At night, that’s when the moans start.
I lay in bed, thinking about the day, no money, worries, how to pay for the new house. Tiny though it may be.
At some point I drift off.
Then the moans start.
You’ll think this is stupid, or I’m a drunk, or hallucinating from something illicit. Fuck you—I’m not any of that shit. I dare you to spend a night in my house.
It’s the neighbors fucking with you, you say. They don’t like you because the first day there you sprayed their white and brown Shih Tzu with the hose when it was taking a crap on your new sod. No, they apologized and invited me for barbeque.
I live alone. My wife and I divorced six months ago. We’d already sold our home, and I was staying in a month-to-month studio apartment, thinking I’d never be able to afford a house again. Then my realtor called me with this one. I thought, Fuck, this is lucky—I get a house again. No crappy apartment with neighbors blasting music till three in the morning. I jumped on the deal.
I have to wonder now if my realtor knew about this, the moans. I have to wonder if she was ever in the house when the moans started. I have to wonder if she ran from the house and thought to herself, What rube can I sell this cracker-box to.
Me, I suppose—I’m the rube.
But now I can’t afford to go anywhere else. So I lay in bed, night after night, and just when I start catching some Zs, they start:
That’s what it sounds like. Not screams like in the movies, like someone getting stabbed or beaten. It’s a low, keening sound, like a sick animal that won’t ever get well. But the sound isn’t coming from any animal’s throat.
Or something like human.
Over and over, all night long. I fucking haven’t slept for two weeks now, not more than a couple minutes at a time. So pardon the fuck out of me if I’m goddam cranky.
I crashed at Bob’s place the other night, Bob that I work with down at the warehouse. But his wife said Uh-uh, no more than one night, ’cause there’s only enough room for us. So Bob said Sorry, but you can’t stay.
One of the nights was warm, so I dragged the patio chair onto the screen porch off the back of the house and tried sleeping on that. But you know what? About three a.m.:
Like it was right in my ear. Like I hadn’t gone outside at all.
The house is settling, you say. It’s the wind blowing through the soffit vents, you say. You got a dead rat stuck in a plumbing chimney.
No, no, and fuck you. It’s not any of those.
My house is haunted.
I know how fucking stupid that sounds, like I’m some baked teenager daring another baked teenager to run up and touch the abandoned house where the family was murdered. I know you think I’m the stoner.
I’m not going to waste my time trying to convince you. I hardly believe it myself. I did ask Bob to come over one night to listen with me, but his wife said No. I’m still too new down at the warehouse to ask any of the other guys—they’d probably think I was queer or something, begging them to spend the night with me to listen to my ghost.
But I’m fucking sick of it now, and I have to do something about it or I’m going to go out of my gourd. I told Bob at work today that tonight I was going on the warpath against the damn ghosts or spirits or whatever they are, and he said Good luck. I don’t think he believes me, that I got a ghost. I hardly believe me. But the black circles under my eyes and what my boss called my “listless behavior” tells the tale. I’m going to get fired if I don’t do something, and then I’ll be living under a tarp in some alley.
That night I stripped and put on my pajama bottoms like I always do, but instead of getting under the covers I just sat on the edge of my bed twiddling my thumbs and waiting. Sure enough, around three a.m.:
It almost sounded like a girl doing the moaning, as I sat there and listened hard instead of trying to shut out the noise. Like some girl who’d been hurt, or was hurt, or sick with something like cancer. Like she had a deep, nonstop pain that just was eating her up inside. Like a pain that never gave her a minute’s rest, that she could never get away from.
I sat there for a good long while, I don’t know how long. I could feel my heart, like something was thumping in my chest trying to get out.
Man up, I told myself. Stop being a little bitch and go deal with this.
I grabbed the wood bat I’d started keeping by the bed, like that would do any good. If all the movies were right, that is—how do you club a ghost? Well, if there was any way I could, I’d beat that fucker bloody.
I went out into the hallway, all six feet of it that ran from the bedroom to the rest of my little house, and could see the glow coming from the microwave in the kitchen ahead.
I got such a chill, I had to clamp down or I’d of peed right there on the carpet. I’d come out to the hall before when I’d heard it, mainly the first week I was here till I got too tired to deal with it anymore, and it had never sounded this loud. Maybe the fucker was finally dying or something. A dying ghost—yeah, that made sense. I needed some fucking sleep.
I choked up on the bat and put it against my shoulder so I’d be ready to swing for the far bleachers, if it came to that. I realized I was barefoot, and thought of going back to the bedroom for my slippers.
Fuck it, I thought. One way or another, this ends tonight.
I strode forward like I had a hot date. In the kitchen I turned on the lights, stopped and listened. After about fifteen minutes of just standing there, my low back was starting to ache and my legs were getting crampy.
Maybe you’re right. Maybe I imagined the whole thing.
Did you hear that? I didn’t imagine shit, so fuck you kindly. You want to stand here in my haunted house and hold the bat, you can judge.
Now the moans were coming faster, like the whatever-it-was knew I was coming for it. You want a fight, fucker? You got one!
The next one, I cocked my head. The moans usually sounded like they came from all around me, but this…
I stared at the closed door to the right of the fridge.
The moans were coming from the basement.
Every scary movie I ever saw flashed through my head. Don’t go in the basement, they all said, and of course the idiot kids in all the movies went in the basement and got stabbed or chopped up or something.
But I wasn’t a kid, and I had a bat.
“I’m coming for you,” I yelled. “You hear me, spook? I’m fucking coming for you!”
No answer. Don’t know what I expected, maybe an Oh, I’m so sorry for bothering you, I’ll stop moaning now would have been nice. But I didn’t hear anything, not even another moan, which was kind of unsettling at that point.
It felt like my feet were stuck to the floor, and that wasn’t just the spilled beer from my shitty cleaning habits. I made myself move, and crossed the tiny kitchen to the basement door. When I put my hand on the knob:
Like the whatever-it-was was getting excited I was coming. Yeah, you get excited, fucker, ’cause I’m done with your shit.
I told myself I had a bat and some pretty good strength, but the hammering in my chest told me right back that I was about to piss myself.
I turned the knob and opened the door. The rush of cool air from below hit my face, and I did pee a little, the warm wet spot spreading on the front of my PJs. Great. What a fucking baby. No such things as ghosts. I started down the steps, feeling for each tread with my feet because the string for the light was at the bottom.
The air coming up from the basement smelled like old paper that had gotten wet and dried out and gotten wet again. The people who had the house before me hadn’t cleaned out all their boxes of shit, and I hadn’t gotten around to throwing it all out. The smell itched my nose and made me sneeze. It sounded like a gunshot.
A glob of snot flew out of my nostril and plopped on the handrail; I could see it glisten in the light leaking down from the kitchen. It sat there a second, then started oozing over the side of the rounded rail, and fell off onto the bottom step where it raised a miniature cloud of dust. I reached up to the string and pulled it. The sixty-watt bulb lit, blinding me for a moment.
I blinked till my eyes adjusted, and didn’t move off the bottom step. I guess I felt that the second I put my bare foot on the concrete basement floor, something was going to grab me.
I never thought of myself as anything other than a manly man, but I was acting like a pussy.
“Suck it up,” I said to myself, and put my foot on the floor.
It was cold, like basement concrete always is no matter what the season, and I felt the skin on the bottom of my foot wrinkle. The chill made me let out another couple drops of pee. Guess I should have hit the pisser before I came ghost-hunting.
I listened. No sound. I looked around. It was just an old basement—some dusty, warped shelves over against the south wall that the previous owners had made with pine boards and two-by-fours. The shelves were mostly empty, just an old oil lamp and a stack of newspapers on the second one from the top, and the moldy boxes lining the bottom one.
I took my other foot off the step and put it on the floor.
I shivered. I don’t know what I expected, but nothing happened. No fanged monsters rushing from the dark corners to grab me, no white shimmery figures floating towards me.
“Nothing to say, ghost?” I jeered.
Maybe taunting a ghost wasn’t the best strategic move. I stood there, the lightbulb right above my head, the heat from it warming the thinning spot on top of my skull. I was holding the bat in my right hand down by my side. Now or never, I thought.
I took a step forward. Nothing happened.
“Okay, are you here or not?” I said, grimacing when my voice cracked a little at the end.
Another step. The light was behind me now, shining around my body, casting a long shadow forward on the concrete and up the far wall. I stopped and looked around. The light only shone so far into the space—all the corners were dark. But I could see well enough to tell that it was just an empty basement. The only other thing in it was the furnace and water heater on the north wall, standing next to each other like old buds.
I turned a full circle, making sure I looked everywhere. Nada. The place was bare, like it always had been.
My muscles started to ease, and I felt pretty fucking stupid standing there in my pee-soaked PJs holding a bat, thinking I had a ghost in my basement. I took one more three-sixty, just for shits and giggles.
There was someone in the corner.
“Yah!” I yelled, and jumped back.
My tortured bladder let loose and the entire left leg of my PJs got drenched. I dropped the bat and fell on my ass, the hard concrete sending a jarring punch up through my tailbone. I scrambled like a crab, the fear shooting through me like an ice knife. I scuttled backwards until I slammed into the bottom step, the wooden tread scraping a hunk of meat off my lower spine.
“Jesus H fucking Christ on a crutch!” I hollered. I dove forward and grabbed the bat, clocking my chin on the floor and snapping shut my teeth on the tip of my tongue. I tasted blood.
I managed to get to my knees, and then to my feet. The air around me stunk of urine and ammonia. I shook like I had a hundred and ten-degree fever.
It just stood there, in the corner of my basement, in the shadows where the light couldn’t reach.
No way could I calm down and think like a man, but I got myself to where I could at least look at it. The air was cold but I was hot, all at the same time. I felt like I had to puke.
I think it was looking at me.
I couldn’t see it very well. Like I said, it was in shadow, and it was just hard to make out for some reason. Kind of blurry, I guess.
“Aw, shit!” I yelped, and stumbled back.
The moan came from the thing! (Well, where else?) Its mouth had opened real wide, like wider than a person, but it was shaped like a person.
It was shaped like a girl.
“Who… who are you?” I managed to stammer.
No answer. It kept looking at me. Now I noticed it was holding its—her?—belly with one arm, like it—she?—had a stomach bug. She had on what looked like an old dress, or maybe it was just dirty and tattered, or—
No. It was covered with blood.
I don’t know how I saw that, because the rest of her was drained of color, like she was on an old black and white TV. But the blood, it was red, and it was wet—I could see it shining in spots, even though there wasn’t much light. The bottom part of her old dress was soaked in blood, like she had been bleeding from her belly—
Or maybe her hoo-hah.
“Jesus,” I whispered.
I took two steps closer to her and looked. She still held her belly with one arm, and I suddenly felt a puff of chill air wash over me. I got the notion that the blood was from her baby, or from where her baby had been, or that someone had hurt her …
And her baby.
I squinted to try and make out her face. Her black hair was stringy and hung over her cheeks. She seemed to be looking at the floor, but it was hard to tell—the blood was the only thing I could see clearly. She looked blurry, like there was a sheet of dirty plastic or something between her and me.
Another step. “Are you hurt?” I asked. Yeah, that was a fucking stupid question to ask a ghost.
She looked at me. Her mouth opened, so wide it looked like a tunnel with the lights out.
Every time she did that, I felt my bowels try to loosen. I squeezed everything shut so I didn’t crap in front of this girl, ghost or not.
I was able to focus on her eyes—don’t know how, through the dirty plastic thing. They looked black, like the inside of her mouth, but glittery, like hunks of obsidian I saw when I was a kid on a school field trip to a museum.
I can’t say I was any less afraid, but she hadn’t made any moves to eat me, or tear out my heart or anything, so I moved a little closer. She just stood there, looking at me with those glinting eyes, stringy hair falling around her narrow little face.
“What happened to you, sweetheart?” I asked.
She held her belly and
“I know you’re hurting,” I said. “What happened to you?”
I went closer still, now just two feet away from her. The air felt thick around me, like I was a lot farther underground than just the basement. Still air, as if the room was sealed.
Like a tomb.
She cried, “Ohh-uhh-unn-uh.”
And doubled over, grabbing her belly.
I stood right in front of her, trying to see a way to help her. The dirty plastic wasn’t plastic, it was some kind of membrane. I could see fucking veins and shit running through it, now I was standing right up close. It was like I was inside a
She went to her knees, still holding her stomach with one arm. She reached out the other to me, her little white hand stretching, her fingers waggling like spider’s legs. I reached back, trying to get hold of her and maybe pull her out of that membrane.
I felt the tip of her finger touch mine and
I was looking at her through veins and sticky tissue. I was cold. And then I didn’t feel anything.
I was facing the basement light over the bottom step, the light that had been behind me, but was now in front of me.
I was in the corner.
She was out.
Her dress, her bloody dress, dried up and the blood pulled away from the fabric like it was sucking back inside her. Her color came back, her face rosy and bright. Her hair arranged around her head in curls.
She smiled at me.
And then she was gone.
I looked down at myself, looked at the stain of blood spreading from my crotch down my pajama legs and up over my belly.
I felt an ache start inside me, a pain that wasn’t like anything I’d ever felt. It wasn’t so much nerve endings reacting to an injury. It was an emptiness that spread from my belly and thudded through my entire body like I was being bruised from the inside out. I felt a loss like someone I loved had died. Like everyone I’d ever loved had died, all at once, and I knew I would never get over it.
But the loss was for one person, one small person, that I had created and knew I would never hold, never see again.
* * *