Everyone said the place was haunted. But after the week I had, I didn’t care. The old house was secluded, and I needed to be alone.
Dad got drunk for the third time that week. He yelled. I yelled back. My sister hid. Mom cried. I left. I walked down the potholed streets of our old neighborhood, the last Autumn leaves falling around me. Dogs barked behind chain-link fences. The night’s first stars dotting the pumpkin sky. The chilly air stung my arms and lungs. My eyes felt puffy, but I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold or the tears.
I walked, feeling Dad’s pistol in my pocket. He was so drunk he didn’t even see me take it. I walked and walked, my mind on everything but the street signs. I didn’t realize I was close. But there it was. The abandoned house at the end of the block. I’d heard to stay away from it my whole life. When I was little, all the kids said there were ghosts inside. But everyone knew it was just a drug house.
What the hell. It’ll do. At least it’ll be warmer.
My foot fell through the rotten porch wood. The storm door glass was shattered, and the unlocked door creaked open. It almost sounded funny in my mind, like a cliché haunted house in the movies. The living room was dim and dusty, and smelled like wet carpet. Syringes were spread randomly across the old kitchen floor. I sat on the linoleum and stared at the wood paneling for a while. Then I cradled my head in my arms.
I cried, memories playing in my mind like video. I remembered my little sister laughing while I played toys with her. The toys Dad bought her. I remembered Dad buying us ice cream, too. I remembered him threatening us. Him screaming with a gun. How could good memories be in the same life with bad memories? With the same people? I cried again. Ugly cried. I was done with the day. I was done with life.
The light outside was spent, and night took the house. I sat in the dark, feeling the pistol in my pocket. Then, it happened. A pale, misty light shone from the middle of the room, growing brighter and brighter. I was alone. But I wasn’t alone. Something felt…other. Something was breaking in, but not from outside the house.
Syringes rattled on the linoleum. The hair on my arms straightened with static, and goosebumps spread over my skin. The dust settling in the air paused, then floated up, and at least a hundred flies flew frantically, slamming into the browned windows. Even they suddenly wanted out. I smelled death.
Then, I saw her. I saw her as clear as a full winter’s moon. A pale woman dancing in the middle of the room, just feet away. Her eyes were black, her dark hair glowed. Her white dress was torn. She was terrifying; she was beautiful. She looked at me as she danced. My hands and knees and stomach shook. Her sunken face seemed almost sympathetic. Almost.
“Are you going… to kill me?”
The woman’s hollow voice said, “No.”
My lip quivered.
“Are you?” she said.
It took me longer to see the man she danced with. He thickened into my vision like a new fog. His form rippled like a pond in the wind.
I wiped snot and tears off my face. It was all too much. I didn’t know if I should run. Or if I could. They stopped dancing. The man looked at the woman, nodded, then turned his dead eyes into mine. He watched me; studied me. He terrified me. He stepped towards me, and frigid air pushed against me like a wave. I screamed and scrambled to my feet. “Don’t come any closer!” I begged. He stared at me, his eyes terrorizing me. I couldn’t look away, and I knew he knew my soul. I felt him in my memories, sorting through them.
In a voice that echoed through the house like it echoed through my mind, he said, “It’s going to be ok.”
“What?” Ghosts in movies didn’t say that. But when he said it, something changed. It’s what I needed to hear, even if I hadn’t known it.
He faded into mist as he spoke; “Your life will have pain. You’ll be disappointed. People you love will die. Friends will be shallow. Some will leave you or drift away. But you’ll have love. You’ll have joy. You’ll win sometimes. And you’ll be ok.”
“Some of it hurts,” I said.
“Yes.” He looked back at the woman and smiled.
Tears blurred my vision, but I saw them fade away, dancing. I looked at my sneakers and cried again, taking my hand off the pistol in my pocket. The walk home was cold and dark. The ghost’s words, and my memories, followed me home. Dad told me I was wrong to make Mom worry like that. I should be more responsible. Shouldn’t yell in front of her or my sister.
Days turned to months, and months melted into a lifetime. Dad kept drinking, Mom pretended he didn’t, and my sister ran away from home. I didn’t talk to her for nine years. I didn’t even have her number. I got married. We had three children. We were happy for a while, then we drifted apart. We worked too much, and she left me. My oldest stopped talking to me. The ghost was right about the pain part.
My friends mostly talked about themselves. They didn’t listen much. Mom got cancer and faded, little by little, day by day. I sat with her in the hospital when she died. That was the last time I saw Dad. He never called or texted after that. I never called him either. One day I heard he died, too.
It all hurt. I sat on my couch in the dark. The couch where I’d held my wife’s hand and watched our kids play on the living room floor. But they were gone now. “I’m sorry,” I said to nobody. “For it all.”
I walked in the cold Autumn night. All the sad moments of my life swimming in my mind. At least the ones I could remember. I remembered the ghost. Why did he tell me life had pain and joy? It seemed mostly like pain.
My cell phone vibrated, pulling me out of my memories. “I think we can work it out,” my wife said; “I don’t want to be alone. I want us to be with each other. I love you.” We’d been apart two months when she called. Her voice brought back other memories. Good memories. I remembered falling in love. The movie nights. Holding our first child. Going to the kid’s piano recitals and ballgames. I remembered my daughter laughing when I played toys with her. I remember my son smiling when we cheered for him after his first homerun.
My wife came back. We worked a little less and had movie nights a little more. My oldest called me when she hit her thirties. We even had a family reunion. My sister came with her husband and daughters. I tried to show them all they were loved. Some friends came, too. They stood in the corner telling each other about themselves and not listening to each other, but I laughed, happy to see them happy. I never became rich. Or famous. But I made a career out of carpet sales and installation. Did pretty well. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it paid for my family to travel to Italy.
I hurt a lot on the inside. But my grandkids came to see my wife and me every month or so. We looked forward to it so much. They even kept coming when she passed. Thirty-seven years of marriage. I sat in the hospital room with her, holding her hand tightly as she squeezed mine. Until her hand stopped squeezing.
I remember playing in the yard with my kids and their children, laughing, happy, when my chest tightened. I struggled to breathe. I clutched my shirt and fell. My vision was blurry, the world went grey. But I could see their faces crowding over me, yelling to each other about ambulances.
And there she was. The pale woman danced in the grass. She hadn’t aged at all. She was the only thing I saw clearly, like a full winter moon. She came to me. “It’s time for our dance,” she said. She smiled at me like an old friend; “Are you ready?”
“Does it hurt?”
“Yes.” I looked at her, and blinked tears.
“Life hurts. Death hurts. You grew in life. You’ll grow in death. Are you ready?”
“I… think so.” I strained my vision away from her face, to see my children, their spouses, and their children. I forced the words, “I love you all.” I heard them say they loved me too.
The woman was waiting for me. “It’s time to go,” she said gently; “But it’s going to be ok.” It helped. She took my hand, and I followed her. It was like walking through a waterfall. Cold at first. Then, we danced. She led. I followed. We weren’t in the grass anymore.
“Where are we?” I asked; “Is this heaven?”
“…hell?” I said.
I looked around. “I know this place.” From the mists of my memory, I remembered the old house. It looked older. The porch was gone, and the roof was sinking in. The dust was thick. “Why did you bring me here?” I said.
As we moved, the house grew younger. The dust on the table thinned. Decades worth of dead flies in the windowsill flew away with the vigor of life. “Because if I didn’t, we might’ve had our dance too early.” She looked down, almost sympathetically. My eyes followed hers. A teenaged boy sat among syringes, feeling the outline of a pistol in his pocket. Snot and tears ran down his face. He saw her. Then me.
I looked at her again, and I understood. The boy looked into my eyes; his were filled with pain and terror. I stepped towards him, hurting for him, but knowing what he did not. He stood up in a panic, “Don’t come any closer!”
My voice echoed. “It’s going to be okay.”
Roger Maxson is a lifelong reader, and an emerging writer. He works each day in a science laboratory and spends each night writing for his children.