Marty saw his first ghost when he was seven years old. He was sitting at his grandmother’s kitchen table after Pop’s funeral when Pop glided into the room and sat down in the chair across from him. He wasn’t wearing the dark blue suit he had worn in his coffin, nor the blue-checked hospital gown he had been wearing in the back bedroom where he died, but instead had on baggy jean shorts, a Tarheels tee shirt, and white socks and sneakers, his usual summer attire, though he died in January. Marty could see through him to the yellow vinyl upholstery behind his back. Pop wasn’t all there, but he was there, and he was looking at the basket of crescent rolls in the center of the table as though he might be hungry.
When Aunt Juanita turned from the kitchen sink where she had been washing dishes, she didn’t scream and run out of the room, as Marty would have done if he had any control over his paralyzed limbs and vocal cords. For Aunt Juanita, Pop wasn’t there at all, and Marty realized two things at once: No one else saw what he saw, and if he told them what he saw, they would all think he was crazy, especially his cousin Bruce, who walked in, sat down in Pop’s lap, and grabbed a roll from the basket.
“What are you staring at, weirdo?” Bruce asked. Pop got up and glided back out of the room, apparently unwilling to share a seat with his oldest grandson.
Marty became accustomed to seeing Pop’s ghost after a while, usually sitting in that same chair at the kitchen table, looking bored, with his hands folded in front of him and his eyes cast down. He never spoke, never smiled, never looked at Marty, which wasn’t that different from the way Pop had acted when he was alive. His grandmother was the kind one, the one still buying him stuffed animals when he was thirteen. All Pop had ever done was to hand him a dollar bill occasionally and tell him not to spend it all in one place.
Marty saw his second ghost in a hotel lobby in Savannah, his third on a school trip to Biltmore House. Like Pop, they were see-through yet visible, but only to him. When he was sixteen, he talked himself into believing that Pop and the others were illusions caused by chemical imbalances in his brain. He was just a little out of whack, a tad schizophrenic, he told himself. Being haunted was the price he must pay for his creative gift. He was going to be a writer––a great one––not just some mediocrity who could only see what everyone else saw. Maybe if he confronted these manifestations of his own genius, they would disappear.
And so, when he was visiting his grandmother, and she called him into the kitchen to fetch her cake plate from the cabinet above the refrigerator, he reached up, feeling tall and manly, handed it to her, then did something he had not dared to do in almost a decade. He sat down in the chair across from Pop. Marty took a short, sharp breath to brace himself, then looked up. Pop was looking straight at him, and not in a friendly way. Marty felt a pressure building in his head, as though his eyeballs were being pushed back into his brain, and he felt paralyzed, just like the first time he saw what no one else could see. It was as if Pop’s ghost were trying to crawl into his head through his eye sockets, and he couldn’t stop it. His grandmother’s hand appeared in front of his face, snapping its fingers, and thwarted the hijacking of his body. “Goodness, honey! What’s the matter with you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
After that, Marty avoided Pop and all the other ghosts he saw. He would look down at the floor while passing by the ones in the nursing room corridors when he visited his grandmother in later years. She was gone now, truly gone, he believed. He couldn’t bear the thought of her spending eternity, or whatever the sentence might be, trapped in the place where she had died, with its cinder block walls and linoleum floors, such hard, sterile surfaces for a soft, sweet woman. Pop might be content to drift around the dumpy little ranch house where he had lived for forty years and died choking on his own phlegm, but Grandma, who had loved her vacations, would surely seek out heaven.
Marty turned out to be a writer, after all, though not a great one as he had hoped. His first fantasy series sold well enough to keep him from having to teach, which he would have hated, and he was working on the first book of a new series. He wrote about aliens, beasts, monsters, but never about ghosts.
When he and his wife, Sarah, decided to buy a new house––their son, Trevor, would be starting middle school in the fall, so it was a good time to switch school districts––he made only two requests. The first was that his new office have plenty of natural light. The second was that the house be new. He didn’t tell Sarah it was because he wanted to make sure no one had died there, but he knew she knew.
When they were dating, he had confessed his peculiarity and had even tried to prove it a few times over the years, identifying the ghosts he had seen and showing her the obituaries to back up his claims. Each time he tried this, she had given him that look of affectionate pity and restrained amusement that said I love you even more because you’re a nutcase. His quirks–– the claustrophobia he’d had since his cousin Bruce barricaded him in his grandmother’s closet with a Carolina Wolf Spider bigger than his hand, his fear of spiders, also traced to that day, and his ability to see dead people, which had turned the movie The Sixth Sense into a comedy for her––brought out the protective streak that he admired when directed at their son, but that chafed him as a man.
Their realtor, Melissa, wore blue-colored contacts that made her eyes look unreal, and she used so much perfume that Marty had to breathe through his mouth to keep from choking when they rode in the car with her. After showing them homes in several neighborhoods without enough trees to suit Sarah, Melissa took them to a Craftsman-style four bedroom in a neighborhood with large lots, rising property values, and excellent schools. “The family had this place built to spec, then had to move because of a job change,” she said, pulling into the driveway.
“I wanted new construction.” Marty said flatly. “That was, like, at the top of my list.”
“I know, I know, but they only lived here for five months! It has everything else on your list, and the sellers are super motivated. You can get this place for a steal.”
“So, this family,” Marty started and heard Sarah’s slight snort in the back seat. He knew what she was thinking: My husband––he sees dead people. “Where are they now?” he finished.
“Detroit. The husband was working remotely for GM but got a promotion and had to go back to headquarters. They have twin daughters about Trevor’s age. Beautiful girls.” Sarah and Trevor were already out of the car, heading for the front door.
The house still smelled new, like wood and paint. It had the office Marty wanted and the kitchen Sarah wanted, but it was the wine cellar that made Trevor fall in love with the place. When Melissa opened the door to it, the boy rushed past her, slapping down the narrow stairs in his flip-flops, the closest thing to a shoe he was willing to wear outside of school. Trevor hadn’t inherited his dad’s fear of dark, enclosed spaces, or of having his toes stepped on, or of anything, really, which was a source of pride and worry for Marty. Melissa flicked on the light but stayed with Marty while Sarah followed Trevor down the stairs. The realtor was grinning at him in such a strange, tight way that he wondered if she had recently had Botox injections. “Don’t you want to check it out?” she asked, gesturing to the stairs.
“I’m not much of a wine guy,” he answered.
He heard Trevor call out “Dibs!” before he came flip-flopping back up the stairs. “Can we put my Xbox down there?”
“It’s too dark for a playroom, Sweetie,” Sarah said from behind him. “And we aren’t wine collectors, so the room would have to be repurposed. We could use it for storage, maybe.” Marty could tell by her voice that she was sold on the house but trying not to sound too enthusiastic.
And so, the deal was done. One Friday morning, a week and a half after their move, Marty was sitting on a stool at the kitchen island watching the birds compete for perching space at the feeder he had set up in the backyard when he felt a chill and turned to see a boy pass through the mahogany door to cellar. The boy looked to be about sixteen and was wearing black jeans, black Chuck Taylors, a black belt with spiky silver studs, and a red My Chemical Romance tee shirt. His hair was neon green and stuck out in all directions. He was pale, even for a ghost.
“Who are you?” Marty shouted. “What do you want?” The boy looked straight at him for a second with eyes so dark they looked black, then rolled them back into his head and lifted his upper lip into a sneer before turning and disappearing through the door.
Marty grabbed his cellphone off the counter and ran out onto the back patio. Melissa answered on the fourth ring.
“I’m in the car, Marty. Can I call you back later?”
“No! I need to talk to you right now. You said the Jamissons moved back to Detroit with their two kids, right? Nobody else lived here? Ever?”
“No other family, no.”
“They had another kid, didn’t they? A son?”
She paused for a moment. “Yes.”
“Let me guess. Teenager. Green hair. Surly.”
“Well, I don’t know about all that, Marty. I never met Tommy. He was a teenager, yes.”
“And? What happened to him?”
She sighed. “He died.”
“Let me guess again. Suicide.”
“No, it was an accident. That thing that actor died doing—what’s his name? David Somebody? You know,” she said, sounding embarrassed.
“You mean to tell me some kid died of autoerotic asphyxiation in this house, and you didn’t see fit to let me know about it?”
“Now, Marty, calm down. Is Sarah there? Can I speak to her?”
“Tell me this. Where did he do it? No, no, let me guess again. The cellar, right? Am I right?”
She didn’t answer.
“Well, Melissa, because of you I now find myself sharing my new home with a ghost, and not just any ghost! A fucking TEENAGE GHOST!”
“Marty, watch your language, please! I’m not sure how you found out about Tommy, but I assure you it wasn’t my intention to hide anything from you. It was just an unpleasant fact about the house I thought you’d be happier not knowing.”
“Isn’t there some law against what you did?”
“No, sir,” she said. “Not in North Carolina, there isn’t.”
Marty stabbed at the screen with his finger to end the call and had to stop himself from flinging the phone across the yard. He opened the patio door, peered around, then hustled through the kitchen and down the hall to his office. He closed the French doors behind him, sat down at his desk, opened his MacBook, and started researching real estate law. Melissa was right. He couldn’t sue her, couldn’t get out of the contract. They could put the house up for sale, but even if he talked Sarah into doing that, how long would it take to sell? And Trevor loved the place, had already started riding his bike around after school with a couple of kids from the neighborhood.
Marty paced the floor the way he did when trying to puzzle through a problem with a plot. He sat back down at his desk, typed “how to get rid of a ghost,” and pressed Enter. There, at the top of the search list, was a Wikihow entry: How to Get Rid of a Ghost in Five Steps with Pictures. Step One was to rule out non-paranormal causes for a bogus haunting, such as infrasound. The picture showed a woman in a pink shirt, with her enormous mouth gaping open and purple lightning bolts surrounding her head intended to illustrate someone tormented by infrasound, though it looked she could also be in need of Step Two: Seek a psychiatric evaluation. The picture showed two men, one of them with such huge, sympathetic eyes that he looked like a character from the anime cartoons Trevor watched. Marty growled through clenched teeth and read on. Beneath a picture of a woman who looked like she was carrying on an animated conversation with a cartoon ghost—the cute, white-sheet variety with big, empty eyes and no feet—was Step Three: Politely ask the ghost to leave. Some ghosts are such dumbasses, the author suggested, that they don’t know they’re dead and need to be informed before they can move on and find the light.
Marty ran to the cellar door, opened it, and shouted “Hey, pal! Uh, Tommy! Time for you to go, buddy. You’re dead, do hear me? You didn’t survive that whacking off thing you tried. You’re totally dead, so move on! Find the fucking light!” Remembering that he was supposed to be polite, he added, “Please!,” then slammed the door and ran back to his laptop.
Step Four: Seek a priest, rabbi, or pujari to perform an exorcism. In this picture, the psychiatrist with the anime eyes wore a hassock and held out a crucifix. Marty looked up the number for Holy Spirit Church and dialed it but hung up on the answering machine. No priest would believe him. Sarah was Catholic, and she didn’t believe him.
Step Five, cleanse the house, showed a woman looking contemplative while mopping a floor. Their house was already clean, though cluttered with unpacked boxes, but the article advised another method of cleansing, smudging, which entailed burning sage in every room, preferably while ringing a bell.
Marty had forgotten that Sarah was taking a half day that Friday to finish emptying boxes and get the house in order until she walked in from the door to the garage, sniffing. The house smelled like a mixture of sage and Sulphur from all the matches he had burned to relight the smudge sticks. He had pulled the plant out by its roots from Sarah’s herb pot, broken it into three sections, and wrapped them into bundles using kitchen twine. He was supposed to let the leaves dry for a week, but who had time for that?
He had found the bell from Trevor’s old schoolhouse playset in a box in the attic, and with the bell in one hand and the smoking stick in the other, he had smudged every room in the house three times, leaving a trail of ashes behind him, but had not gone down to the one place he knew needed smudging the most—the cellar. He couldn’t force himself to do it, had stood on the top step, wafting the smoke down the stairs and ringing the little bell like mad while yelling “You’re dead, so kindly get the hell out of my house!”
The last blackened sage stick was still smoking in his hand, and Sarah looked at it, then at him. “Marty, what on earth?”
He told her his story on the back patio. “You don’t believe me.”
“Well. What do you want me to say, hon?”
“But Melissa admitted it. They had a son. His name was Tommy.”
“Marty, it’s time for you to face this thing you have. It’s becoming a problem. You’ve got to see somebody.”
“Listen, will you just do me one favor? Will you go down there with this?” He thrust the sage stick towards her. “And this?” He held out Trevor’s little gold bell.
“Fine. If it’ll make you feel better. Fine.”
“If you see him, don’t look into his eyes, whatever you do.”
“Oh my God, Marty,” she said, but she held the smudge stick still while he lit it and gently blew on it. He thought he could hear her laughing over the ringing of the bell while she was down there, but when she came back up the stairs, her face looked grim.
“Did you see anything?”
“No. You know, hon, maybe he took off when he realized he wasn’t welcome. Maybe he went through the tunnel of light or what have you.” That look he hated.
But maybe she was right. Maybe Tommy was gone, smudged away to heaven or, more likely, by the looks of him, to hell.
A week passed, and Marty started to believe that his ad hoc exorcism had done the trick. Then one day, Trevor came home from school, immediately changed into his flip-flops, and asked for a snack––his usual weekday routine. Marty went into the pantry for a protein bar, heard Trevor say something about a glow-in-the-dark yo-yo he had gotten as a prize at school, and heard the words “just test it out in the dark.” When he came out of the pantry, his son was gone and the door to the cellar was open.
He flicked on the light switch and yelled down “Trevor!” No answer. “I told you to stay out of there. Now get up here this instant! Trevor! Answer me!” With all his mental might, Marty forced himself down each narrow step. Halfway down, he squatted and could see Trevor standing in the center of the room, winding up the string on a yo-yo.
“Why didn’t you answer me?”
“Hm? Oh.” The boy’s voice sounded quiet and monotone. “I was just testing out this yo-yo. It sucks, actually.”
“You’re not to use that word. You know that.”
“What, ‘sucks’? Give me a break.” Trevor’s blue eyes looked black, as though the pupils were fully dilated, maybe, Marty hoped, because of his time in the dark. He backed up the stairs as the boy slowly advanced towards him, brushing past him at the top, kicking off the flip flops, and leaving them in the middle of the floor, another thing he knew better than to do. Marty watched him stride into the pantry and could see a tinge of green surrounding his son’s blond hair like an aura. He came out with a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, popped it open, and stuffed several of the triangular chips into his mouth.
“You’re not allowed to help yourself to whatever you want from the pantry. You know that.”
“Oh,” the flat voice drawled. “Right.” He rolled his still mostly black eyes, and the left corner of his mouth twitched up in a sneer. When Sarah came home that evening, Marty was waiting for her by the front door.
“Okay, so now you’re certifiable,” she said. “I can’t leave you alone with our son. It has come to this.”
“No, Sarah, you’ve got to listen to me. He’s different. Completely. He’s sneering and rolling his eyes at me like I’m a fool. He’s never done that before.”
“He’s eleven! He’s going to start changing, getting moody. It’s all there in the book about boys’ bodies I got for him. Maybe you should read it.”
“Jesus, Sarah, I know all about boys’ bodies, okay? I had one. That’s not what this is.” I know him better than you do. These words appeared in his head, but he knew better than to let them out of his mouth. It was true, though. He was always home, taking Trevor to baseball and swim practices, making him breakfast, packing his lunch, shooting baskets or throwing a football with him, while she worked long hours and played golf with her friends on the weekend. Sarah was looking at Marty as though he were a deranged and dangerous father, but he was the one Trevor always wanted when he was sick.
She snorted. “Our son is possessed by a ghost. Caspar the teenage ghost.”
“Just talk to him. You’ll see what I mean.”
She came out of Trevor’s room ten minutes later. “Yes, he’s being a little weird, but it has nothing to do with a ghost, Marty. He’s starting to get erections and emissions and so forth, and he’s worried about it. I reminded him about the book, and he promised he would read it. I really think that’s what this is all about.”
“He talked to you about that? Trevor would never do that!”
“Well, he did. Maybe you should talk to him. No, on second thought, don’t. Not in the state you’re in.”
Reading his wife’s mind was easy. Changing it was impossible. If he persisted in trying to persuade Sarah, she would kick him out of the house, maybe even call her brother over to help have him committed. It was as if Trevor had been kidnapped and was bound and gagged inside his own body, and there was only one way to free him. Marty was tormented by the thought that if he just hadn’t turned on the light in the cellar, it might not have happened. The boy would have groped his way up the stairs with his glowing yo-yo, never locking eyes with the invader.
Marty promised to call his doctor and get a referral for a psychologist first thing Monday morning. He took the Xanax Sarah offered him, because he wouldn’t be able to sleep otherwise, and he would need his strength in the morning to drag that demon out of his son’s body and into his own. He didn’t need Wikihow to show him what to do. He was born for this. He’d get it out, wrestle it down, get it over to Holy Spirit, and demand an exorcism.
He woke up feeling groggy from the Xanax and saw Sarah wiggling into a golf skirt. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Much better,” he lied. “Just need coffee.”
“You do remember that I have that charity golf tournament today, right? It’s at Quail Hollow, and I have to be there by 9:30. Are you”—she walked over to the side of the bed to look down into his eyes—“going to be okay? With Trevor? You scared the crap out of me last night.”
“God, honey, I don’t know what was wrong with me, but I’m fine now. It was like a panic attack or something. I’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.”
“Well, text me if you start to feel panicky again, okay? I mean it, Sweetie. I know you have that—that—problem, but when it starts to involve Trevor…”
“I know, I know. You don’t have to say it.”
The boy was still up in his room when Marty finished his second cup of coffee. The thought of that vile being lounging on his son’s Star Wars bedding, surrounded by stuffed Darth Vaders and sharks, made him grind his teeth, but he was glad he was sleeping in. He needed time to practice. His instincts told him that he had to get Tommy down to the cellar, to the scene of his demise. That meant he would have to go down there himself.
For a short time in college, Marty had seen a psychologist who introduced him to immersion therapy to help with his claustrophobia. He had gone to the mall and practiced riding the elevator, over and over, until he could do it without feeling like his heart was a bird beating its wings inside his chest, desperate to get out. But then he got overconfident and made the mistake of stepping onto a crowded elevator at a hotel. It got stuck between floors for fifteen minutes, which might as well have been an eternity, and all the work was undone.
Marty flicked on the cellar light, took a deep breath, and started down the stairs, reaching the next-to-last step before sprinting back up. On the third try, he made it to the bottom and took one step into the room. On the seventh, he stood his ground in the center of the cellar, with the empty slots for wine bottles surrounding him like hundreds of diamond-shaped eyes. He managed to stare them all down.
Back in the kitchen, he heard the toilet seat slam down in the upstairs bathroom. He caught his own reflection in the mirror by the door to the back patio. He looked like he had aged twenty years since yesterday, a year for every hour since Trevor had gone down to the cellar to test out his glow-in-the-dark yo-yo. He looked like he could be the ghoul.
The boy was wearing Trevor’s camo shorts, a black tee shirt, and the Keds slip-ons Trevor only wore when they went out to dinner. He yawned loudly and asked, “What’s for breakfast?”
“How about waffles?” Trevor had tired of waffles after eating five a day during his last growth spurt.
“First I want you to look at something in the cellar for me.”
“Look at what?” The boy eyed him suspiciously with eyes that still looked partially dilated, even in the morning light.
“I was thinking we might take down those wine racks and set you up with a gaming room down there. I just need you to tell me where you’d like the jack for the TV to go. I can wire it myself.”
Marty’s hands were shaking as he followed the boy to the foot of the stairs, but he kept his voice steady. “I was thinking of putting it on that wall,” he said, pointing.
“Yeah, sure. Whatever.” He seemed in a hurry to leave, but Marty positioned himself at the bottom of the stairs, blocking the exit. “Tommy Jamesson, I need to talk to you.”
“Huh? Who? Daddy, what are you doing?” Trevor hadn’t called him “Daddy” in over two years.
“Your name is Tommy Jamesson. You died right here in this room. Now you need to go wherever you’re meant to be. Leave my son’s body and get out of this house.”
“You’re shi—kidding me, right?”
“You know I’m not.”
“You’re scaring me. I want Mom. When’s she getting home?”
“If you’re Trevor, tell me what your favorite movie is.”
A slight hesitation, a slight sneer. “Star Wars.”
An eye roll. “The first one.”
“First movie, or first episode?”
When Marty tackled him, the boy punched at him wildly. With his knees pinning down the thin arms and his hands wrapped around the throat of the body of the boy he loved, Marty lowered his face inches from eyes that glowed not with fear, but rage, the blue irises a mere rim around the blackness.
He heard footsteps on the stairs, heard Sarah’s voice yelling at him to stop, seemingly from a distance, though she was right there, back early from the golf, no doubt having decided he was a maniac who couldn’t be trusted alone with their son. She was shoving and slapping at him, but he ignored her and held his gaze steady. He felt the pressure in his eyes building, as though his head would implode, then the pain receded. He watched the blue return to his son’s eyes and saw terror fill them. He loosened his grip on the boy’s neck just as Sarah’s 9-iron smashed through his right temple, wedging deep within his brain, not part of the plan, but he was accustomed to changing his endings at the last minute.
He held on tightly to his burden as he rose from his body. In the light that poured from the ceiling, he could see his grandmother beckoning to him, her face both urgent and calm. He reached out to her, and, together, they dragged the lost soul through behind him.
Elly McFadden (MA, English, University of South Carolina) teaches online writing courses and recently had a piece of micro fiction published in the online journal 50-Word Stories. She lives in Denver, North Carolina with her husband and two children. In her spare time, she walks her dog, plays golf, and contemplates mortality.