A TRUE (GHOST) STORY
by Daniel Dundin
It started with a jar of eye cream. She had left the little canister on her dresser yet when she returned from work it was on the floor, broken. She had cleaned it up and worried more about the cost of replacing it than how it had plunged to its death.
Two days later, it was the shower curtain. She’d found it lying in a heap, tangled around its rod, jutting from the tub. Perhaps the tension was getting old, she'd thought, the springs not holding as they should.
Today it was the kitchen cabinet. The doors hung open, as if she had given up closing them halfway through, despite that cabinet not being opened in weeks. Perhaps her apartment was draftier than she realized. She slammed the doors hard to make sure they stayed shut, kicking them once for good measure.
At work, she researched sealing her windows and tried to think of the name for those long bean bags you put at the base of your door. She ordered a new shower rod and a new curtain too, opting for a cheery, brightly colored one this time. She held off on getting more eye cream though, it was expensive and she wasn’t sure that it actually worked.
When she returned home that evening she had trouble opening the front door of the building. She needed to put her bags down and pull hard with both hands to get in. Old buildings and old doors she reasoned to herself. Or humidity.
A low, rhythmic thumping came from the stairwell above. She climbed warily. Her neighbor was there, encountering the same issue with his apartment door. He was softly throwing his shoulder into it until begrudgingly, it flung open, nearly dropping him through. He slammed the door hard to close it again.
Her apartment seemed particularly dark when she entered it. The days were getting shorter she reminded herself, turning on every light. She had brought work home with her that night and now wished she hadn’t. As she unpacked her computer and notebooks, her pen promptly rolled off the table and onto the kitchen floor. She grabbed for it but it dashed into the darkness beneath the fridge. She didn’t dare look under there. In a rental this old who could say what kind of horrors she would find. She had loved that pen. It wasn’t overly fancy, it just wrote really nicely.
Rest in peace, sweet pen.
She chose a replacement that looked like the previous one but didn’t perform nearly as well. It made her think of a guy she had dated who looked remarkably like her first boyfriend. The similarities ended there though. A bad knockoff.
When she awoke the next morning her water glass sat precariously on the edge of her nightstand. Still groggy, she tried to remember if she had taken a drink at some point in the night. The glass seemed full. She reached over and slid it back before getting up and pouring it out into the sink.
At work an old story popped into her head. A family found a man living in their attic. The headline had included something like, and you won’t believe how long he’d been there! She cursed herself for remembering it. Her place had apartments on all sides, above and below. There was no crawl space, no attic for some faceless stranger to hide in. But she couldn’t help picturing it anyway.
She stopped for a bottle of wine on her way home.
This time the building’s door was ajar when she arrived and it refused to close. She wondered how long it had been that way, open to the world like that. And who might have come in?
Before entering her apartment, she took the wine bottle by the neck and held it up like a club. She hoped none of her neighbors were watching, they’d think she was losing it. Or more likely, in this city, they’d think nothing, she amended.
Inside she inspected the closets, corners, and walls looking for a hidden panel or door, the bottle brandished ready to strike the whole time. Nothing to be found, of course.
She felt silly and her arm was tired from wielding the bottle like that. She opened it and poured herself a glass. Normally she’d only have one or two, but that night she drank it all.
The next morning she looked and felt like she’d had a full bottle of wine. She rubbed her temples and scowled at the bags under her eyes. The mirror was a bit askew, she noticed. Had it always been that way? Was she now just looking for things out of place?
At work she called her mother, not knowing why exactly. They chatted nonchalantly and she slipped in mentions of the cream, the cabinet, and the curtain, wondering if any would raise an alarm. Her mother just suggested she find a nicer apartment.
After work, she got another bottle of wine despite being somewhat nauseated at the thought. She also bought more eye cream, wishing she’d had it that morning and thinking perhaps she’d need it the next.
The outer door was again open and just for fun, the front porch light was out as well. The building looked strange in the orange glow of the streetlight. She brandished her bottle-club again as she entered and made her way up. Footsteps were coming down from above and her heart raced a bit. Then voices joined in and she relaxed, lowering her weapon. Neighbors she vaguely recognized appeared. They passed her on the landing and ignored her, bickering amongst themselves.
“I didn’t lose it, babe. I only used it that one time. I told you, we have a ghost.”
The words chilled her. It was the matter-of-fact way the man said it that struck her. Not as a joke and not as something feared just, we have a ghost. As if saying we have a cat.
She fumbled with her keys at the door and tried chuckling to herself. Ha, she thought. Some people. Not convincing herself.
Her hands shook, making the lock difficult to work. She stepped in and stood perfectly still listening for anything. She had loved this tiny apartment when she found it, the light poured in on sunny afternoons. Now she didn’t quite trust it, like it was a pet that had bit her one day for no reason.
She checked every corner and closet again and her heart pounded this time. She laughed out loud when she was done, and it sounded as fake as it felt. She called a few of her friends to see if anyone wanted to come over and share the wine but none of them answered.
Assholes, she thought. It’s fine, I’m fine.
She poured some wine and grimaced a bit at the smell. Holding her breath she took a big chug and shivered, like a kid taking their medicine. A small wave of relief washed over her. She leaned back and took another big swig, letting the wine do its thing.
She felt a little off balance on her feet just then and thought she should probably eat something. There was never any food in the house though, who had time to cook? And delivery took ages in this neighborhood. She remembered some pretzels then, in the pantry. They were probably stale by now but she didn’t care.
As she reached out, her hand froze mid-air. The pantry door had been closed, she had closed it after checking inside, but now it was very slowly opening. Just a crack, barely enough to peek out from. It stopped then. For a moment she thought her mind must be playing tricks on her. But then from in the dark space, there was a long scraping sound. Then a sharp thud.
She yanked her hand away, stumbling back into the counter. Her wine glass crashed into the sink. Pictures of strange, greasy men flashed through her head. She groped for a knife and held it in front of her ready for someone to charge. Her eyes flitted between the door and the darkness behind it. Her breathing came in shaky fits. She struggled to steady herself.
She inched forward, the knife extended, shaking like the needle of a polygraph. She strained to hear even the littlest sound, paralyzed for a moment in the silence.
Then, with a burst of courage, she flung open the door! Nothing.
A roll of paper towels and a bag of flour sat on the floor, their usual shelf loose and cockeyed. She picked them up, rolling her eyes at herself, and put them on a different shelf, checking it was more stable. She grabbed the pretzels and closed the door behind her. It popped right open again. A second attempt and again, it opened. She put the knife down and swore at the old shitty building, giving the door a big shove until she heard it latch firmly.
Shaking her head at herself, she cleared up the broken glass from the sink and corked the rest of the bottle. It didn’t feel necessary anymore. She was so tired, the adrenaline and the hangover were catching up with her. She showered and went to bed, taking the pretzels with her. No water though.
Sleep overtook her fast in a way that felt like falling. It jolted her back awake once or twice but eventually won out. It was a deep, dreamless sleep so when she woke next, she was unsure if minutes or hours had passed.
The room was very still but for a strange little sound, like something rolling across the floor. She looked over the edge of the bed but could see nothing in the dark. The sound stopped.
Something moved across the room. She turned and froze. The mirror on the wall was swinging back and forth erratically. She gasped and groped for the light. Her eyes darted around, registering all that was wrong with what she saw. Several drawers of her dresser were slightly ajar. A potted plant leaned against the wall like it was drunk. An armchair from across the room had moved. It now sat at the side of the bed as if someone had been seated, watching her sleep.
And then it moved a little closer.
A scream rose in her throat but caught there. She fell out of bed and scrambled out of the room. The ground felt unsteady beneath her feet. She stumbled and tripped, slamming the door behind her.
She backed away towards the kitchen until a delicate pop and crash in the darkness stopped her dead in her tracks. Shaking she turned on the light. The cabinets on one wall were all open, broken glass scattered below. And then, as if it had been waiting for her, a wine glass teetered and gently dove head first to the floor.
She reeled, blind with panic. Grabbing what she could, she flew out into the hallway. Down the stairs, missing half of them, barely staying upright. The front door was jammed shut. She threw herself against it with all her might, peering up behind her to see what might follow. Finally, it relented with a sickening crack. The glass bloomed into a spiderweb and bowed dangerously in its frame.
She raced out, tripped down the stairs, and landed hard on the sidewalk. Her clothes, shoes, and bag were strewn out around her. She scrambled to collect them, looking back at the now gaping front door, and darted across the street.
She tucked in a doorway and got dressed, her knee throbbing and palms burning. She looked back at the building. It looked twisted and demented in the darkness. It sneered at her escape. She backed away, afraid of what it might still do.
Then she ran. As far and as fast as she could before her knee screamed in agony. A little diner glowed like a beacon down the street. The small handful of people inside stared when she entered.
Her mind churned. What should she do? Who could she tell? Could she break her lease over a ghost? Would she get her security deposit back? She thought maybe she should call a medium. Maybe a priest. But she didn’t really believe in either of those.
She downed cup after cup of coffee until the last of the night passed and day broke. The morning news yammered away about the latest catastrophe to befall the city. She slipped out as the pre-work rush began to gear up.
She went down the block to the police station, having no idea what she would say. How could she explain this to them? They looked so busy, rushing off to their cars, lights flashing, real emergencies calling.
Standing there in the morning light, she caught a glimpse of her reflection. A nightgown, winter coat, bloody knee, and rain boots. She would go back. She was going to have to deal with this herself. She took a deep breath and began the walk, well, limp home.
Each step closer made her heart race a little more. She told herself a ghost couldn’t hurt her, just fuck with her stuff. She walked with determination breaking into a jog at times. She knew if she slowed, fear might stop her completely.
Just a few blocks away now. It was as if the people around her could feel the tension. They were huddled about, talking animatedly. They knew something was coming, they could feel it too. Her knee protested as she picked up the pace but she didn’t give in. She charged around the final corner at a full run now. Her jaw set, fists clenched, eyes burning fiercely. I WILL FIGHT!
She stopped dead.
There was her building, what still stood of it anyway. The front facade lay in a massive, crumpled heap on the sidewalk. Police were setting up perimeter tape as an ambulance sat empty with lights flashing. A few neighbors she recognized stood around looking bewildered.
“From our first inspection, it looks like a support in the sublevel gave way,” An officer was telling a newscaster who nodded sympathetically for the camera. “A bunch more seem to be crumbling. The place has been slowly collapsing for a while now. Thank god no one was hurt.”
Her eyes traced their way up the building. It looked like a dollhouse from the back, with different rooms open to reach your hand in. She could see her room, her headboard, and her nightstand. The place where she’d been lying just hours before. The floor hung at a strange angle and as she watched as her bed shifted a little, sending dust and rubble sprinkling down.
Something small caught the light then as it rolled down the floor and leaped off the edge to the pile below. It bounced once before smashing on the second impact, spilling its contents across the debris. A piece continued to tumble and came to rest at her feet.
She looked down at the familiar lid of the little canister of eye cream and thought, damn that was expensive.