It wasn’t fully dark, but the light was fading. I stood on the porch at my grandfather’s front door, heart pounding and hands damp. Grandpa’s car wasn’t in the driveway, but it might be in the barn where he sometimes kept it. I wasn’t going to walk back there in the growing darkness to find out.
No lights shone in the house. I rang the doorbell anyway. Nothing. I tried the door. Locked. I knocked, loudly. “Grandpa?” I called. “It’s Lisa! Are you there?” Everything was perfectly silent. I pressed my ear against the door, trying to detect any movement inside.
What should I do? I’d gotten the call from my mother an hour and a half ago, saying my grandfather had taken a fall and I needed to go over there because she was currently on the other side of the country.
“Is he okay, Mom? Where is he? How badly hurt is he?”
“I don’t know anything except he fell. I got a call,” she said faintly, or maybe it was just her obviously bad cell signal.
“Is he in the hospital? Did they call you?” Her answer was garbled. “What did you say, Mom? Is he still home? Where am I going?”
For a moment, her connection was crystal clear. “That’s all I know, what I told you. Call me when you find out something!”
“But I didn’t hear what you said, Mom!” I started to say, but the line cut out. I tried to call back, but couldn’t connect. I left a message and hoped she’d call me back while I was in the car, but she didn’t. I drove fast. Suppose he were lying there, helpless. I suddenly realized maybe I should have called the local hospitals before I’d started driving, but at this point, as much as I didn’t want to, I was going to have to go out and check his house.
I loved my grandfather, but I hated his house. It was a hundred years old, and huge, three stories plus a cellar, all aged wood and stone. It smelled like dust and something old and damp. It creaked and settled and made noises like a whispering voice. Everything in it seemed decrepit, including my Grandpa Al. All the doors creaked, all the banisters felt loose, and all the corners were dark corners.
As a child, when my grandmother had been alive, I’d loved it. It felt like a giant playhouse, with so many places to explore, always ending in the warm and good-smelling kitchen where my grandma baked cookies and muffins — always both cookies and muffins — when she knew I was coming. The old house had been in my grandma’s family from the time it was built. The enormous working ranch that had originally stretched around it had long ago been turned into a community of single-story houses on a grid of straight streets with a park where the forest had been.
But my grandparents had stayed in the family home, out of sight of the new neighbors, up a winding drive that turned into gravel at the top. As a little girl, coming here had felt magical, like traveling back in time. Now, approaching the old place through the surrounding neighborhood, it just felt spooky. Everything was silent. There were no other moving cars. I saw someone watching me from the last house, just a silhouette in a lit window, head turning to follow me as I drove by.
The family had often gathered at the house after my Grandma Pearl died. In those sad days, my mother and some of her cousins had tried to talk Grandpa into moving. They brought out all the arguments they could think of, the house was too big for him to take care of, it was cold in the winter and hot in the summer, it wasn’t safe to be by himself so far out in the country, he’d be lonely rattling around this house on his own, he should live closer to his family. But nothing moved him. He didn’t argue, he just said he wasn’t moving. He said it over and over, and eventually they stopped.
I was still pretty small, and the whole conversation had seemed confusing and overwhelming to me. One day, when I was rocking in the porch swing with my grandpa, I’d asked him. “Why don’t you want to move, Grandpa?”
He was silent for a moment as we rocked back and forth. Then he turned to me and said, “I don’t want to leave here, sweetheart. Your grandmother is still here, and I’d miss her too much.”
I puzzled about that explanation. I wondered if he meant that literally. Had the two of them, for whatever reason, decided to pretend she had died while she silently lived on in her house? Even at my young age, it seemed unbelievable, but imagining it felt so good, and I felt such relief that my grandma might not be really truly dead. So though I didn’t really believe it, in a way I guess I wanted to. At least, I started searching the house for her whenever we went to visit. I’d sit with my grandpa for awhile, and when the conversation turned to things I wasn’t interested in, I’d roam the house, checking all the hiding places I knew about, even finding some new ones.
There was often a housecleaner there when we visited. My mother had arranged for someone to come in three days a week and clean and cook. Chloe was a frizzy haired teenager with a pierced nose, so I was fascinated by her. One day when I was emerging from the closet in my grandfather’s room, she entered with a pile of towels. “What are you doing in there?” she asked, but she asked it in such an amused, non-judgmental way, I answered honestly.
“Grandpa said Grandma is still here and that’s why he doesn’t want to move. I was trying to find her.”
“He said that?” She cocked her head. “He said she was still here? That’s amazing. Have you seen her?” I shook my head. “Have you sensed her presence?” I didn’t know what that meant so I shook my head again. She nodded knowingly.
Next time we went, she silently beckoned me out of the room where I was listening to the grownups, and led me to a spare bedroom and showed me a flat piece of wood with numbers and letters. “We’re going to try to talk to your grandma,” she said, with conspiratorial excitement. She closed the blinds and lit a candle, and I was already very uncomfortable before we sat across from each other with our fingers on a piece of plastic like a pointer.
What followed was predictable. “Pearl, are you with us?” asked Chloe, and the planchette suddenly skidded off to the “Yes.” “Did you do that?” asked Chloe, looking hard at me, so I knew it hadn’t been her. I shook my head, wide-eyed.
The questions and the ouija board answers kept coming. Yes, it was my grandma, yes her spirit still lived in the house, yes she loved us all still and was watching over us. Gradually, I realized that my grandma really was dead, but maybe not gone, that she could still talk to us.
“Is my grandma a ghost?” I whispered to Chloe.
“Yes, she is.”
“Can we see her? Is she… see-through?”
“I can’t see her now, but you should keep your eye out. Now that we know she’s here, you’ll probably see her one day when you least expect it.”
This was not a comforting thought. I wanted the old grandma, all warm and smiling, not some spooky see-through ghost who might suddenly pop up anywhere. I didn’t want a scary grandma. “No,” I whispered.
Suddenly the ouija board, the candle, and a lamp crashed to the floor. I opened my mouth to scream but it caught in my throat. My breath was taken away. “What was that?” I was weeping by now.
“It’s your grandma. She thinks you don’t want to see her. I think she might be mad.” By now, I was sobbing, and seeing this, Chloe turned on an overhead light and hugged me, said she was sorry and my grandma wasn’t mad, and then extracted a promise from me that I would never, ever tell anyone about this, especially the ouija board.
Of course I did tell, and of course Chloe got fired, replaced by an older woman who ignored me completely. But the coziness of the old house was gone for me. I heard every creak, every settling. Every gust of wind sounded like someone coming down the stairs. Every time I turned a corner in the hallway, I looked first to see that it was empty. Every door slam made me jump. And I never explored the house again. If Grandma was there, I was terrified I might find her. I stayed in a room where there were adults.
Now, years later, standing outside the silent house in the gathering darkness, I was at a loss. I was about to turn away when suddenly a flash of light made me jump. And another flash, from the window down at the end of the porch. Then a humming noise started and quickly turned into a loud crunching sound as my panic rose. The house seemed to be coming alive before me. I couldn’t stay here. I was turning to sprint to my car when I realized there was another car coming up the driveway, crunching on the gravel, headlights reflected in the window. Grandpa’s car. Was he driving himself home? What was going on? Taking deep breaths to slow my heart, I hesitantly went down the porch stairs toward the car as an older woman got out.
“You must be Lisa,” she said. I nodded. “I saw you drive by and figured it had to be you. Did the hospital call you?”
“No, my mom did, but we got cut off and I didn’t know where to find him. Are you…”
“Oh, so sorry, I’m Delia. I live right down the hill. Al and I are good friends.” She saw me looking at the car. “Al has me driving his car these days. He doesn’t really drive much anymore, you know, and I don’t have a car, so I use his, and I do his errands and take him to the doctor and so forth.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
“It’s an even exchange. We’ve gotten to be close friends, anyway, so I’m here quite a bit. He originally hired me to do some cleaning, and we got to talking, and we just clicked, simpatico, you know.”
“Well it’s good to know he has someone close by. Are you the one who found him today? Was it bad fall? Is he okay?”
“He called me as soon as he fell. He went down in the living room, missed the chair, apparently. I went right up and called 911 when I realized he couldn’t get up. I’m as worried as you are, but for what it’s worth, I don’t think he broke his hip, the pain seemed to be in his arm. He had me call your mother, which I did, and she said she was out of town and would send you over. And here you are.”
“Thanks so much for all you’ve done here, Delia. Which hospital?”
She told me. “And here,” she handed me a cell phone. "Here’s Al’s phone. I had it to call your mom when they were taking him away. I’m sure he wants it. And here’s a house key for you. Are you staying here tonight?”
I hoped she didn’t notice my shudder. “No, I’ll go to the hospital and then drive home tonight. I’ve got my husband and little boy.”
“Well, everything is ready for you if you change your mind. I made up both guest rooms on the second floor. And left a snack in the kitchen. I thought you might be bringing your family and I’d get to meet them. Here, tell you what, let’s go inside for a minute and you can see.”
My heart was pounding again. I really didn’t want to go inside the dim, creepy house. I felt like there was something terrifying waiting for me in there. But I couldn’t think of an excuse quickly enough, and reluctantly followed Delia through the door into the front room. As I passed into the house all I could think was at least I wasn’t alone, and I definitely wasn’t going to let her leave before me.
But then, Delia snapped on the overhead light, and I stopped in my tracks, open-mouthed. “Wow! Look at this place!”
The room was transformed. The worn carpet and saggy furniture were gone, replaced with newer, brighter versions. The dusty maroon drapes were history, with modern blinds in their place. The lighting was bright and cheerful. Everything was clean and smelled good.
Delia laughed, delightedly. “You like it? I was hoping I could be here when you saw it. Al and I have been working on freshening up the place all summer. I thought you probably didn’t know, I know you haven’t been here in a long time.”
“This is amazing, Delia. I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”
“There’s more!” We made our way down the hallway, looking into the freshly painted dining room and the sitting room that had been reincarnated as a library. She flipped on lights wherever we went, and as we moved, my old uneasiness about the house began to evaporate. It wasn’t just the fresh paint and redecorating, there was something about the spirit of the place that felt right again, a happy house, like in the old days when my grandma was alive.
We entered the kitchen, and just as it used to, it felt like a warm embrace to me. Except for the old wooden farm table, everything was new and modern. But somehow I still felt the old, comfortable, loving atmosphere, and in a moment I realized why. Lined up on the counter were freshly baked muffins, and the glass cookie jar on the table was full of what looked to be freshly baked cookies.
I turned to Delia, throat tight and tears not far away. “Muffins and cookies, how did you know?”
“Well, after the ambulance took Al away, I was at loose ends, and I didn’t know if you’d be coming or when, so I hung out for awhile and just baked some cookies. And then, I don’t know why, I baked some muffins too. Just didn’t want to go home, I guess.”
“But those particular things, chocolate chip cookies and oatmeal muffins, right? That’s what my grandma used to make when I came to visit as a little girl.”
“Well, what do you know. Isn’t that something. I don’t know why those two things occurred to me. Maybe I’m psychic and I don’t know it.” She laughed a little. “But let me show you upstairs.”
The stairs didn’t creak much anymore. They’d gotten “some guy,” according to Delia, to come out and fix the underpinnings in the squeaky places. The banisters were new. There was a new carpet in the hall. She showed me the new bed and decor in my grandfather’s room, and as we turned back toward the hall, I was startled to notice what was obviously a woman’s robe hanging on the back of the door. Delia noticed me notice it, and she laughed again, though a little nervously.
“Okay, you got me. I slept here last night. I sleep here a lot of nights. Al and I are not just good friends.”
“That’s, … well, that’s just fine, I was just surprised because I never … well, I didn’t know my grandpa had a…”
“And you’d probably like to know my intentions, am I right?” She threw her head back and laughed a big, uninhibited laugh. “I’m sorry, but you have to admit this is a funny situation.” And suddenly she was serious. “Allen didn’t want to tell the family right away. He wanted to get the house all done and then have you all come out for dinner and tell you then. But we’re engaged, we got engaged in the spring. We want to get married at Christmas. I love him. I hope —“
I threw my arms around her. This then, was the change I’d felt in the house. It wasn’t just new paint and new furniture. It was love.
She showed me the guest bedrooms next, spotlessly clean, cozy, and welcoming. I felt at home. “Delia,” I said, “Maybe I will stay here for a couple days after all.”
I drove to the hospital, where my grandfather was asleep. I left his phone on his bedside table, with a note promising I’d be back in the morning. Then I went back to his house and let myself in. Delia, who had decided to stay there tonight as well, had left a few lights burning. I went into the kitchen for a glass of water and a cookie, and called my husband, explaining I wouldn’t be home tonight, or for a couple days so I could be close to the hospital. “But Michael, I have an idea. It’s the weekend. Why don’t you bring Henry up in the morning and stay a night or two? The house is in great shape and it’s beautiful here. And there’s someone here you have to meet.”
I went up the stairway, turning off lights as I went. I could hear the sounds an old building makes at the end of the day. But it didn’t sound like a ghostly manifestation. It was just the sounds of an old house settling in for the night, safe and comforting.