Not all hauntings happen in Victorian-style houses with stained-glass windows and wrap-around porches. They aren’t limited to old, porcelain dolls, or leather-bound books with ancient languages scribbled inside. People can be haunted, too - hearts can have poltergeists. I’m not talking about the kind of haunting that can be cleansed by a priest with holy water or burnt sticks of sage. The ghosts dwelling inside ordinary people don’t have names or unfinished business. They’re strangers, and they metastasize like cancer - deadly and rooted and invisible.
Haunted people have joints that creak like old floorboards when they walk and freckles in the shape of constellations. Goosebumps creep across their skin in the middle of summer. They frequent hospital waiting rooms with hands that won’t stop shaking, noses that bleed at random, voices in their heads, and spiders under their skin - plagued with maladies that can’t be cured. Haunted people have fear behind their eyes from sharing their body with something unnatural and foreign. They wither into sticks and become translucent - their bones leeched of marrow and their tissue of sinew. They have an intoxicating quality, much like a siren song, that attracts empty vessels to their shores, wrecking them as they land, keeping their hosts lonely - wanted but unattainable. Our bodies weren’t meant to house spirits, and they wreak havoc on those they inhabit, twisting and hunching and warping even the most beautiful souls into disfigurement.
When I met her, I didn’t see that she was haunted, I only saw that she stood isolated from everyone else - an island of a woman - and I adored her. She resisted at first, batting away my affections with a smile, but I was persistent. I didn’t know it at the time, but, when we met, she had already been claimed by something much stronger. Her heart belonged to those inside her, and they weren’t willing to share. She had sky-high walls, but, by some miracle, I scaled them. I found her on the other side, in the only place of safety she had left, and wrapped my arms around her tired soul. I fancied myself her knight in shining armor, but she didn’t need to be saved - she needed to be loved, and I pulled every scrap and morsel I could find. I didn’t know it would never be enough. I didn’t know they would steal it from her, bleeding her dry at every turn.
To love her was to love a haunted house. It meant loving the way the spirits inside of her rattled her cabinets in the dead of night and moaned when she opened her mouth. It meant being startled by extra shadows on the walls and catching chills when our hands met. Loving her meant loving those inside of her - the nameless, faceless souls - and knowing that, in time, they would wear her thin and ragged and leave her hollow shell for me to find. It meant knowing when she was sapped of everything I fell in love with - her hair, her eyes, her laugh - they would find all of those things in me, etched into my memory, and climb into my body, attaching to my heart and bones and gnawing away at me like rats in the walls.
In the beginning, I didn’t believe her. I didn’t believe in ghosts and spirits and haunted houses. But, she was patient with me. She allowed me to believe she was delusional, letting me find bliss in my own ignorance and keeping me sheltered from them for as long as she could. She didn’t want me to know them, afraid they might turn their attention to me. They took battering rams to her doors trying to find where she kept me, but she was strong - stronger than I ever knew. Falling in love with her was effortless, though I was foolish to believe she was mine. She kept me safe in the beginning, but she knew they wouldn’t let me have her, not entirely.
I met them on one of her bad nights. I found her standing in front of the bathroom mirror, shouting and scratching at her face. When I tried to calm her down, she turned to me, but her eyes looked empty. The voice coming from her mouth wasn’t hers - it was deeper, almost animal-like. I shook her by the shoulders, trying to snap her out of the trance she was in, but it was useless. She fought against me, throwing her weight into my chest and even trying to bite my arms. I let her go, and she sank to the floor in tears. As she looked up, her face lined with fresh, bleeding marks and tufts of hair scattered around her on the floor, the emptiness dissipated from her eyes and she came back. Her shoulders were trembling as she leaned into my chest, promising she would explain everything once we were tucked into bed. I didn’t know what to think, but I knew I couldn’t leave her. She could sense my fear, and I could tell she was scared, too.
She told me about them while we were hidden under the covers, whispering muffled secrets to each other. She said she’d been haunted since she was six. The night it happened, she ran to her mother in a panic, screaming that she heard voices in her room. It was then she learned, through her mother’s tears, that it was beginning - they were coming for her. The voices in her room belonged to spirits who had tickled her tiny, pink feet and sang her to sleep before she was born. They had hidden in her blankets and stuffed animals, watching her grow, and they would soon become part of her, making her their home. She said she begged her mother to make it stop - to keep it from happening - but it was too late. She never had a chance.
Theirs was a dynastic haunting, with the spirits in her family being passed down from woman-to-woman, through generations, like antique jewelry and old photographs. The women in her family died hard, messy deaths. Her great-great grandmother died in an asylum, wrapped in a straight-jacket. Her heart came to a screeching halt, and her eyes were frozen in fear when they found her - scared to death. Her aunt died from a fever that ravaged her body and melted her like wax. She was mopped into buckets at the hospital. Her mother killed herself, slicing her wrists in the bathtub and pouring onto the tile like spilled wine. She told me when she found her, draped over and stained red, she wasn’t scared or sad - she was relieved. She knew her mother had found peace, just like the countless women before her - those who died from reckless tumors, car accidents, insanity, and all other forms of sadness and fear.
She told me she was stronger than those women, which wasn’t a testament to her character, but a curse she would have to bear. She believed she would suffer the most, because she would have to live with them - they wouldn’t crumble her. And, as she told me all of this under the safety of our makeshift walls, she turned to me and said, “You shouldn’t love me. Because loving me means loving them. And loving them means, when it’s time, they’ll haunt you, too.” Her lips trembled and her chin quivered as she looked to me, waiting for my response. I paused, taking her in, before saying, “I love you, even the pieces they’ve taken. And when they haunt me, I’ll welcome it - if only to keep you with me longer.” She let go of the breath she had been holding, and for the first time since we had been together, the room was quiet. They had fallen silent inside of her at my declaration, and we embraced our first moments truly alone, soaking up the meaning of it all.
There were times after that conversation I could feel them with us, watching through her eyes and touching me through her hands. Sometimes I couldn’t tell where they ended and she began. I didn’t know how many there were, but I knew they were strong, robust inhabitants. I knew they twisted into her like ivy, creeping up her walls and spreading like spiderwebs. Some days she would stay in bed with the curtains drawn, tossing and turning, drifting in and out of fever dreams - those days were the hardest. Those were the days the spirits were winning, and I was powerless to help. I would stay beside her, cooling her head with a rag, promising my company, and curse them under my breath. She would turn to me, eyes wide open, and I knew it wasn’t her I was looking at - it was one of them.
The day of our wedding, I grabbed her face and stared into her, through her, and asked for a moment - just a moment - without their company. To both of our surprise, they obliged. We spent the day with just each other, and, when I put the ring on her hand, we both knew I was making a promise not only to her, but to them as well. I knew I was agreeing to face our lives together and face my life without her, with their presence to torture me when the time came. They returned by morning, somehow stronger than before, and I cradled her in my arms as she shook and wailed, refusing to tell me what they were saying.
The years went by too quickly. She aged prematurely under their rule, and I couldn’t keep up. For every wrinkle etched onto my face, she grew twice as many. The spattered patches of gray hair that started to peek through my scalp were matched by her raven-black hair turning white overnight. Her green eyes turned milky, and she lost her vision first, with her hearing following shortly thereafter. The times we shared together grew shorter and shorter, as the strangers feasting on her frailty started to wholly take-over.
It was never subtle. They made their victories known, turning her sour along the way. She would lash out at me randomly, throwing plates against the wall and begging me to leave. She wouldn’t let me hold her at night - she would push me away and retreat to the other side of the bed, twisting her fingers in her hair and drawing into herself in pain. I would go weeks without ever seeing her, spending my days with them, instead. When they touched me, her hands clammy under their spell, I felt them pulsing just beneath the surface - waiting for their time to leave, searching me for openings to crawl into when the moment was right.
Her death wasn’t messy like the others. The day it happened, I came home from work and found her sitting on the couch - a rare occurrence. Without her sight or hearing, she spent most of her time in bed, withering into the sheets. She had managed to feel her way into the living room and make a nest in the blankets and throw-pillows. Sensing my presence, she patted the space next to her and said, “Come sit with me. I feel good today.” So, I did. I sat down and combed my fingers through her white hair as she laid on my chest, smiling and laughing and bringing up memories from before she was broken. We fell asleep there, and she died in the night - still on my chest when I awoke.
Things were quiet for almost a month afterwards, and I thought I might have been spared. I thought they might have taken pity on me, but I was wrong. It didn’t happen all at once. They took their time, keeping me awake at night as they whispered in my ear, taunting me. Slowly, they crept inside. It took weeks, but they made room - seeping into my pores, slithering into my ears, dripping into my mouth. It was painful - I ached and throbbed as they settled, praying for relief. When it was finally over, I didn’t feel better - I felt invaded. They swarmed me, infesting every crevice, relentless in their mission to rip me apart.
I understood why the women in her family had broken the way they did - I wanted to end it. After a few months feeling them under my skin and worming into my brain, I bought a gun. I thought about steering my car off a bridge. I heard them night and day, rustling and roaming and talking - daring me to try. They wanted to drive me insane. I wasn’t strong - not in the way she had been - and they delighted in my weakness. I looked in the mirror a year after her death, searching the reflection for some trace of who I had been, but everything was gone - I only saw them.
I stood on the precipice of insanity, ready to dash myself across the rocks at the bottom, when she came. I felt her warmth - it radiated. I could hear her laugh over the shouts and moans of the others. I clutched myself and squeezed, but it was her I was hugging - she was one of them. I collapsed onto the floor with tears streaming down my face as she soothed me, gingerly pulling the shards of pain from my mind. We talked, and she told me about her journey to find me through the chaos. She said she had climbed mountains and dug tunnels and crawled through unknown depths until she felt my soul, tangled in the mess of the strangers that had taken me over.
She told me she couldn’t silence them for long - they were stronger and more seasoned - but we made a pact. Every Sunday, she would come to me and settle the others, no matter what it took, and we would be together, uninterrupted. She promised to keep me company for as long as I could stand it and to find me at the end, where we could make a home for ourselves, grounded in the security of eternity. I wept with joy, and when they came back for me that night, I didn’t wince or fight them off - I welcomed them, for they had built the road that brought her to me, even in death.
So, every Sunday, I put on my best clothes, comb the remnants of my hair, and drive to the small cafe down the road from my house. I take my seat in the back booth, order two cups of tea - much to the bewilderment of my waitress - and I wait for her. When she comes, the warmth spreads from my chest and my goosebumps settle and I close my eyes, relaxing into her. We talk and laugh as the others look to me, trying to make sense of the old man whispering to himself, and she tenderly reminds me that she’s waiting for me, just beyond the curtain.