Ghost Story

In honor of the season, here’s a short story I wrote in response to a prompt for my writing group about a year ago. (It is not really a scary story. Well, maybe it is, a bit, but not because of the ghost.)

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Mostly, the ghost felt anxiety toward them. They were such fragile blood bags and so careless with themselves. For example, every night the woman plugged her phone in to charge in a dark corner of the bedroom. She dove to the floor to fish for the end of the charging chord in the pitch black, next to the pointy corner of the ugly old-fashioned cherrywood dresser that she hated and the man loved (it was his mother’s), and the ghost knew that it was only a matter of time before she cracked her chin or forehead on the dresser. Every night, it flinched in anticipation of the cracking sound, the startled intake of breath, the low howl, the resulting clamor. 

The children especially teetered and careened, not yet fully in control of their bodies, heedless at the top of the staircase, reckless on slick wet bathroom tiles. The ghost could not remember being mortal, possessing one of these delicate skin sacks, so susceptible to puncture. It did not want any of the family to join it in where it lived, in the nether air about the house. Then it would never be rid of them. Before this family the house had contained two fossils — tea sippers, newspaper readers, their marriage bed long cold, their bodies ambulating with an abundance of caution and silence from room to room. But then — who could say how long ago, the amount of time it took for the youngest child to grow from blob to boy — this riotous family of four had arrived. 

The ghost spent much of its time watching television with the man, who planted himself in front of it each evening and through the weekend. During the days, the ghost enjoyed its solitude once more in the empty house. 

Not recalling the mortifications or desires of humanity, the ghost observed most of their activity with a narrator’s impassive eye, although every so often something so unusual happened that it felt slightly roused by curiosity. It was not especially interested by the things most people thought private — intercourse, masturbation, elimination, and the like were tedious to it, not especially worth remarking, although it noticed with some interest the differences between how the woman copulated with the man as opposed to how she copulated with a different man on an unpredictable weekday pattern in the empty house. No, the ghost was primarily interested in small divergences from the norm, as when the woman late one evening in the kitchen suddenly lifted up her shirt and plopped her entire breast into her recently emptied wineglass and peered at it, moving the wine glass slightly back and forth to get a view from the sides, at her white skin smushed against the glass, and then removed it, rubbed a smudge of wine from her areola, refilled her glass, and rejoined her husband in the living room. 

Or how some nights very late, the older boy would get out of bed and pad silently from room to room pressing his forehead against each wall in turn and would not return to bed until he had done this at every wall in the house, angling carefully around his sleeping parents’ bed, and his little brother’s. 

Or how the littler boy had an imaginary friend named Charlotte Shell and none of the rest of the family knew about her, because the little boy only whispered to her when he was alone in empty rooms. Charlotte Shell was theoretically a murderer of pets, and the little boy helped her to plan her sprees. “There’s another cat next door,” he would whisper from underneath the couch in the smaller den where no one ever spent any time. “And if you dipped it in acid, Charlotte, it would become a skeleton. If you cut off its legs first, it could not run. And then you could use its tail to hold onto while you dipped it in the acid. Then you would have a skeleton with a furry tail!” The boy apparently thought this contrast very amusing, as he laughed and laughed. 

The ghost still experienced linear time, but it passed much more quickly than it had when the ghost was a mortal (although the ghost could not remember that). So before very long, the boys were much bigger and there was a baby in the spare room. The baby was shatteringly loud — it was louder than all the rest of the family and their appliances combined. Still, the ghost felt more interest in the baby than it did in the others. It felt itself drawn to the baby, particularly, and it abandoned the television and began instead to spend its time observing the baby closely, watching the tiny workings of its eensie muscles, and observing the efficiency of its rapid digestion. The woman spent most of her time with the baby, and so the ghost observed her frequently, as well, and to the ghost, the two of them seemed fused into one soft blobbish being — a being composed of two pieces that merged together fuzzily and fed off each other in various ways. 

The smaller boy also observed the combination being very often. He would hang on the doorknob of the spare room, swinging the door back-and-forth and singing to himself as he watched the woman nurse, until she yelled at him to stop it and go find something to do. 

One day, the ghost was passing through the kitchen and it noted the smaller boy taking the baby’s rubber nipples from where they sat drying on the rack where the woman arranged them after boiling them in hot water. The ghost followed the boy into the downstairs powder room, where he dipped the nipples in the toilet before returning them to the rack. 

The man and the older boy spent an increasing amount of time together. The older boy had developed many interesting routines as he grew in size. Each time he entered a room, he turned the lights on and off eight times. At the dinner table, he cut his food into exactly twenty-five pieces before consuming it, and he chewed each piece ten times. He spent hours each day in the larger bathroom, attending to a complex series of ablutions. The mother and father helped the older boy to take a number of medications several times per day. Many evenings, the man and the older boy were absent from the house until after dinner time, and the other evenings, the two of them sat at the dining room table collaborating on the older boy’s schoolwork. The man seemed somehow linked with the older boy — he often studied his face carefully as the older boy ate or worked at his math. He touched him more often, holding his shoulder or patting his back, as if he needed to be slightly connected to him at all times, lest the older boy drift off into the air of the house.   

And so the household had arranged itself into two closely allied pairs, plus the younger boy. 

One night very late when all the family were in bed, the ghost was observing the baby when the younger boy sidled into the room. He approached the crib and looked down at the baby, which was sleeping on its stomach, its tiny body humped up into a breadloaf and its wee face peeking off to one side. The boy watched the baby for a long time, and then left. The ghost had been watching the baby as well. It liked to watch the baby. The woman watched the baby nearly every moment that she was awake. Still, the ghost somehow found it strange for the younger boy to watch the baby. It wasn’t sure what the difference was, but somehow it was different. 

Some time later, many boys came to the house. They were friends of the older brother. The woman and the man seemed overjoyed to see them, the man especially. They spent the evening in the kitchen, and every so often, the man would stick his head into the living room, where the boys were sprawled around the floor on top of sleeping bags, eating pizza and watching a movie. He would look around at all of them, and then return to the kitchen. 

“What are they doing now?” the woman would ask. 

“Just hanging out,” he’d say. “Hanging out like normal boys.” 

“I’m so relieved,” said the woman, and the man held her hand. 

The smaller boy was in his room crying. He had initially been permitted to watch part of the movie with the older boys, but he was too excited and could not stop talking. He said things that provoked strong reactions from the others. 

“That’s disgusting!” said one boy, in response to an observation by the younger boy.

“Why would you say something like that, you little freak,” said another. 

“Sorry about my brother,” said the older boy. “He’s a weirdo, and he doesn’t have any friends.” 

After the third such disruption, the man came in and picked up the younger boy and hauled him screaming up the stairs, and then he dumped him on his bed and told him not to return. 

Alone in his bedroom, the younger boy cried until he fell asleep, and then he woke up and began to whisper to Charlotte Shell. 

The ghost went to have a look at the baby. 

Some nights later, the ghost was watching the baby again while the family slept (the ghost’s fascination with the baby had not diminished; it had only intensified), and the younger boy again crept into the nursery. This time, after watching the baby for some time, the younger boy put his hand on the baby’s face, over its tiny peak of a nose and its spitty pale pink mouth. The boy pressed down hard, and held his hand there, and the ghost felt a sense of alarm. 

The ghost did not know that it was possible for it to feel alarm, but as soon as it began to feel it, it recognized the feeling from its long ago mortal days. The ghost now experienced alarm as a feeling of irrevocable fragmentation, as if a strong wind was blowing its consciousness in a variety of directions. The ghost left the room and then returned. It did not know what to do. 

And then the boy removed his hand and the baby gasped, woke, and began to cry. The boy fled the room before the woman arrived. 

In the days after this incident, the ghost remained in a state of alarm. The feeling was unbearable and could not be dispensed with. The ghost moved from room to room and no sooner entered one room than it felt it ought to be in the room it had just left. It watched the baby, but it no longer really saw the baby. The ghost had never had the sense of being at peace, but now it realized that its death had previously been quite peaceful. Now, it had become a torment. 

One night when the woman had nursed the baby and was placing it asleep into its crib, the ghost found itself pushing at the woman as hard as it could. It had never done such a thing before. It concentrated itself very hard in her direction. For some time, nothing happened, but then the woman stood upright suddenly, and looked all around the room. Her shoulders came up next to her ears. Then, they came down again, and she left the room and went to bed.

During the days now, the boys were both at home. The woman had been at home for some time during the day, and now the boys were, as well. The ghost wondered if the man would join them all soon, and then none of them would ever leave again. At first, the boys spent most of their days together. They constructed elaborate dwellings out of cardboard boxes, or played video games for hours on end, until the woman made them go outside the house. But then the older boy again began to leave most days with the man, not returning until evening. 

Then, the younger boy followed the woman and the baby from room to room, often reading aloud from the little paper pamphlets he enjoyed, describing the pictures in great detail. One day, the woman was in the kitchen making food and the baby was in its bouncing seat in the doorway, and the boy was following her around with one of the pamphlets. The woman had just lifted a giant pot full of water and cut vegetables and beans, and was turning toward the stove with it when the boy slipped into her path to draw her attention to one of the colorful panels in the pamphlet and she fell against him and dropped the pot onto the floor. Water and vegetable pieces coated the floor from wall to wall, and many beans scattered underneath the large and heavy appliances. 

The woman screamed louder than the boys usually did. She screamed at the kitchen in general, but mostly she screamed at the smaller boy, until he ran crying from the room, and as he ran, he shoved the baby out of his way and into the side of the doorway. The baby wailed, and the woman screamed in a different way, and chased after the boy. She caught him by the arm on the stairs and dangled him partway in the air as she smacked at his behind with her free hand and informed him of how he was never ever to treat the baby. 

The ghost’s alarm went away. It felt that the woman had recognized the danger and resolved it. 

But late that night, the younger boy again entered the baby’s room, carrying his own pillow. He watched the baby, and then he took his pillow and placed it over the baby’s head. He held it there for a long time, and the ghost’s alarm returned and intensified such that the ghost felt it would be reborn and die again. The ghost went into the parents’ room and pushed itself at the woman. She woke with a gasp, and the ghost continued to push at her — it pushed as hard as it could. The woman sat there, staring at the darkness in front of her face, but she did not move. She sat very still. The ghost could hear her breathing. 

Finally, finally, the woman got up. She went into the hall. The ghost followed her. She went into the baby’s room. The ghost followed her. The boy was no longer there, but the baby was there, and the ghost and the baby regarded each other. The woman screamed. 

Not long after that, the family left the house, and another family moved in. As the years went by, many families moved in and many families moved out, but to the ghost and its baby, they were not of much interest. 

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