In accordance with the Bram Stoker Awards® Etiquette Rules, for the Non-Fiction Category, I am offering this free version of “Never The Ghost You Want” (originally published in the 2021 anthology PARANORMAL CONTACT: A QUIET HORROR CONFESSIONAL, via Cemetery Gates Media) for Bram Stoker Award® consideration.
Title of Work: Never The Ghost You Want
Publisher: Cemetery Gates Media
Publication Date: 14 March 2021
Never the Ghost You Want
by Nicholas Day
I do not believe in ghosts but lived in a haunted house, years ago, and it fucking sucked. People just think you’re telling stories, for starters. They imagine you’re going a bit crackers. And maybe you are, but why wouldn’t you be? After all, your house is haunted, goddammit.
Now, I’ve had roommates before, sure, but they could be reasoned with, even possessed material form. Conversations may not have always been ideal, but they weren’t out of the question, nor did they require the aid of a medium or the clumsy fingering of a ouija board. These roommates were, best to my knowledge, alive. And, at the very least, they chipped in for bills, rent, and the occasional pizza. Motivations weren’t mysterious, and most of them didn’t slam doors.
In my experience, ghosts don’t give a fuck about you. In that way, they are actually quite a lot like living, breathing people, roommates or otherwise. Ghosts are busy doing their own thing. What you are doing is of little concern to them, or their need of wandering the hallways or marching up and down the stairwell, invading your dreams, what have you.
That’s how it started, for me, through dreams.
Am I getting ahead of myself?
Did I mention I am a ghost in this story, too? One need not be dead to play the part of a ghost. I am terrifically good at being absent, and that’s one of the main precursors to successfully haunting anyone. All you have to be is… gone. The cliché: slammed doors; footsteps of an unseen intruder; ghostly visage; perhaps, a disembodied voice. In the end, you need none of these trappings. An unanswered phone call will do just fine. Or its kissing cousin, a phone call never made. But, these are not the ghosts you want, are they?
When people ask me where I grew up, I tell them a suburb of Chicago. If you happen to live—or have lived—in Illinois, yet you do not live in Chicago, then you live in a suburb of Chicago. The rest of the state is just a drip. Just speleothem hanging from the ass of the city.
“I grew up in Wood River.”
“Oh, is that near Chicago?”
“Yeah, just south of the city.”
Wood River is south of the city… by four hours and change, but it is the rare individual who actually knows this or gives a shit. Loads of ghosts—sorry, loads of people know Chicago, however, and people are rarely as excited as when they know something. Knowing some detail, however minor, means that they have made a connection, shared an experience, been given confirmation that the universe is not unknowable and that they are, in fact, alive. More importantly, that they are not alone. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in that last bit: The comfort gained by knowing one is not alone because of some ill-perceived, shared experience; the terror of believing oneself alone in a house, only to hear footsteps walking down the upstairs hallway, footsteps walking into the bedroom you are supposed to be sleeping in that night, knowing you are decidedly not alone. But, like I mentioned earlier, my particular haunting started with dreams. The noise, footsteps and doors and all the rest, came after, as if—having woken up—the dream was not allowed to end, nor was I allowed back to sleep.
Eventually, I moved away from the unknowable and into a city. Several cities, in fact, but only haunted in the one. Grateful for that, I suppose, as the one was enough. Haunted, I should add, in the traditional sense, but I’ll get to that in a bit. I’ve digressed enough.
I purchased a renovated two-story home in St. Louis, Missouri, in early 2011. A row house, with an imposing stone face. In hindsight, I guess it looked a bit the part of a haunted house. Cannot say, however, whether the place had been haunted before I moved in or if I had dragged the ghosts into the house with me. You see, this was the magical time in my life when I worked in the funerary industry.
Selling monuments, or what is colloquially referred to as tombstones, was how I paid bills. And, I helped set these monuments in the local cemeteries. On occasion, I worked with a crew. Some stones I set by myself. Cemeteries were as much my office as, well, my real office, and I spent long hours wandering the rows of names. Nearly every single day put me in touch with someone who had lost a loved one.
Couldn’t tell you how many men and women I held as they cried, their calm demeanor shattered by convulsive sobs. I very much believe that most of those people do not remember me, and I am not convinced that they saw me at all. I know who they saw. Someone, standing just over my shoulder, looking down on them from a place as far away as one can be from another. Absence, once noted and irrevocable, is seen in every direction you look. Grief can render the human eye near useless, with exception to clarity given empty spaces. And, oh, what the mind fills an empty space with.
My personal life had more or less obliterated. I drank, heavily, a functioning alcoholic (here’s where some sharp reader writes off my experience due to drink, as though I hadn’t imbibed well before, and long after, without similar incident). When I went home, at night, I spent most evenings with a cat and a dog. As my personal life continued to dismantle, it would eventually just be the dog and I.
Or, so I thought.
Months passed to little fanfare. My routine hardly differed from any working stiff, so to speak. Get up and put on your face and then out the door to work, all day, then return to the house, some dinner, and back to sleep. I sunk into autopilot with ease, and operations ran smoothly. And then, towards the end of the 2012 summer, I found myself startling awake in the middle of the night, often around 3AM. I dismissed these events as simple nightmares, like any sane person. After all, it was not as if I hadn’t experienced bad dreams, prior. In those early autumn days, I would immediately fall back asleep, and that was that.
Just before winter, I began waking up, screaming, covers soaked in sweat. Vivid nightmares of a child, or a child-like thing, an impish shape, hiding just out of sight, running at me if I dared turn my back. The last of these night terrors, I dreamed of standing in the master bath in front of the mirror, shaving. I saw, in the reflection, that child-like shape sneak into the bathroom from behind me. It ran its hands up the small of my back.
When I woke up, screaming, I could still feel those hands and I scrambled to the headboard, taking stock of the darkness around me. Nothing, of course, was there. Small consolation, then.
Eyes adjusted and I saw, across the room, that the closet door stood open. That I was being watched from the darkness therein felt a certainty. The empty space between my bed and the light switch may as well have been a thousand miles. I hurried downstairs, turning on lights as I went, and sat on the couch until morning.
I stopped sleeping upstairs, after that. My clothes moved from the master bedroom to a spare bedroom, and I only ever ventured into the master bedroom during the daytime. The couch, downstairs, became my new bed. The only trips to the second floor were to change clothes and shower and, eventually, only to shower. After Christmas, I moved my clothes to the first floor laundry. Compartmentalizing the event happened quickly. Concessions were made, and life went on.
“Why didn’t you just leave?”
A fair question, and one often levied at protagonists in these stories. But it’s not that simple. You are legally bound to your house, haunted or not. And, unless you happen to be extremely well off, financially, then you have a loan which dictates that you keep up the relationship. Hotels are expensive. Moving costs lots of money. A friend’s couch is only available for so long. And have you ever had to look at someone and tell them the reason you don’t want to go home is because your house terrifies you? I’ve said it before and I will say it again, your friends and family… do not believe you.
Back home you go, to the dark, to the cool spots. If you are lucky, the sounds don’t start right away. You are allowed to settle in and turn on some lights. If you are lucky, you can fall asleep before you start… hearing things that you cannot explain.
Screaming and night terrors ceased, once I began sleeping on the first floor. But, shortly after, the haunting manifested in other, more explicit, ways.
I’d woken up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Amusingly, I had an audience, both cat and dog sat just outside the bathroom door and watched me from the hallway. I chuckled to myself until I heard footsteps coming from the ceiling, as though someone were running down the upstairs hallway. “House settling,” I remember telling myself.
Then, it happened a second time, and this time both of the animals noticed it and stared up at the ceiling, too. The dog even growled, a little.
Back and forth, upstairs, from the master bedroom to the top of the steps, an unseen something ran. And I couldn’t move. I sat there for a long time, long after the sound had stopped. My legs were numb by the time I managed to get up and go back to the living room. I lay there on the couch for a long time and listened to nothing. At the time, hearing nothing was a relief.
A couple nights later, I woke to sounds of footsteps coming from the stairwell. Steps started from the second floor and stopped at the bottom of the stairwell. I knew nothing would be there, but I checked anyway.
Pretty soon, these types of events were not limited to the night. There was commotion up there no matter the time of day. On a Saturday, around noon, a door slammed shut upstairs all by itself. I didn’t go up to check on it but I did stand at the bottom of the stairwell. “Hello?” I said to the second floor. I didn’t expect an answer and did not get one.
For that, I was thankful.
This went on for a while, but it became clear that the activity never made it onto the first floor, and rarely manifested anywhere but the second. I decided that whatever walked up there walked… alone, by its damned self, and that I would keep to the first floor. We had, my ghost and I, officially arrived at the part of the relationship where you find yourselves making concessions, ignoring the obvious.
I put the house up for sale, soon after. I didn’t have anywhere in particular to go, but that didn’t matter. I couch surfed for almost a year. Slept in a recliner at my dad’s for awhile. The concessions had been exhausting, but the relationship was over.
And that, in a nutshell, was my experience with what one might call a traditional haunting, a singularly bizarre experience, and one I never expected to seek out ever again.
Life is full of surprises though.
In July of 2020, my father died. It had the effect of being quite out of the blue, yet totally expected. His health had been poor for many years. Trips to the hospital were frequent enough to cease being alarming. But after he had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, his condition only worsened. By this point, I lived in southern Oregon, some 2,000 miles from Wood River, Illinois. I wanted to make it back there, to take my daughter out to see him, but the pandemic swept through the United States and made the idea of traveling unconscionable.
On Monday, June 29th, I got a call from my father. He told me he wished I called more often. He kept saying that he wished he could speak to his own mother and father again, and that he missed them terribly. He said he would do anything to hear their voices. Just call, he said to me, and then we hung up. I talked to him, again, that Wednesday. He mentioned needing to go to the hospital the next morning. On Thursday, I put together a birthday package for him. He called, that night, but I did not have my phone on me. He called my wife and we spoke to him over our dinner. I love you, he said, sounding miserable. He said it again, and then we said our goodbyes.
On July 3rd, I startled awake to a phone call at around 1AM. My father, the nurse told me, was unresponsive. They needed permission to let him go if he were to code, you see. The explanation being, if he suffered an arrest, then the resuscitative efforts could leave him in a considerably worsened state. Yes, I told them, and then I laid on the floor of my living room until morning. He died several hours later, just a few days shy of his 67th birthday.
That afternoon, I got in the car and drove the 2,000 miles to Illinois. The man lived alone, but you wouldn’t know it. Cleaning out his belongings would take several weeks.
He had played down his condition, that much was clear to me. Blood on the couch. Blood on the recliner. I broke down at the sight of his bathroom. He knew he was dying, I am sure of that. He wouldn’t tell me that though; he only wished I would have called more often. But, I was a ghost, you see.
I wandered a bit from room to room, once everything was out of the house, the place emptied of all but the fixtures. And though nothing was left, I could still see everything. I could see him, sitting in his recliner, smiling and surprised to see me. I could hear him say, “Grab a seat, take a load off.” And I attempted to reach through empty space to try and touch him. “Dad?” I said, to an empty room, one ghost trying to contact another. I suppose I expected an answer, but I did not get one.
For that, I was heartbroken.
I last saw my father in August of 2019. The next time I saw him, he was dust in a plastic bag. I hugged a bag of ash and the heart was ripped out of me.
Trauma, like ghosts, manifests in ways that are not always apparent. And, like ghosts, trauma can be mysterious, however integral the manifestation is to one’s specific narrative. On a bad day, I will wish I were dead. On a good day, I know I am already. And I honestly don’t know how much it matters.
Besides, like I said, I don’t believe in ghosts.