it all down and out as quickly as possible. I ignored my claustrophobia as best as I could, and in the space of three days, got the vast majority of the stuff from the attic into the dumpster.
Around noon on the fourth day, sweat was pouring down my dusty, filthy body as I worked to take the last few boxes out. I’d gotten into old stuff that’d been there for as long as I could remember. Lots of Dad’s winter clothes and high school yearbooks and stuff. It was by far the dustiest part of the attic. My chest burned and clumps of fuzz floated through the air like volcanic ash. I became acutely aware of my breathing and started to feel dizzy. I felt consumed by the dry heat and could swear the room was getting smaller as I stumbled toward the last of the boxes.
I lost my footing and fell face-first into a pile of boxes in the corner. They crashed to the floor and one split open, spilling its contents. My head hit the ground and I gasped, gulping dust into my throat. I coughed and hacked up gobs of dust-loaded snot. The walls felt like they were squeezing my shoulders and I felt the ceiling, despite being six feet above my head, pushing me into the dusty floor.
Something flashed in the corner of my eye. I whirled around, the thick string of saliva hanging from my lips whipping around and slapping the side of my face. The ghostly figure of a woman stood in the middle of the room with a camcorder on her shoulder. It looked like she was crying. I shrieked and scrambled like a crab to get away.
The figure didn’t respond to my noise and movements. It just kept sobbing and pointing the camcorder. I realized it was my young mother. While the walls and ceiling spun ever closer to me and dust furred my tongue and the back of my throat, I turned around and looked in the direction the camera was recording.
My young father was lying on his belly on the filthy floor. Pinned underneath him, open-mouthed, struggling with all her might, and gasping in lungful after lungful of dust, was a girl no older than four. I blinked three times in rapid succession as disbelief, horror, and revulsion swept through me. The images disappeared. In their place were the contents of the box that had split open. VHS tapes and a broken camcorder.