I thought the Man and Woman haunted the house on Rhum Street. I was very wrong.
It’s hard to remember when I first noticed them. After a time I got the sense they were always there, just fading in and out, like poor reception on my Grandpa’s radio. I must have been quite young because I didn’t know enough to be scared. I remember the telltale signs when they came near: the hairs on my neck standing, the sudden chill in the air, my thoughts getting muddled and swirled. Some of my early memories were pleasant. The Woman once hovered over me while I read Hot Dog to Benny. He was too young to understand ghosts then, probably only two, which would have made me five.
Benny and I came to live with Jesse and Bob when I was three and he was just months. I don’t have clear memories before that, just blurry images that don’t make much sense. A comb with a silver handle resting on a brown bedspread, a tall evergreen tree against a gray sky, a frilly yellow dress which I think was my favorite, and the white-hot heat of a fire, so large and close that my eyes, nose, ears, and skin were full of it, encompassed and consumed by the roaring, bitter, hungry rush of it.
The house on Rhum Street was small and sparse. Rhum street was one of several small houses that all looked mostly the same in the community. Benny and I shared a room for years, his crib near my bed. He would often wake up in the middle of the night crying, which at first scared me so much I cringed in my bed, crying silently as well. For a while Jesse or Bob would come in, pick him up and carry him in circles, murmuring quietly until he was back asleep. After a while only Bob came. Then by the time I was five, if Benny cried at all I was the one comforting him.
When I started school, which was just a squat building near the center of the community, Benny would be worn out and pale when I came home, his face a smudged mess of tired eyes and hot cheeks. Bob or Jesse, whichever one was home at the time, would tell me that he cried the entire time I was gone, and only stopped when I came home. Eventually they arranged for Benny to sit in at school with me, with a playpen set up at the edge of the room. He was fine on his own so long as he could see me.
It was around the time that Benny started attending school himself that I started to notice the Woman showing up regularly. I would be studying, or reading, or maybe practicing my macramé, and I would feel that chill, see my breath suddenly, even on a sunny warm day. Since I felt like I had basically grown up with a few short appearances a year, it didn’t alarm me as much as pique my interest. When the chill set in, and the hairs on my neck and arm stood up, I could be sure I would see her, white and wispy, translucent like smoke, drifting in the room. Her face was smooth with round cheeks and a small nose, and her long hair swirled around her like she was underwater, or in a slow-moving wind.
Soon after she started showing up on an almost weekly basis, the Man started showing up as well.. Sometimes he came with her, sometimes he showed up on his own. As with her, I wasn’t alarmed so much as curious. He was also beautiful to look at, with high cheeks and deep eyes that looked strong even though he was just smoke drifting in the air. Both of them would hover near me, look into my eyes, sometimes reaching out to me. It was clear they were focused, looking for something, searching. I came to feel sad and distant when they showed up. Along with the chill on my skin and the prickling on my hairs, my mood would dampen and deepen, even before I could see them. I came to imagine they had a tragic and romantic past, even making up stories of doomed lovers who were cursed to live as ghosts and never touch each other again.
The day I realized they would only come when Benny or I were alone marked a change in how I thought of them. Benny and I were playing King’s Corners while the Man hovered over us, watching,. Benny and I grinned and blew smoke rings at each other with our chilled breath. The next moment the chill in the air abruptly vanished, replaced with the heat of the day, the Man was instantly gone and the door burst open. Jesse stood in the doorway, looking around wild-eyed.
“What are you doing?” she demanded loudly of us.
“Cards” I replied, all wide-eyed and innocent. But Benny was never one to know anything more than what he saw in front of him, and what he saw was Jesse acting suspicious, and stranger than normal. So he of course said:
“Did you see him too?”
Jesse launched across the room at Benny, seizing him by the shoulders and staring fast into his eyes, her mouth a hard line straight across her pock-marked face, her severe hair brushing across one ear.
“Who?” She demanded. “Who did you see, Ben?”
Her sudden intensity scared Benny, and he immediately started bawling. He was seven by this point, but still prone to crying at the drop of a hat, his mouth agape, tears spilling readily down his cheeks. Jesse was never able to handle this, and his reaction made her angrier. She shook him in her hard grip and growled: “You stop that right now and answer. Who? Who Ben?”
“He didn’t see anything!” I yelled. “We were just playing cards!” I wanted her to stop, let go of Benny before her anger ran away with her, like I had heard it do when she and Bob fought late at night. She looked over at me, her rock-like stare fixing me to my seat.
“What does he mean ‘see him too’? Mary, what did he see?”
“Nothing! It’s just cards! Sometimes Benny makes things up!” I was in a panic trying to find a way to explain this away to Jesse. “He makes up pretend friends!” I paused, trying to read if she was buying it. “I… sometimes I pretend I can see them too.”
Jesse considered this, but didn’t seem to be completely satisfied. She looked from me to howling Benny, then back at me. Her face softened then, dropping the hard edges and smoothing out the severe lines. She let go of Benny, then put her arm around him in an uncharacteristically nurturing move, and murmured apologies to him for scaring him. She rocked him awkwardly until his crying calmed to sniffles.
“The Elders have told us to be looking out, kids.” Her voice was calm and soothing then, looking between us still with intensity to make sure we understood this was important. “We’ve got to let them know about anything out of the ordinary. So if you see anything, or anyone that concerns you, or seems strange, you must come talk to me.
She fixed each of us with her most focused and direct gaze, imparting the weight of the situation. “It doesn’t matter how strange or how small, if you see something you tell me about it.” After another moment she added: “do you have anything to tell me?”
Silence ruled the room as seconds stretched out. I fiddled my cards and glanced up at her hard eyes off and on. She was staring pointedly at me, and I felt like she could see my lies laid bare without me saying anything. Benny sniffled and stared straight down.
“Either of you? Anything?” After letting the question hang in the air a few more moments she added “well, if you think of anything, you tell me. I’m looking out for what’s best for the two of you. And I can do that better if you let me know anything you see or hear.”
She ruffled Benny’s head, then grabbed my face between both of her hands and looked into my eyes, softer and sweeter than I had ever known her to be. Another moment and she stood, brushed her hands on her pants and left with an awkward smile.
That night I made Benny promise that the Man and Woman would be our secret and we wouldn’t tell anyone.
From then on I become acutely aware that the ghosts would never show up unless I was alone, or only with Benny. Benny confirmed that they sometimes came to see him when he was alone, but never with anyone but me. From then on they were Our Ghosts.
A month after my twelfth birthday, I came to understand fully.
I first noticed blood in my underwear just days after my birthday, and I was so scared I washed them in the cramped bathroom before putting them in the laundry hamper. The next day there was more, and the day after again. After three days, everything seemed fine again, and I thought no more of it. But the following month it happened again, and this time I was scared enough to ask Jesse what it meant.
I wanted to ask Bob. He was kind and gentle, where Jesse was terse and authoritative. But I knew somehow that I needed to ask a woman about this. I found her behind the house moving crates of apples that we had picked the previous week. The sweet aroma of fresh apples and the bald heat of a summer day will confuse my emotions to this day. When I timidly described what was happening and asked Jesse what it might mean, her face switched between several expressions rapidly, then she sat me down on empty apple crates.
“Tell me. Tell me everything.”
This scared me even more. I was worried I had some horrible disease and this confirmed it. I could only wonder if I would die in months or years.
“It’s… well, I wake up and, it’s bloody. Not, like, bleeding, but there’s bits of red in my underwear.” I couldn’t meet her eyes. I fiddled with the frayed hem of my blue shirt.
“Did this just start happening? Is this the first time?” Her eyes were severe and round, hard little buttons in her freckled face.
“No.” I paused, feeling more shame for hiding it before. “No. Last month it happened three times in a row. But then it just stopped.”
Jesse looked at me, her brow screwed up slightly, through worry or concern I couldn’t be sure.
“And that was the first time?”
“Are you sure?”
I nodded again.
Her face relaxed suddenly, and she let out a breath that seemed like she had held for years. Her shoulders dropped and her back sagged. She looked up at the oak tree we were under, through the broad leaves, perhaps searching the sky for something. I waited for her to tell me how long I had to live; both of us perched on apple crates in silence.
“Am I going to die?” my voice was a whisper, like a sheet brushing across skin.
She looked at me, shocked, then with more warmth and caring than I could remember having seen before.
“Oh, god, no honey. No.” She put her hand on my shoulder, and stroked my hair with her other. It felt unnatural and awkward, but I held still. “This is a good thing. Everything changes now. You are going to become what you were born for. You and your brother.” She stopped then. I hoped for more explanation, but she offered none.
That night I listened to Jesse and Bob talk through the thin walls. They spoke quietly, trying not to wake us, but I felt I might never sleep again. I could only hear the occasional word, but it was enough to piece together that something they had planned for a long time was now happening, and it involved the Elders. It seemed to involve the entire community. And Benny and I were at the center of it.
I lay awake that night long after Bob and Jesse had gone to sleep. I felt worried, scared of something I couldn’t name. My community, my house, suddenly felt foreign, unwelcoming and sinister.
The chill set in abruptly. The skin on my arms burst into gooseflesh, and my lungs breathed in suddenly icy air. I flicked the light above my small bed, and they were both there in front of me, white clouds in my room, faces full of concern and a new, thrilling anger.
She made urgent motions, swirling over my bed, then over Benny’s bed, then back again. The Man beckoned to the door, making it very clear: we were to get up and leave.
Benny was groggy and grumpy, but he got up and stayed quiet. We slipped out into the dark house, stepping quietly across the carpet, then slipped our shoes on and went out the sliding glass door and into the back yard. I saw their wispy forms, like solid steam, zipping through the night air with more speed and purpose than I’d ever seen before. They seemed urgent and eager, and Benny and I followed them expectantly.
What an adventure it seemed. We had never been allowed out after dark without adults. The grass was damp with dew, the sky bristling with stars, and I felt a vast freedom that I hadn’t known I was missing before. My constraints from the rules of the community, the guidance of the Elders, the pressures to fit in were suddenly gone like so much vapor. Benny and I belonged free and wild, and I knew somewhere deep inside that I had crossed some invisible line, that there was no returning to my previous life.
We made it nearly to the community gate before lights shown out, harsh as accusations, rooting us to our spot. Instantly I was transformed from a free creature to a guilty child, cowering under a stern and judging glare. To my amazement, the Man and Woman did not disappear this time. They swirled and lunged at the people holding the lights, and shouts of surprise and terror filled the air. The Woman circled back to us, urging us to run, her face a painting of fear and panic. I grabbed Benny’s hand and we ran.
We didn’t open the gate, but climbed over. My nightdress snagged on the wooden post and I heard it tear as I fell over the other side. Benny was easily up one side and down the other. We rejoined hands and ran into the night, our feet crunching on the gravel of the drive.
Behind us we heard more shouting, more screams. Lights zigzagged through the night air, splashing the wild grass by the sides of the road, the fir trees, the gravel. Suddenly powerful arms grabbed me and I screamed in shock. The arms were so strong I couldn’t breath properly and I gasped in short little gulps.
“No, girl” the deep voice sounded by my right ear, “the ceremony is in motion. Tomorrow you will fulfill your promise. And your brother will be on the path.” I didn’t recognize the voice; it wasn’t Bob, it wasn’t my Grandpa, or any of my male teachers. It could have been any one of the neighbors, I didn’t know them well.
He was hauling me back, one large arm around me, the other dragging Benny who was kicking and hitting all the way. My breath was coming back now, and I could see he wore a cloak with a full hood. I could not see his face at all in the night, which scared me even more. I clawed at his arm, my fingernails digging deep, but I might as well have scratched at a tree trunk; his thick arm didn’t budge.
The She was there, and he stopped short in his tracks. Her bright white face grew before us, angry and radiant, spreading and expanding until it filled our view. Her eyes were the size of cups, the size of plates, of tires. The blackness of her eyes sucked at my mind and I closed my eyes with a whimper. The arm around me grew slack, then we were suddenly falling. The impact of hitting the ground jolted me, but I scrambled up from under his motionless weight, and She was in front of me again, her beautiful eyes locked on mine. Where she was worry and anger before, now she seemed to be full of sadness; all sorrowful eyes and drooping mouth. She looked like the picture of regret as she raised her hands to my head, and her eyes closed slowly.
And then I saw. I saw her brushing my hair with the silver hairbrush. I saw a swing under the great fir tree under the gray sky. I saw the fire swirl around us, and She and He tied to the bed. I saw hooded figures dragging a baby boy and a tiny girl in a yellow dress out of a burning house and into a car that would take them far away.
And more than seeing, I knew. I knew that we had been stolen for a purpose, I knew I was special, and Benny was especially so. I knew the people wanted to use us, but for what I didn’t know.
I gasped and the night was silent around me. Her pure face nodded at me, and she caressed my face and Benny’s beside me. It was like being touched by a cloud; a light breath of chill on my cheek.
Then she swung her arms dramatically and wildly eager for us to run, then swirled back towards the robed figures coming through the open gate. My father was there, pulsing between figures, a vengeful mass of smoke and anger.
I grabbed Benny’s hand, and again we ran. I didn’t know where we were going, but at least I finally knew where we came from.
Thanks so much for reading! If you have thoughts to share, I’d love to hear ’em. Some questions I’m curious about now that you’ve finished this:
1.) Is it clear too early that the ghosts are her parents? If so, do you feel that detracts from the story, or not?
2.) Do you have any theories about what the community is all about at this stage?
3.) Do I need to describe more about the relationship that Jesse and Bob have, or would that get in the way?
story starting point:
A girl lives with a couple and is haunted by two ghosts that are actually her real parents (not verbatim, will go back and find the verbatim prompt later…)