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The Ghost of You Lingers

The Victorian House in Old Town

The first house the real estate agent shows you will not work. It reminds you too much of the house you grew up in—old, dark, cluttered. A musty odor hangs in the air, the sort of smell that has become as much a part of the house as its foundation.

You shuffle around an ottoman that has seen better days, its cushion warped from use. Each step you take across the hardwood floor elicits a creak, bringing up random childhood memories . . . Creeping down the stairs in bare feet, trying not to wake your parents, desperately hoping a pile of presents would be waiting under the Christmas Tree. Another step and another memory . . . You are older and you have been drinking, sneaking up the stairs, trying not to wake your parents, desperately hoping you can make it to the bathroom before you get sick.

All of these memories—the good and the bad—are from some before time. Before you turned down the path you did. Before now. It is a time you would return to if you could, a time of innocence, without the guilt you wear like an unshedable skin. You need to change, but you know you cannot go back. What would the innocent child you were think of the adult you’ve become? What would the child you were think of the things you’ve done?

The real estate agent has your fiancé’s full attention as she explains that the furniture stays with the house. It’s obvious this pleases your fiancé, but you are less enthused. Every piece seems antique and overly ornate and much too fragile. You cannot imagine being comfortable here, never mind the damage a child would inflict. Something to consider since your fiancé constantly talks of wanting children.

Getting married, buying a house, children . . . The whole point is change and a fresh start—to become anyone except the person you are. But the impression in the couch is worn from someone else’s weight. The Turkish throw rug is frayed in the pattern of someone else’s stride. How do you start over if you are surrounded by someone else’s stuff?

When you press further about the furniture the real estate agent smiles as if she’s been waiting all day for this moment. “It’s the ghost,” she tells you. “According to the story, this house is haunted, and the ghost is attached to something here. Remove the object, the item of furniture, whatever it might be, and you take the ghost with you. The furniture must stay because if you lose the furniture, you lose the ghost.” She places a china saucer with a floral design in her purse while she speaks.

Your fiancé is impressed by the real estate agent’s assurances that you’ll be the envy of the neighborhood—the only house on the block with an actual ghost. Apparently, the neighbors will stop by for tea and leave with a spoon or deck of cards or a coaster, hoping to take the ghost with them. “That’s why there are no hand towels in the guest bath,” the real estate agent tells you. “Too easy to carry away.”

The ghost is a deal-breaker for you. How can you move forward if you will be haunted by a ghost? A ghost is invisible and it can go wherever it wants. It’s able to see you when you cannot see it. What if the ghost will be able to see the things you don’t want to show it? What if it is able to see the real you?

You move back toward the front door, not wanting to venture too deep into the house. A framed picture hanging on the wall catches your eye. The picture is a drawing of a stick-figure family—father, mother, and child—picnicking in a green field, beneath a yellow sun and a multi-colored, squiggly rainbow. It is bright and colorful, drawn in crayon, and clearly the work of a happy, innocent child. Without thinking, you take the picture down from the wall. You shiver, shaking off a sudden chill, as you wipe a thin layer of dust off the frame.

The drawing reminds you of so many of the pictures you drew when you were young—from the before time. The drawing does not fit here. It does not belong in this dark, fragile house. And neither do you. This is the wrong house. You cannot start over here. The search for a new home and a new life might be more difficult than you expected. But there are more houses to see. The next one could be the right one.

You go outside and wait by the car for your fiancé and the real estate agent to finish their tour. You take the drawing with you, and place it in the trunk, although you don’t quite know why.

The Studio Apartment in the Financial District

The real estate agent tells you again and again how smart an investment this apartment is. It’s small: a studio with a kitchenette and little privacy. The bedroom is nothing more than a futon set in a nook behind a decorative four-panel screen. You hear the clomping footsteps of the upstairs neighbors. From one of the apartments next door you catch the wet soil odor of patchouli, and the distinct smell of the marijuana the incense is supposed to cover up. But it is all about location, and in that category the financial district cannot be beat. “You’ll make a killing when it comes time to sell,” the real estate agent assures you.

Your fiancé is less impressed with this place than the last, pointing out that this apartment makes more sense for a single person—who you are now—not for a couple about to marry. You reluctantly agree that family is a valid concern. Where would a child sleep or play? What about schools or parks? Is the neighborhood even safe?

The real estate agent admits there are two sides to this last question. The financial district is quite safe during the day, but it is another story at night. “There is a serial killer,” the real estate agent explains. “Every few months the police find a body. Five total . . . so far. One was left behind a dumpster in an alley, another discovered between two parked cars along the street, that sort of thing. The police have no leads, supposedly, but they say the weapon is always a large knife, and the deaths are always bloody and brutal.”

You open the sliding glass door and step onto the balcony while your fiancé and the real estate explore the rest of the apartment. The view of the city is incredible from this height. You close your eyes and take in the hum of the local traffic and the repetitive boom of construction in the distance. The smell of exhaust wafts up from the street. You feel alive here, as if you’re a part of the action despite being a dozen stories above it. There are so many people, which makes everyone a stranger. And that makes this a place where you could be at home, where you wouldn’t have to change in order to fit in.

There is a woman on the sidewalk below, across the street. She is young and fit, dressed in a dark business suit and black heels. The woman stops on a corner, at the mouth of a narrow side street, which is hidden from the sun by the height of the surrounding buildings and full of shadows. The woman is focused on her phone, texting or searching for a trendy restaurant. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that she is distracted.

You see yourself stepping out from the shadows, one hand covering her mouth as you pull her back into the alley. You feel the heat of her breath against your palm as you muffle her attempted scream. In your other hand you hold a large knife, a chef’s knife. The same type of knife Michael Myers used in Halloween and the psycho used in Psycho. The same knife you use to chop onions and slice fresh bread and cut and slice and slit. Your face is flushed. Your heart races. The woman presses against you as she struggles. But she is helpless, and you feel so completely alive.

When you step back into the studio apartment you glance over to the counter of the kitchenette and see a wooden block with the butt ends of half a dozen knives sticking out. The largest slot is empty, and this makes you smile.

You wonder why you should work so hard to change when who you are right now feels so natural. And this is what worries you late into the night . . . because who you are should not be natural.

You ball your hands into fists so tight they hurt. You shake your head fiercely, attempting to clear away all doubts. You are not ready to abandon your quest. Taking this apartment, as comfortable a fit as it might be, would be the same as admitting failure. You are too early in your search for that. The studio apartment might be perfect for who you are, but it is perfectly wrong for who you need to become.

The Fixer-Upper on the Lake

Your first impression of the house is not a good one. It is run-down, on the outskirts of an unimpressive neighborhood, with a long commute to the city. “It’s a fixer-upper,” the real estate agent keeps telling you. “You can make it your own. Besides, did you see the lake?”

You did, although you feel calling it a lake is a bit of a stretch. There is nothing but muddy swamp where the water meets the edge of the property. The air is full of mosquitoes and an earthy stink of stagnant water. It’s not a stretch to imagine being eaten alive, while being sucked down into the muck, lost forever.

The house is unfurnished and spacious, and the price is right. Being an older home, there are some nice touches, like the wainscoting throughout the downstairs, but there are also concerns, like the cracks in one kitchen wall and the warped front porch. Some sort of art—maybe a framed drawing of a stick-figure family—would cover up some of the cracks, but you would still know they exist under the surface.

The real estate agent and your fiancé begin making their way through the living areas, but you are drawn to a door near the back hall and move off on your own. The door is made of a simple pine. The doorknob is warm to the touch, as if there might be a fire blazing on the other side, waiting to backdraft when you open it. When you do open the door, there are stairs that lead down. At the bottom of the stairs you find a bare bulb hanging from a long cord. It sways in a circular motion when you turn it on and illuminates dozens of boxes stacked in piles. Mildew covers every box that touches the cement floor.

You don’t know what you are looking for until you find it at the far end of the basement, just beyond the furnace, behind a tall, cheap wardrobe. The wardrobe slides to the side easily, revealing a ragged hole in the foundation wall, just large enough to fit into. Quick gusts of humid air belch out every two or three seconds, like an animal panting. The edge of the hole is reddened and giving off intense heat, which you can feel by hovering a hand within a few inches. Inflamed is the word that pops in your mind. Farther in you see only darkness.

You place your hand on the edge and a powerful gust bursts from the hole. Your touch causes pain, but you think it is a good pain. A strong desire to climb into the hole comes over you as you squat in front of it, gently stroking its moist edge. Right now, in this moment, climbing in seems like the most important thing you could do—to travel deep into the darkness and curl up in its heart. You somehow understand that the hole only leads in one direction, and there is no way back. This is incredibly scary, but it is also incredibly exciting. The clearest idea in your head is that this could be the change you’ve been searching for. It’s not the path you thought to travel, but shouldn’t you at least consider embracing who you truly are? Instinctively, you know this choice will cause pain—to you and to your fiancé and to others—but you also know there will be incredible pleasure when you finally stop hiding.

Your fantasy is interrupted when you hear a soft murmur. The murmur clarifies into a voice—your fiancé’s voice—calling to you from somewhere upstairs. “It is time to go,” your fiancé says. “There are other houses to see.”

Where you are and what you’re doing comes back into focus, and you are aware of a sharp pain in both of your knees from kneeling on the hard, uneven cement floor. You realize that you’ve bitten your tongue and swallow a mouthful of coppery blood. You take one step away from the hole in the wall.

It only takes a moment to push the wardrobe back into place, covering up the hole once more. You cross the basement, turn out the light, and start up the stairs. You will remember the inflamed and festering hole. You are certain that it will still be there when you are ready. But for now, you are pleased with yourself. For now, you have resisted temptation. You consider this a victory.

The Colonial in the Gated Community

There is really nothing negative you can say about the small Colonial in the gated community. It’s nice. The street is tree-lined and shady, with wide sidewalks. During the drive you watch groups of children running and laughing and playing in their front yards. Your fiancé smiles at this, gaze distant. You have a baby on the way—a boy—and when your baby gets a little older, he would have friends to play with.

The local neighborhood has everything you might want: an active church, a highly-rated school, a well-stocked grocery store, and a pleasant little park. There would be little need to venture out from the comfort and safety of the community. No need to go down to the financial district, for example . . . unless you absolutely needed to.

Inside the Colonial, the floor plan is tight, compartmentalized. The kitchen, the dining room, the living room, the study, the bedrooms, are all separated, with doors to close them off and to keep people in or to shut people out. But this is not a deal-breaker. You like the idea of having a private place whenever you need it.

The real estate agent takes on a serious demeanor. She gets your attention by saying she has a story to tell you. Your fiancé looks expectant, probably hoping for a chance at another ghost, or something even more rare. The real estate agent begins by saying, “I have to tell you about the murder-suicide.”

“A murder-suicide,” your fiancé repeats in a quiet voice.

The story is more sad than scary. All of the neighbors thought the family involved were exactly who they appeared to be: a lovely young couple with an adorable, well-behaved infant son. “But how can anyone really know anyone?” the real estate agent asks.

One night, it happened . . . The child was killed first, asleep in his crib. You can picture this as if you are there in the room while it happens. You can hear the choked gurgle, that comes out of his tiny, torn throat.

The spouse was next, asleep in the master bedroom, completely unaware of what had happened, unaware of what was about to happen. You can practically feel the hot rush of blood splash over your hands.

According to police reports, both were stabbed with a chef’s knife, and their deaths were brutal and bloody. According to the story, the killer then walked into the bathroom, stepped into the bathtub, closed the curtain, and calmly ran the knife across their own throat, cutting neatly through the carotid and jugular.

As the story concludes, you reach up and touch your neck, feeling your pulse race beneath your hand.

“There is no doubt as to what happened,” the real estate agents says. “The great mystery is why.”

“If they were such a perfect family, why would someone do such a thing?” your fiancé echoes.

You don’t give an answer, but it is not such a mystery to you. You can understand what might lead to such a terrible scenario. A murder-suicide seems well within reason after years and years of swallowing secret after secret, being eaten alive from the inside. You can picture it clearly, as if it is in your not-so-distant future. Everyone has a breaking point. Even you.

The question you find far more interesting is whether or not your fiancé will be able to figure out the answer. It’s exciting to wonder what might happen when there are no more secrets.

But one glance at your fiancé and it is clear that the choice has already been made. You will not be buying this house. You will not raise your child here. The house’s secrets—your secrets—will remain just that.

The House in the New Development

The home you finally purchase is cookie cutter, in a brand new development, but ready for your personal stamp. It is a blank slate, sterile, with two stories, a lush front lawn, and a charming back deck. It comes with zero history, so no baggage, and that is enough for you. It is the perfect house for a young couple to begin a new life in. You see it as an opportunity to forget the past, all the mistakes and regrets, and start fresh. Now, as a new parent, this has never been more important, this need to be someone else. Now, with an infant son, it would be impossible to remain who you once were.

The home has easy access to all parts of the city. Head one direction and you hit the highway and all the sites beyond the city limits are accessible. Head the other way and you are just minutes from downtown and the financial district. So many choices, but you are far enough removed from all of them. Here, in your new home, you don’t have to choose, which makes it the perfect location.

The move has been tedious, but the house is slowly coming together. You are mostly working on the details now.

You place the heavy wooden knife block on the counter and load it from a box labeled SILVERWARE. When you take the chef’s knife out of the box, you hold it for a moment. It feels balanced and comfortable in your hand. Then you slide it home in the largest slot, where it belongs, with a sharp snap.

There is still more to do.

In the garage, you take a thin package out of a random box. It is wrapped in a six-month old, local newspaper. The newspaper’s headline asks, THE KILLINGS HAVE STOPPED, BUT WHAT HAPPENED TO THE KILLER? You crumple up the newspaper and toss it toward a trash barrel. The paper hits the edge, bounces away, and lands in the corner with a soft thump, where it slowly begins to unravel.

The newspaper had been protecting a framed crayon drawing of a picnicking stick-figure family. The picture is ice-cold and you shiver as you run your hand over it. You know exactly where to hang it.

You find a hammer and a nail and head to the basement. You pick out the perfect spot on the foundation wall, just beyond the furnace. A few taps with the hammer is all it takes to open up a small hole. You widen the hole with your finger, wincing at the reddened wound you create, until you are rewarded with a hot, humid burst of air.

You gently wedge the nail into the hole, doing your best not to irritate its inflamed surface. You hang the picture frame and admire how nice the drawing looks on the wall, how well it covers the hole. This might as well be a picture of your family—father, mother, and child. It belongs in this new house. And so do you and your fiancé and your son.

Life can be perfect now, you think. A fresh start, free of the mistakes of the past. You have won, and the thought makes you smile.

About the Author

Kevin McNeil is a physical therapist, sports fanatic, and volunteer coach for the Special Olympics. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and The Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s Intensive Novel Workshop, led by Kij Johnson. His fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and Every Day Fiction. His non-fiction can be found in Lightspeed Magazine and Nightmare Magazine. Kevin is a New Englander currently living in California. Find him on Twitter @kevinmcneil.