You may recall that until a few months ago, I was living by myself. I enjoyed the usual luxuries one does without roommates: drinking from the container, letting the dishes pile up for a week, using the spare bedroom as a giant clean/dirty/smells good enough laundry basket, going entire Saturdays without pants…it was pretty wonderful. Without anyone around to judge me or suggest that maybe I make a meal instead of eat cereal for the fourth night in a row, I turned my focus elsewhere: reading, crocheting, avoiding dishes and writing blog posts. At night, I found I had to learn the sounds of a new neighborhood. Trucks with loose metallic cargo seemed to favor my bumpy road for cruising after 11. Dogs barked. On the early summer evenings, youths held campfires long past my 9pm bedtime.
I wasn’t surprised to hear creaks on windy nights because my house is quite old. My landlord said the bathroom originally had a clawfoot tub. The woodwork is worn and grimey – no amount of orange oil will make it shine like it probably once did. The doorbell doesn’t work. There are about a half dozen phone hookups in the hall and no outlets. Most of the windows are drafty. I can confidently say that this house was built sometime between 1900-1990, assuming ten years of error.
I got used to living on my own. Though at night my ears strained, I didn’t hear strange sounds. While I unpacked, I had passing thoughts like: “I bet more than one person has died in this house. And I bet none of their spirits wants me living here.” I’m a pretty rational person, but sometimes my imagination does sprints. I call them sprints because it’s just a quick idea that is dismissed as quickly as it arose. A loud pop in the middle of the night isn’t the spirit of a widow telling me that she is the only person allowed to crochet within these walls. It’s just the house – its materials expanding and contracting from the temperature and humidity fluctuations. The darkness I saw in the corner of gaze when I directed my attention to the other side of the room isn’t a ghost, it’s just a shadow. Basically, I’m able to tell my imagination to chill out.
For the most part, I really enjoyed living on my own, but eventually I came to a crossroads. When the weather got nicer, I was less inclined to work more than 40 hours. No longer working 50-60 hours each week, I found that I could afford to do one of two things: continue living on my own and maintain a life perfecting the art of isolation OR clean up the giant unorganized laundry basket and find a roommate and enjoy life outside my living room. My best friend had been searching for a place to live, so it didn’t take long to find a roommate.
Andrea arrived on a Sunday evening, and right away we started crocheting and watching Netflix. Because I had moved in alone, I figured my very observabt neighbor downstairs might question a strange girl entering my apartment. That Monday after work, I came home and Emily was sweeping the driveway.
“Hi Emily!” I said. “I just wanted to let you know that I have a friend staying with me for a while. She might be moving in, but it’s not set in stone.”
“Oh okay,” she said. “Thanks for letting me know. The more the merrier!”
“Yeah, she’s filling out an application and we’ll find out soon. But until things are figured out, she’ll be staying here for a while.”
“Was she here last week?”
“No, she just got here last night,” I said.
“Oh okay. Well I was just wondering because sometimes when you’re not home, I hear footsteps upstairs. Do you believe in that sort of thing? I hear things like that all the time here.”
Three things: First, when you said that, my first thought was not “OMG MY APARTMENT IS HAUNTED.” My first thought was “WHO THE HELL IS IN MY APARTMENT WHEN I’M NOT HOME?” Second, why did you jump so quickly from a friend couch-surfing to spirits who stomp around in the middle of the day? Third, why did you not wait for my answer before reporting that you’re constantly hearing weird shit in the house we share?
I sort of stammered. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t really believe in that stuff. When I hear something at night, I’m usually able to talk myself down from being scared.”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” she said. She got that look in her eyes like she was teaching me something and I ought to listen. “One night, probably about three months after my husband died, I woke up in the middle of the night and there were three white figures standing next to my bed,” she told me. “It was a mother, a father, and a little girl. The were very benevolent and seemed to just want me to know that they were there.”
WHAT THE HELL, EMILY? YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE MY SWEET ELDERLY NEIGHBOR WHO LEAVES THE BACK HALL LIGHT ON FOR ME AT NIGHT – NOT THE WOMAN WHO GIVES ME NIGHTMARES.
“You’re giving me goosebumps!”
“Oh, I’m sorry!” she said. “You know, it was probably just a dream or something. It was probably nothing.”
I laughed and rubbed my forearms, despite the warm sun.
“Anyway, thanks for letting me know about your friend. I won’t be worried if I see somebody coming and going during the day then.”
I imagine the ghosts preferred my apartment empty.
I told her to have a nice night and went up to my apartment. Andrea was gone, so I couldn’t tell her what happened. To distract myself from visions of white figures and heavy formless footsteps, I turned on some music and read a book on the couch. About an hour later, the album had ended and I was immersed in my book when I heard footsteps. They were in the attic. All those cliches happened: my heart raced, I wanted to scream but couldn’t find the air.
No, that wasn’t a toddler ghost’s greeting. It was just Andrea. Somehow, her footsteps on the front porch reverberated to sound like they were directly above me. Or maybe the ghosts were playing aural tricks on me. It’s anybody’s guess, really.
For about a week after Emily told me that story, I was afraid to open my eyes at night. I frequently woke in the middle of the night, confident that three alabaster figures would be on the other side of my eyelids. A few times, I ever reached to turn off my bedside lamp with my eyes closed. Why does my anxious subconscious believe that ghosts flee when I twist the switch of my lamp? Probably because there’s never been any ghosts there when I turn on the light.
It’s strange, isn’t it? I spend the majority of my existence rationalizing the world around me. I appreciate that most things can be explained. Cause and effect creates a beautifully consistent environment. What would life be in a world without consistencies? Houses would be creatures, the pops and cracks in the night just gurgles of their digestive systems. Sweeping a driveway one day made it clean and dirty the next. Sounds wouldn’t travel in waves, but violet clouds of varying density, the volume based on the intensity of the purple. Life wouldn’t be based on things like pumping blood and brain oxygenation, but the mood of people who remember you, and your appearance would vary, a la Dorian Gray’s portrait. And just when you had one of these things figured out, another would change and throw your understanding of everything.
I like my world of reason and not many things fool me. But in the middle of the night my imagination allows stories like Emily’s to make me reconsider everything that has made me feel sane.
Painting the walls and getting an air conditioner probably pissed the ghosts off too.
Later that night, Emily called me to apologize. She told me that she should have kept her mouth shut and that she was probably bothered by grief and lack of sleep. I told her that it wasn’t a problem and that I would be just fine. “I haven’t heard anything strange since I moved in, so I’m sure I won’t hear anything tonight.”
But really, I was like, “OH NO, LADY. There are no takebacksies in this game! You said you hear footsteps when I’m not here. The seed has already been planted. I won’t see pleasant dreams for weeks, thanks to you.”
When my sleeping returned to normal, Andrea told me that supposedly Emily had gotten out of the shower to find DON’T BE AFRAID written in the steam on her bathroom mirror. THANKS, NEIGHBOR. Emily lives alone. The only explanation is ghosts. Or her grandchildren playing jokes on her. Or Emily is a liar.