01 Feb Katherine
The first time I ever saw him, he was standing in the corner of the living room, more of a shape than a clear figure. I almost didn’t see him at all. Like a dim star in a dark sky, he was more visible in my periphery than when I looked at him dead on. But he was definitely there, still and shadowy, and I was so badly startled that I dropped the armload of books I had been carrying, the edge of one making painful contact with the top of my right foot.
I left the books where they fell and made a hasty retreat up the stairs to my bedroom, locking the door behind me. I slept so very little that night. One might think that the logical thing to do would be to call the police and let them know that a man had broken into my home. But I already knew it would do no good. That wasn’t a man I saw. At least, he wasn’t a man anymore.
* * *
The next morning I crept as quietly as I could back down the stairs and into the living room. There was nothing unusual about the room in the bright light of morning, and there was no shadowy figure looming in the corner. I almost dismissed the entire event as a figment of my imagination, an illusion brought on by a mind and body exhausted from days of unboxing and organizing my belongings into my new home.
The house was not new, but it was new to me as of only a week ago. I had hired a moving company to place all the furniture. All that was left to do was to unbox, decorate, and organize. I found myself perilously close to filling the house’s ample closets with boxes with little room to spare. I seriously needed to purge.
It was on this second day of dealing with boxes that I came across two in particular – one marked “Josiah,” another marked “James.” I would need to deal with their contents at some point, but not today, not on a day when I was finding homes for mundane items like guest towels. These two boxes deserved more thoughtful consideration.
I didn’t want to stash them in the attic, and I refused to go in the cellar. I remembered then the closet underneath the stairs, so far untouched by me. I opened the door and peered inside, pulling a string to turn on the lightbulb overhead. I was reminded of what I had seen during one of the two realtor walk-throughs weeks ago: the walls of this closet were an explosion of Crayola, the artwork of a previous owner’s child. Dogs, rainbows, trees, and a none-too-shabby recreation of the house itself. A child and his mother standing hand-in-hand; a dour-looking father some distance away.
I pushed the two boxes – “Josiah” and “James” into the closet and regarded them long enough for that familiar tug of loneliness to pull at my chest. I extinguished the light and shut the door.
That evening, just as the sun disappeared over the horizon and the house grew dim, the figure was there again, standing in the same corner. I spotted him as I passed through the living room on my way to the stairs, planning to retire early, my body once again exhausted from the chore of unpacking. I was startled, yes, but somehow not surprised to see him again.
I paused and looked at him directly. He was still and yet not still at the same time, his silhouette dark but translucent. Looking at him was like looking through a shadow. He was taller than me, but just barely, and thin. Based on the size of his frame, the rounded yet clearly defined jawline, and the narrowness of his neck and shoulders, he appeared to me like a teenage boy or a very young man.
Although his face had no features of any kind, I could tell that he was returning my gaze. And I couldn’t help but feel that, as mildly frightened as I was of him, he was also scared of me. It was as though he was holding back from me, shrinking away from me slightly, like an abused dog that is uncertain if a stranger will strike it.
We regarded each other this way for a few moments, him from his corner and me from my side of the room. Eventually I walked slowly by him and up the stairs. I paused partway and turned to look down at him. Hard as it was to tell from his featureless shape, I was certain he had turned his head and was watching me go. I continued up the stairs and into my room, shutting the door quietly behind me. I didn’t bother locking it.
* * *
On the third night, I waited in the living room, an unopened book in my lap, and waited for the sun to set. As the light through the windows died and the shadows in the room deepened, he was there again, looking at me.
“Can you hear me?” I asked him.
He neither spoke nor moved. At least, not exactly. There was a tiny shift, like a tremor or vibration. I could not be certain, but that nearly imperceptible motion felt like a response to my question.
“My name is Katherine,” I said. “What is your name? Can you speak?”
Again, a tiny tremor, accompanied this time by a slight darkening of his shape. I saw his outline more clearly than I had previously. I was confident that he was trying to communicate with me, but that doing so was taking a considerable effort on his part.
I sat forward in my chair. “Are you trying to communicate with me?”
The shape trembled, darkened, and seemed to rise ever so slightly off the floor. I could sense his excitement, the joy of someone desperate to communicate finally getting a message through. The same excitement welled in my own chest. I stood and took a slight step forward without even meaning to do so, and there was a small shift in him as well as he emerged ever so slightly from the shadows of the corner.
There we stood for a long moment, once again studying each other. My mind raced with questions. I chose the obvious one.
“Are you dead?” I whispered.
This time there was a small, barely visible tipping of the head. A nod.
“How did you die?” I asked.
He remained still. His silhouette vibrated slightly and darkened again. It looked like frustration.
“Can you speak?”
A slight turn of the head to the side and back again. No.
“Did you live in this house?”
A nod, stronger and more perceptible this time. Yes.
“Were you ill? Is that why you died?”
No. The silhouette grew darker, more opaque. He was easier to see.
“Did you die in an accident?”
No. The silhouette darkened further, trembling, and I sensed that he was growing frustrated with me. I was on the wrong track.
I considered for a moment before asking the question that I had been avoiding. “Were you murdered?” I asked hesitantly.
The shape dimmed and became still. Then he nodded, the movement clearer than ever before. Yes.
I took a step back and sat down hard in the chair behind me. The ghost likewise retreated, ever so slightly, back into the corner. I could sense his relief. I could also feel his exhaustion, as if the act of communicating with me had completely drained him. He began to fade until I could no longer distinguish him from the shadows of the room. He was gone.
* * *
The next day as I continued the seemingly never-ending task of finding homes for all of my things, my thoughts frequently drifted to my spectral visitor. I found myself anticipating with some excitement his return that evening. Every time I walked through the living room I glanced furtively into his empty corner, not expecting to see him there but wishing I would.
That evening I planted myself in the living room chair, a photo album on my lap, a glass of wine at my side. I looked at pictures to pass the time and waited for the sun to lower in the sky. James smiled at me, handsome as he ever was, in a picture taken at the Grand Canyon, the sky so blue behind him it shouldn’t have been real. I touched one finger to his cheek. He would have loved this house, I think.
When the sun disappeared, the corner of the room remained empty. After several impatient minutes, I walked across the room and hesitantly entered his space. But he was not there. Disappointment sank into my chest. I collected my album and my glass of wine and retreated to my room.
That night I was awakened from a deep sleep. There was no noise that disturbed my slumber, simply a strong sensation that something in the room had shifted. I sat up in bed, suddenly awake and yet not frightened. My eyes, already accustomed to the darkness, easily found him, standing in a corner near the door. The moonlight cascading through the window passed right through him.
“Hi,” I said weakly.
He didn’t stir.
“You’re getting stronger, aren’t you?” I asked him. The question was born of the fact that he was visiting me in a different room, and I surmised that he was gaining more control of his faculties.
“Do you want me to help you?” I asked him.
His nod was clear and obvious. Yes.
“Can you still not speak?”
“Do you know who killed you?”
The shape vibrated with excitement, and his shadow deepened. Yes, he nodded. I could tell that I was asking him the exact questions he wanted me to ask.
“Who?” I asked, and I bit my lip, frustrated by the limitations of our communication. The ghost remained still, awaiting my next question. “Was it someone in your family?” I asked.
The shape lurched suddenly forward, approaching the foot of the bed. The ghost was a blur of motion as it trembled with excitement. Its movement startled me and I shifted backward, frightened, pulling the covers of the bed up to my chin. A breeze of cold air touched my face in his wake.
The ghost stopped moving just as suddenly as it had started, and I could feel his remorse, his regret at having startled me. He almost seemed to shrink and back slightly away.
“It’s okay,” I said, lowering the covers from my face. “It’s okay. So the person who killed you was in your family?”
Yes, he nodded.
“Was it one of your parents? Your father?”
Another tremor, followed by another nod. Yes.
I swallowed hard. “Did he kill you in this house?”
My mind spun with questions, but most of them required more than a yes or no answer. I sorted through them as quickly as I could, searching for one that the ghost could actually answer. I could see him leaning in toward me, anticipating my next question with impatience.
“Okay,” I finally said. “My guess is that the reason you’re here is because something is unresolved.”
“Is your father in prison?”
“Did he get away with your murder?”
“And you want me to avenge you?”
No. He shook his head furiously.
“No? But you want him brought to justice?”
“And you need me to help you.” It was less a question than a statement.
“And if do… will you be free?”
With this answer, the ghost’s vibrations, which had been growing more intense with each answer, suddenly ceased. His countenance relaxed and I could see his shoulders fall.
“How can I help you?” I asked him. “Can you show me?”
He paused, almost as if he was catching his breath. For the first time, the ghost lifted his hands, palm-upward. He looked down at them, and I could tell that he was studying them, watching them as they faded. Soon his entire figure began to dissipate and I saw that once again he was about to leave me. He dropped his hands and looked back at me.
I knew he wanted to stay, but our exchange had depleted him, causing him to fade.
“I will help you,” I said, and he nodded slowly before disappearing completely.
* * *
The next night, I found him waiting for me at the door to the cellar. “You want me to go downstairs?” I asked him.
I hesitated for a moment. I had only been in the cellar one time, four weeks ago when I was given a full tour by my realtor. It was dark, damp, and claustrophobic, with not even the smallest of windows to let in enough light to scatter its shadows. As much as I loved the rest of the house, the cellar had given me such an uneasy feeling that it almost single-handedly made me change my mind about purchasing. I couldn’t wait to get back upstairs, and intimated as much to the realtor, who agreed, and I decided then and there to never use the space, not even for storage.
Yet there I was, my hand on the knob, contemplating going into that dead space again, only this time at night and at the beckoning of a ghost. It was all so ridiculous I almost laughed and backed away, but curiosity got the best of me. I turned the knob and opened the door. Before descending the steps, I looked back at my ghostly friend, but he was gone.
I used the flashlight on my cellphone to light my way. The steps were narrow and rickety, and the dank boards bowed ever so slightly under my weight. I felt my heart begin to race slightly. What am I doing? I thought.
I reached the concrete floor and stopped. “Now what?” I said out loud, and the sound of my voice bouncing off the brick walls around me gave me a start.
I shone the light around the cellar, wishing its beam was brighter, better able to penetrate the darkness. I stepped further into the room, continuing to pan the dim beam around me. The beam eventually settled on one of the far corners, and it took me a moment to realize that one of the shadows wasn’t broken by the beam. That shadow was the silhouette of a young man.
I screamed and dropped my phone. Immediately I bent over and picked it back up, shining its light once again in his direction. The ghost was still there, only now he was pointing at the wall beside him.
I approached slowly, hesitantly. His finger, dark and still, was indicating a single brick. Upon closer inspection I realized that this brick did not sit quite flush with the others, but instead protruded slightly, the mortar around it cracked and broken.
With some difficulty I gripped the edges of the brick and pulled. The rough material abraded my fingers, and for a moment nothing happened. Then suddenly the block gave way and was in my hand. I set it on the floor.
Mild trepidation in my heart, I reached into the cavity before me and felt around. There was something flat, smooth, and cold inside. I pulled it out, knowing what it was before I shone a light on it: a cellphone.
* * *
The phone, of course, was completely dead. I plugged it into a receptacle in the kitchen, and within a few moments a charging symbol lit the screen. I left it on the counter, filled up a glass with water from the tap, and sank into a chair at the kitchen table. I tipped my head back in order to drain the glass of every drop, and when I lowered it back down again, I realized that I was not alone.
“It will take a few minutes before it’ll have enough juice to turn on,” I said. “I’m guessing there’s something on it you want me to see?”
I nodded back, thinking. I returned my gaze to the phone on the counter. “I wish I knew your name,” I said. “I guess I might in a few minutes.”
The ghost remained still.
“You were young, weren’t you?” I asked. “Let me guess, like, sixteen, seventeen?”
“Hmm,” I said, sitting back in my chair. “My little boy would be sixteen now, if he were still alive.”
The ghost shifted ever so slightly.
“He was eight when he died,” I said. “Such a simple thing too, the accident. He fell from monkey bars during recess. Probably not even a four foot drop. But he fell just the right way.” I chuckled morosely. “No, just the wrong way.
“I was at home when I got the call. It was from the school superintendent. He told me there had been an accident and Josiah – that was my son’s name – was on his way to the hospital. Said I should get there as soon as possible. He wouldn’t give me any more details than that.
“My husband’s name was James. I called his cellphone on the way out the door. I didn’t get an answer. So I called his office. His secretary told me he’d gotten a call from the school and was on the way to the hospital as well.
“I got there first,” I sighed. “It took an eternity before anyone would tell me what was going on. Josiah’s skull was fractured and his brain was swollen. The doctors were still working on him. I wasn’t allowed to see him. They let me sit in a chair in the hallway outside his door. That was as close as they would let me get.
“I was an absolute mess, of course. I kept looking down the hallway, waiting for James to run in. I needed him so desperately. I’d never felt so alone and scared and desperate in all my life. It was probably only a few minutes, but it felt like forever.
“Eventually, the door opened and a doctor came out. His eyes told me everything there was to know. I stood up. I couldn’t even feel my feet as I took a step toward him. I think they were numb. Or maybe there was nothing to feel because the entire earth had just dropped out from under me.
“But we never reached each other. At that moment a whole team of EMTs came down the hallway, surrounding a gurney. I could barely see the man as they passed by me. It was all a blur of bodies and shouting and blood and…”
My breath caught in my throat and twin tears rolled down both of my cheeks simultaneously in a warm race toward my jaw. “He was terribly mangled, but I saw enough to recognize him. When you know somebody well enough, when you’ve studied the features you love with all of your heart for that many years, all you have to catch is a sliver, the tiniest glimpse of a feature, to know that it’s them.
“Who knows how fast James had been driving, but I know he had been just as desperate as I was to get to the hospital, to see his son. He had flown through a red light and a tractor trailer hit him on the driver’s side. It split the car completely in half.
“They put him in the next room, right next door to Josiah. Father and son in neighboring rooms, without even intending it. Time of death was declared within minutes of each other.”
I tipped the water glass to my mouth before remembering it was empty. I gave a tired glance at my spectral guest and set the glass back down. “That was eight years ago. Eight very sad, very lonely years ago. So yeah, Josiah would be about your age now. Hard to believe.”
The ghost tipped its head slightly to one side in a motion that I ascertained as one of sympathy, his shoulders slouching as if under the weight of sadness.
I stood up and pushed my chair away with the backs of my knees. Slowly I approached him. He shifted backwards slightly as if surprised that I might come closer, but then he was still again.
We stood a few inches apart. This close, I could feel the cold air that surrounded him. I could see the rest of the kitchen behind him, bathed in darkness as if I was looking through sunglasses. The edges of him vibrated in anticipation. I lifted one hand and placed it on his cheek.
My fingers felt suddenly cold and damp, like I had just passed my hand through a thick mist. The dark shadow of his countenance shifted, and I caught little sparks of color dancing through his shadow – little glints of blue, yellow, and green. They swirled and glowed and dimmed. It was beautiful.
When I pulled my hand away, for the briefest of moments his face flickered, and I caught a sudden glimpse of his visage. It was young and fair a free of blemish, blonde locks falling down across his forehead, his eyes blue and full of a deep sadness that I easily recognized. I had seen it every day in the mirror for the past eight years, ever since my smile had stopped reaching my eyes.
“It’s nice to have someone to talk to again,” I said.
* * *
I held the phone in my hands at the kitchen table. The home screen prompted me for a pin. “Obstacle one,” I said, looking up at him.
He nodded twice in succession. I momentarily thought he was simply agreeing with me, but then I realized he was telling me something.
“Two?” I asked, and he nodded once in response. In short order he had given me his entire pin number.
“Open sesame,” I said as the phone unlocked its contents to me. I tapped on various apps until one of them – Facebook – revealed his name to me.
“Your name is Abel,” I said, smiling up at him, and he practically shimmered in response. I scrolled through his pictures. He had been a beautiful boy, ready with a smile, even if there was a pervasive sadness behind his eyes in every shot.
In some images he was wearing a football uniform, which surprised me given his slender frame, but suddenly I could picture him being quite fast on the field, weaving his way through the offense. It doesn’t matter how slight you are if they can’t catch you.
In other pictures he was surrounded by friends, teenagers with friendly faces, all of them smiling and vibrant with life. Party pictures, school field trips, the beach.
Scrolling back through his online history, I was able to put the pieces together in reverse. A large man was in a scattered few pictures, his eyes the same vibrant blue as Abel’s, but his physical presence was much larger and more intimidating, his face not welcoming but harsh, his brow perpetually furrowed. This would be his father. One shot of the two of them by the side of a football field, post-game, was noteworthy in the obvious distance between the two of them even as they stood side by side, arms around each other.
A woman, blonde and pretty, appeared only in older pictures when Abel was younger and shorter. Abel had her face, minus her eyes, which were a rich brown.
“Your mother?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, but I have to ask. Did your father kill her too?”
“Okay,” I said with some relief.
I scrolled for awhile longer until my curiosity was mostly satisfied. I had a pretty good idea of the kid Abel had been, or at least the kid he presented himself as on-line. I set the phone down on the table and looked up at him. “What am I looking for?” I asked him. “E-mails? Other pictures? Videos?”
At this final guess he nodded quickly, enthusiastically. I picked up the phone again and scrolled until I found the video app. There were dozens of video clips. “This could take awhile,” I said.
And it did. Hours later I was still at the table. Most of the videos were innocuous and innocent, and many of them didn’t feature Abel at all. This was, of course, to be expected. This was his phone, and he was therefore the cameraman, heard but not seen.
I had begun to nod off a bit when Abel’s face suddenly filled the screen. He looked tired and sad, his eyes puffy as if he had been crying.
“I don’t even really know where to start,” he said, and the image trembled a bit. His voice was deep but young. “I feel stupid even recording this. But I think I should. Just in case.
“I love my dad. Really I do. It’s just… he’s not a happy man. He never has been. I was absolutely terrified of him as a kid. I loved him, but I was scared of him. On the worst nights, I would hide in the closet under the stairs and just hope that he would leave me alone in there. He usually did. I would stay in there until he and mom stopped shouting, and then I’d sneak up the stairs to bed. That closet was like my sanctuary for many years. Mom let me draw on the walls to pass the time. I felt safe in there.
“Dad really hasn’t been since mom died. I get it. She helped to balance him. He hasn’t been the same since she’s been gone.
“He gets drunk a lot. Like, more even than he used to. Most of the time he just passes out at night. But sometimes he gets really mad about stuff. Anything can set him off. And sometimes he hits me.”
Abel sniffed and looked away from the camera for a moment. “I’ve never told anyone. Sometimes there are bruises but I blame those on football. I don’t want to get him in trouble. He’s all I’ve got.”
A tear fell from Abel’s eye and Katherine felt her heart clench. The poor kid, she thought.
“It’s just… lately it’s gotten a lot worse. He’s drunk almost every day, and he hits me almost every day. He can be fall down drunk and yet… he knows well enough to put the bruises where they can be mostly hidden. My arms, my back, my chest. Never my face. He knows what he’s doing.” He said this last statement with more than a hint of sourness.
“Last night, he forced me into the cellar,” Abel said, and fresh tears began to fall. “He left me down there overnight. I was so scared. This morning he was all apologetic and he kept hugging me and stuff. But I just… I don’t know. It’s getting so much worse that sometimes I wonder if he’ll go too far.
“I should probably tell someone,” he continued, nodding. “I really should. But… he’s all I’ve got. And I do love him. I don’t know.” Abel wiped his nose and sniffed simultaneously.
“After school today, he gave me a new phone. ‘Just like you’ve been asking for,’ he said, and when he smiles at me like that, you know, it makes me hope for the best, like maybe today is a turning point for the better.
“It’s probably stupid, but I thought, you know what, why not? I’d use my old phone to record this video. It feels better just to know I’ve said it. And if the day comes that he does go too far, maybe someone will find this video and will know what happened. So this is how it is.”
At this point Abel took a deep breath and looked deep into the camera. “If you’re watching this and I’m dead, and if there’s any question about how I died, know this: my father killed me.”
The video ended and Kathryn sat back in the kitchen chair. “Oh Abel,” she said, looking up. But he was gone. It was 3:20 in the morning.
* * *
I went to the library the next day. It was my first time visiting the local library since moving into the new house, so I was unfamiliar with it. It was large and impressive. I was scanning the area around me when a short, squat librarian with a large, welcoming smile and a nametag that said “Beth” approached me.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I need to get on the internet,” I said, “And maybe look at some old newspapers.”
“Follow me,” she said, and with a little bounce she led me deeper into the library.
It didn’t take me long to find Abel’s obituary. He had died only 10 weeks ago. He was preceded in death by his mother and survived by only his father. No siblings and no surviving grandparents. All other family was not local. He had been sixteen years old. The obit mentioned his love of football, friends, and writing. It did not give the cause of death.
Within an hour I’d found what I needed. The story was titled “Teen Dies in Home Accident.” Abel had died from injuries sustained in a fall down the cellar steps of his home (my home). He had been found by his father, whose name was Henry. The article was accompanied by a high school photo of Abel, looking handsome and smiling, but sad.
“Found by his father,” I whispered out loud, shaking my head.
I made a copies of the article and the obituary, folded both, and put them in my purse.
* * *
“I went to the library today,” I said to Abel. “I looked up your obituary and the article about your… accident.”
We were back in the living room. I was seated in the same chair where I had sat before, across the room from Abel’s corner, but this time he stood directly in front of me, over me, looking down on me. He radiated anticipation.
I had my copies of his obituary and the article in my lap. I smoothed out the folds. “It just occurred to me that you don’t know what they say,” I said with a sullen chuckle. So I read them to him.
When I was done, I looked up at him. “So your father told everyone it was an accident.” This wasn’t a question, nor was it something Abel had been alive to witness, but I knew both of us had drawn the same, obvious conclusion.
“But he pushed you.”
I shook my head, biting the right side of my lip. I looked up at him. He was still standing over me.
“Can you sit?” I asked.
“Okay,” I responded. “Abel, how did your mom die?”
Abel stood still.
“Right,” I said. “Was she ill?”
A few moments passed. Abel continued to loom over me.
“Abel,” I said. “How do you know? I mean, if I take that video to the police, and they arrest your dad, how do you know that will set you free?”
I knew Abel couldn’t answer me, but I saw him tremble, a slight vibration that looked, best I could tell, like irritation.
But there was a stirring in my heart, a deepening sadness that was bringing me nearly to tears. “I was just thinking, you know, what if it doesn’t work?” I asked him. “I mean, I know about that whole unfinished business thing with ghosts, but that comes from stories, right? Fiction. How can we really know? Maybe you’re meant to stay here for some other reason.”
Abel’s silhouette continued to hum with movement as he stood over me. The blackness of his shadow deepened.
I started to cry. “I have been so lonely, Abel,” I said. “You have no idea how lonely. And then you came into my life in this most unusual way. And I’ve been thinking, maybe you’re here because we were meant to be together. Like, maybe you’re the son I lost, and maybe I’m the mom you lost, and maybe we’re just supposed to be here for each other.”
I dropped my head and wept, clutching the papers in my hands, a few drops of saltwater hitting the pages. I didn’t want to look up at him.
“I just,” I sobbed. “I can’t do it, Abel. When I left the library today, I went to the police station. I just sat in my car. I had your phone with me and everything, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go in. I don’t want to let you go.”
I looked up at him through tears. He stood large over me, black as night, blocking the entire room behind him. I sat back slightly in my chair, recoiling from him. “Abel, please,” I whispered. “Don’t make me do it. We can be together.”
He reached out suddenly, swiftly, and struck the pages in my hand, sending them flying off into the air before they floated slowly to the floor. I gasped and pulled up my knees, my hand stinging and cold where he had grazed me, my eyes wide with fear.
Abel retreated quickly, across the room and into the shadows of the corner. His head hung low, and I could see remorse in his countenance. He raised his head briefly, looking at me, and then he faded away.
* * *
The next evening, after the sun went down, Abel did not return. I looked all around the house for him. It felt distinctly like he was hiding from me. I contented myself by sitting at the kitchen table with his cell phone, looking at his pictures and watching some of his videos. I marveled at the fact that he had managed to touch me, and I imagined that my hand still tingled from the contact. I wondered if perhaps his anger had been the key to allowing him some interaction with the physical world.
I was startled by a knock at the front door. I stood, putting the phone in my pocket and answered the door, foolishly, without first asking who it was.
I was greeted by bright, penetrating blue eyes – Abel’s eyes – set in the middle of a stern, frowning face. Henry. I had only opened the door slightly, but the man outside reached in and opened it further, wide enough to step inside. “Mind if I come in?” he asked.
I backed away from him and said nothing. He was huge, his height and girth swallowing the room as he stepped in.
“I used to live here,” he said, glancing around the room and smiling slightly. “And I think you might have something that belongs to me.”
“What?” was the only word I could muster. I took another step back.
“A cell phone,” he said, turning to shut the door behind him.
How could he possibly know? But I didn’t respond.
“See, my son – my deceased son — and I both had a GPS app on our phones,” he continued. “Family Tracker. It let me know where he was all the time. And vice versa. Imagine my surprise when I got a notification that his old cell phone was back on-line and fully charged. It even took a trip to the library yesterday, it seems. And to the police station.”
I stood there, staring at him, mouth open. I felt something cold beside me and glanced over. Abel was there, next to me, shaking like a leaf. He wasn’t looking at me but at his father. And he was angry. I looked from Abel to Henry and back again. But the man never looked away from me. He could not see Abel.
Henry gave me a curious look and stepped forward. “I don’t know what you found on that phone, or what you think you know,” he said as he approached.
I continued to retreat until my back was against the cellar door. I was steps away from the kitchen and took a mental inventory. Knives. My own cell phone. All nearby yet frustratingly out of reach. Henry was huge and I knew I would never get away if he managed to catch me. He was so far into the room now that was standing next to Abel, who hadn’t moved.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said. “I don’t know anything.”
Henry took another step toward me, his right shoulder and arm passing through Abel, and I saw him shiver. Soon he was standing over me.
“Where is it?” he asked, and I could smell his breath, bitter and foul with alcohol.
“Down there,” I said, and I tilted my head backwards against the cellar door.
Henry looked incredulous. “In the cellar?” he asked.
I slinked out of the way and turned the knob, opening the door in front of him. He looked down into the darkness. I reached around and flipped on the light, illuminating the steps.
“Yes,” I said. “I didn’t have the pin to unlock it, but I could still make the flashlight work. So I was using it as a flashlight and I accidentally left it down there.” My words came quickly and nervously and sounded perilously like a lie.
I looked beyond Henry into the living room. Abel was still there, waiting, watching.
Henry looked away from me and into the cellar. I peeled myself away from the door frame and stepped behind him, Abel behind me. I could feel the damp coldness of the ghost behind me and the chill wafting up the cellar stairs and shivered.
Slowly, incredibly, Henry took a step forward, through the door, one foot on the top step leading down to the cellar. There he hesitated, turning his head slightly toward me. “Where did you –” he said.
In an instant I stepped forward, one hand on either side of the door frame, bracing myself, and with my right foot I kicked out, forward, my shoe making contact with Henry’s lower back, shoving as hard as I could. My ears were suddenly filled with an incredible, terrible sound, and I realized I was screaming.
Henry lurched forward, spinning, one hand grasping for the railing and missing, the other hand reaching out for my foot, grazing my pant leg, fingers making momentary contact with my shoe. I retracted my foot (it doesn’t matter how slight you are if they can’t catch you) and saw Henry’s eyes, huge and blue and full of both anger and fear, as he fell backwards and down the stairs. A loud, cracking sound echoed from below as he made his first contact with the steps, and the din continued as he finished his decent to the cellar floor.
I raced forward, ready to lock the door behind him, but one glance down and I knew: there at the bottom of the steps was Henry, limbs painfully askew, a pool of blood forming under his head on the concrete floor, blue eyes staring up at me but seeing nothing. I gasped.
I turned around and looked at Abel. I was out of breath but I found myself slowly smiling, awash with relief. “Abel,” I said, stepping toward him.
He backed away from me suddenly, and seemed to shrink. He returned my gaze, shaking his head slowly. I thought at first that he was retreating to his corner of the living room, but no, in fact, he was moving toward the stairs – more specifically, the door to the closet under the stairs. He turned and disappeared inside.
“Abel?” I said. “I did it, Abel. He’s gone.” I walked to the closet door and felt the cold remains of his presence. I touched the knob and found the door locked. “Abel?”
I dropped my hand and sighed, puzzled.
I was startled by the sound of a door slamming. When I turned I saw, standing in the room just inside the cellar door, a shape. I blinked away tears in an effort to clear my vision. I thought at first that it was Henry, but no, that was not correct. Not anymore. It was a ghost — the tall, dark silhouette of a man. I gasped and backed away as it slowly approached me. Coldness washed over my body and terror filled my chest as it loomed over me, black as night and vibrating with rage.