CW: Swearing, blood, death
Getting a call at four in the morning on a stormy night, created an instant feeling of gut tangling dread. Luckily, I guess, I was already awake. An unusual nightmare about watching Jonah drown in an icy marsh and not being able to save him woke me with heart palpitations. In the dream, I dove under the water and desperately swam towards him but never actually moved. He floated in the murky, green-brown water in an oddly peaceful way. I swam furiously in place while the pressure built in my chest and I woke before drowning with him. After that I couldn’t get my eyes to close again. Instead, I sat up listening to tree branches tapping on the glass windows and wind whipping rain in all directions, until this phone call.
“Hey?” I said nervously when I answered.
“Aubrey!” Jonah sounded relieved. “I’m happy you answered. I think…I might be in a bit of a pickle here.”
“What’s going on?” The panic that stabbed my gut when the phone first rang was now twisting the knife in deeper.
“Billy and I came to explore that haunted mansion. You know, up the hill? Dorsey?”
“Yeah, yeah. Why?”
“To meet the ghosts from all the stories.” He said this so casually like it was perfectly logical to visit ghosts at four in the morning. No big thing.
“Whatever. What’s wrong?”
“Jonah? What’s going on?” My voice squeaked with emotion.
In a whispery voice, he said, “I’m not alone here.”
“The ghosts?” At this point, my guard went up. Maybe this was all a joke. It wouldn’t be unlike Jonah, really. He liked to scare people.
“No, no.” He still whispered. “Someone else walked in.”
“Where’s Billy?” I asked as I suddenly caught on to the fact that Billy and he went exploring, but only he was now not alone.
“I…I don’t know. I haven’t known for a while.”
“Why are you in trouble?”
“Jonah?” I whispered.
I pulled my phone back a little to see if we were still connected. We weren’t. For a few agonizingly long minutes I waited. Calling back might not be a good idea if he was hiding. Finally, I couldn’t take the anxiety rolling through my body any longer and called him. He didn’t answer.
I tried to be patient and kept waiting, but my mind played out hundreds of dreadful worst-case scenarios. Then there was that dream. How could I ignore that moments before this call I had that intense dream of him being in trouble? I threw on my dark jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt in case I needed to blend into the night. Being the overly prepared type I’ve always been, I also shoved first aid supplies, a flashlight, and a knife, the only weapon I kind of could use, into a backpack.
This could all be a trick still, but I’d be glad if it was. Relieved to know Jonah was safe more than anything.
I’ve never felt connected to anyone before Jonah. All my life growing up, I assumed my lack of emotion and inability to connect might be indicators of being a sociopath or something. Something inside me obviously appeared broken and not working right in the socialization department. When I met Jonah, as stupid and cheesy as it sounds, things were different. We were instant best friends. At least I felt that way. Jonah had Billy too, I guess, so who knows what he’d say about it.
While jumping into my car and speeding down the road, I thought of the first time I saw him. When I moved into town, I was juggling a large cardboard box full of clothes and he rode by on a skateboard with his hat on backwards and a goofy smile on his face. He had a lip ring and tattoos crawling up his arms. I wondered about the fact that he looked a touch too old for all that. Assumed him to be some punk kid that never quite grew up. Something about that spoke to me though. Maybe to the part of me that had never felt like a kid but so desperately longed to. Wanting to talk to him, I waited for a while until he came back down the street. Then, I asked him if he could help me. He groaned and looked around, probably for a way out of doing so. Then with a sigh, asked what I needed. After all his help, we bonded over the reward pizza and key lime sodas I treated us too.
Please, be okay. Driving way over the speed limit, the car still moved too slowly. I drummed my fingertips on the steering wheel and turned on the radio for a distraction. The station played songs from horror movie soundtracks in honor of the upcoming Halloween. Perfect. Feels like I’m in a movie. Next thing I know a deer will jump out and make me crash. As if some mystical force was listening and wanted to mess with me, a squirrel scurried out into the headlights, and I jerked the wheel, swerving almost off the road. I took a few unsteady breaths, willed my hands to stop shaking, and continued driving. I needed to get to Jonah.
As Jonah and I grew closer, I realized I loved him. Though, I never settled on if it was romantic love or a strong bonded friendship love. I lacked the experience to know, perhaps. Emotions had always been a bit of a struggle for me. Whichever meaning of the word, I kept that word buried deep within me. We went to movies, I witnessed all his stupid pranks, we played games together, and all the typical friend things I had personally never experienced before him. It got to that point where we were one in the same in a way. I could finish his sentences, read his thoughts, and sense when he needed me. To me this was the best feeling in the world. At times he told me it was all very creepy, but then laughed and kept inviting me places, so I knew he had a hard time with feelings like me. This thing between us, whatever it was, had to be mutual. I couldn’t lose it. Couldn’t lose him.
The rain turned torrential and seeing became impossible. This was the weather people were supposed to pull over in. Never leave the house to begin with weather. I slowed down but kept going. I called him again. Still no answer. My heart pounded heavily like the downpouring rain.
Finally, the mansion laid before me. I drove up the long, windy driveway and parked the car by the door. I didn’t see Jonah’s car or Billy’s. Did Billy leave him?
I heard a pained wailing coming from in the woods and followed the noise. I pulled a flashlight from my backpack of anything I could possibly need tonight. The light landed on a man’s body. I ran over.
“Aubrey? What’re…oh, good. Good. You can help me. Save me.” He nodded his head down, and I followed the direction to his leg. A steel bear trap clamped his leg. Red oozed from where it snapped across him. “It hurts like hell.”
“I brought first aid. Don’t worry, Billy. You’ll be fine.” I said this with way more certainty than I felt. With what I imagined must have been a spike of adrenaline, I pulled apart the trap enough for him to get out. We scrambled away from it like it might come alive and bite at us.
I handed him the flashlight to hold while I did my best to clean up his wounds and gauze them using my first aid kit. Loving gratitude shined brightly across his face.
“Thank you! I’d be dead without you.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Seriously. Who else would find me? How did you even find me?”
“I heard your crying.”
“From your apartment?”
“Jonah called me. Do you know where he is?”
“I got scared and ran.”
“Scared of what?”
He looked at the ground. “We should find Jonah.”
“Scared of what?” I pulled him up to his feet and had him lean against me to help him walk.
“It’s stupid. Jump scare stuff.”
Too embarrassed to tell me. Well, at least maybe that means nothing happened. But… On the phone he mentioned other people. "Who else is here?”
“He hung up; I think. Didn’t want to be heard by other non-ghost people.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see…look, I ran quick. Probably happened after.”
“You’re not far from the door though.”
“I don’t know. Can you call him?”
“I tried a hundred times. He’s not answering.”
“We…have to go in there?”
“You can stay in the car.”
It’s all over his face he wanted to say that’s a great plan. For whatever reason, he played tough and said, “No, I’ll go with you.”
“Ghosts aren’t real.”
Jonah and Billy have been want-to-be ghost hunters for years now. I always smiled picturing Billy as one since he looked just like Shaggy from Scooby Doo. Being that I had the nerdy-chic Velma look down, we were almost the gang. Jonah was no Fred though.
Both claimed to have supernatural experiences as kids. Billy’s story was that him and this girl, who I assumed must be an imaginary friend, were friends. The reasons for her being a ghost were no one else saw her, she communicated in odd ways, and she showed him secret places in the house that he wouldn’t have found without her knowledge. As a teen, he looked up news articles on the house and found a family did die there years ago and among those dead family members was a little girl.
As for Jonah, if he’s drunk and you’re a man, he’ll tell you this bizarre tale of some sexual experience with a ghost as a teenager. I’ve heard this because sometimes he “forgets I’m not one of the guys.” For everyone else, the go-to story is a more nuanced tale of an old war general who talks to him in the cemetery on nights he goes to visit his mom’s grave.
I’ve never seen or heard a ghost, and I don’t believe in them at all. Of course, when you don’t believe people always tell you that you don’t see them because you don’t believe. How does that make sense?
Despite the way I swiftly dismissed their stories each time, I still couldn’t shove down the doom that blossomed inside me approaching those gargoyle-guarded doors. Billy trembled from fear or cold or loss of blood, so I held him tighter to be supportive. While Billy has always been the equivalent of background noise to me, this experience heightened my feelings towards him. Together we passed through those doors from safety to danger leaning on each other.
Rattling and sizzling noises echoed through the living room from the kitchen. Cautiously we crept through the run-down rooms and stepped away from holes or avoided broken floorboards. In the kitchen, Jonah hunched over a rust covered oven with the door dangling half off. I moved to run to him but felt the pull of Billy’s weight and remembered he needed me like a crutch.
“Jonah! Are you okay?” My heart continued the run to him and wrapped him in a distant hug. Billy shuddered at my side. The room was cold. Jonah’s hunching over the stove did feel a tad unnatural. Fear seized my traveling heart and ripped it back. Is he dead?
Jonah spun around and grinned. His lip ring shined in a flash of lightning that broke through the window. “Hey, guys. You want breakfast?”
He shook a dusty pan over the top of the stove. I wondered if he made the sizzling sounds with his mouth, because nothing sizzled.
“Always joking.” I rolled my eyes. “We’ve been so worried about you.”
“Why?” He laughed. “I’m making eggs and bacon.”
The kitchen smelled of mold, and only mold. No warmth radiated from the stove. No light either. It didn’t seem likely the place had any electricity.
“Who were those people?”
“Assholes! Man, those guys were assholes. They locked me in the basement.”
“How did you get out?”
He shrugged and picked up a broken spatula from a ball of cobwebs to flip his invisible breakfast. “I don’t know. Sort of walked through the door.”
“Through the door?” Like literally through the door?
Billy and I exchanged confused, fearful looks.
Jonah laughed. “You two look like you’ve seen a ghost. Maybe your night’s been worse.”
“Well, I did find Billy in a bear trap.”
He winced like I reminded him he felt pain.
“W-what happened in the b-b-basement?” Billy asked. His arm squeezed my shoulders as he pulled me tighter.
“You know? I kind of don’t remember. The one guy…I want to say he hit me in the head with something before locking the door…and I think…I think I fell down the stairs. Must have passed out a while.”
“Why did they do that?” I asked.
“They were here to purify the house or some shit. Convinced of its evil and all.” He opened a cabinet door, and the whole door come off. He tossed it aside and reached in for a plate. No, three plates.
“Where’d they go?”
“Must have left while I slept.”
“Where’s the basement?”
He pointed at a deadbolted, padlocked door.
“Right,” I gulped. “You lock it back up?”
“Huh? I…I…maybe they didn’t lock it. My head feels kind of jumbled. I’m starved.”
“Any ghosts?” Billy practically whispered.
“No! So disappointing.”
“Jonah…I think. Billy, I need to…stay here.” I leaned Billy against the counter. I unlocked the basement door. I shined the flashlight down. When the light hit the bottom of the stairs, tears flooded my eyes. My hand clamped across my mouth as I screamed.
“What is it?” Jonah asked. He walked over to me and put a hand on my shoulder. We both looked down to his twisted limbs. His lifeless body.
“W-what…what’s that?” Jonah backed away from me. “This a joke?”
I shook my head and fell to my knees. A pain unlike anything I’ve ever felt before shredded through my body. “No! No! It can’t be. It can’t be. It can’t.”
Billy limped over. “We should get out of here.”
“No!” I screamed so loud he covered his ears. “I’m not leaving him. I’m not losing him. I’ll… I can stay here. I’ll just stay here. He’s here. We can stay here.”
“We can call the cops. I think I heard something. I should go to the hospital, you should…” Billy continued rambling on, but I stopped listening. A ringing pierced my ears. I shut my eyes tightly and prayed this was all still a nightmare.
Then I heard it too. Footsteps and whispers. We weren’t alone. “I’ll kill them for doing this to him.”
“But Aubrey…I…I think someone already did.” Billy whined. “I mean you’re probably right. I probably would have known if they entered or left, right? What if…”
“What if they were ghosts already? Here all along.”
“Or killed by the ghosts for trying to get rid of them.” Jonah added.
“I didn’t see any cars in the driveway.”
“We parked down the road. Scared of getting caught,” Billy said.
“I don’t want to leave you, Jonah.”
Jonah laughed. “What? Stay here? Give up everything? Why?”
The look of fear on his face stopped me. I knew that look. I had given that look to so many people. So many people who told me how much they liked me, how I was the only one who ever got them, how they loved me. I gave that look because that look means I don’t feel any of that. I can’t feel any of that. While that look makes us more alike than maybe anything else, the distance between us grew like a meteor crash landing and forming a crater. I had been so wrong.
“You guys need to leave. I’m fine. I want you both safe,” Jonah said.
As my world spun out of control, other ghosts were closing in on us. Billy tossed whatever he could get his hands on at them. All the objects went through them, of course.
“Come on, Aubrey! We need to get out of here!” Billy screamed. Billy who now seemed possessed by that same strength of adrenaline I felt earlier.
I pushed myself up, wrapped an arm around Billy, and together we hurried out of the mansion. Ghosts clanked and screeched behind us. We stumbled down the stairs and into the car.
“I don’t think they can leave the house,” I said when none of them followed us.
“Better we don’t take that chance.” Billy said while patting the dashboard like he could coax the car into running itself if I didn’t start it soon. At least the rain had stopped. We drove in silence for a while. Both of us, I assumed, too shaken up to say a word. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I felt Billy’s hand on my arm and then the top of my hand. I loosened the one hand from my iron clad grip on the steering wheel, and he held it in his.
“This all really sucks. It does. But we’ll be okay somehow.” His voice was weak and uncertain, but I appreciated the effort. He was probably right or would be one day, at least. For a while it'd all be bad, but I'm grateful we had each other. I squeezed his hand like a thank you.
It was just like the dream. I felt helpless and Jonah had looked oddly peaceful.