Laura had been saying I had a bad attitude since our “journey of reconciliation” began over a year ago, but I couldn’t see how staying the night in a haunted house was going to fix anything.
“When Bob and Rose stayed there,” Laura said, “blood dripped from the walls and spiders crawled over the floors and the two of them huddled together the whole night. When the sun came up, their relationship was stronger than it had ever been.”
We were on our backs on the bed, our shoulders almost touching. I couldn’t tell if this was turning into another earnest late-night discussion or a fight.
“What do you think of that?” she asked.
“Are you hoping that happens?” I asked. “Because that sounds awful.”
“Which part?” she said, as if she were about to catch me in a trap.
“The blood, Laura. The blood sounds like the worst part.”
I turned slightly to look at her and was reminded again how beautiful she was in profile. The nose she detested, with its little ridge in the middle, made me want to work things out with her more than any session with our therapist ever could.
The role playing was the worst. I would become Laura and she would become me while the therapist tapped her pen across her notebook. Laura did this impression of me where she stooped her shoulders and mumbled her words. “You aren’t listening,” she’d say as me. “You don’t know where I’m coming from.”
The therapist would then wave in my direction, and I’d straighten my back and say as Laura, “You never take out the trash before it overflows onto the kitchen floor and you never put the toilet seat down and you eat the ice cream directly out of the container instead of getting a bowl.”
Laura would shake her head vigorously, as if I was the most disappointing thing in her life, and then she and the therapist would share a “moment” where she’d telepathically say “Can you believe what I’m dealing with here?” and the therapist would telepathically say back to her “Get out while you can.”
I’m not stupid. I know it’s not about the nagging. If everything was great with Laura, like it had been at the beginning of our marriage, then my tolerance level would be much higher and I probably wouldn’t do all those things on purpose.
Now Laura wanted to try this Horror Therapy.
“How do we know spending the night with a poltergeist is safe?” I asked.
“Putting your heart out there is never safe,” she said.
Anything I said in response would make me sound like an asshole, so I said “Let’s do it.”
The next morning, as we crunched cereal at the table, Laura smiled and it made me feel giddy. I hadn’t seen that smile in months.
“I didn’t think you’d agree to it,” she said.
“I’m committed,” I said. I reached across the table and brushed my fingers along hers, but she pulled away.
“We should pack for tonight.”
I nodded. “Any tips? Should I bring extra underwear?”
She stared at me.
“In case I shit my pants, right?”
“This isn’t a joke,” she said.
“I know that. Yeah. I do that when I’m scared.”
“Just go pack.”
1321 South Cramden Street was a regular house in a regular neighborhood with neighbors a little too close on either side and a perfectly cut yard. The housing development was only five years old, which seemed way too young to have a poltergeist. How angry could a ghost be if he’d lived somewhere with central air and skylights?
After all her big talk, Laura was near-shaking nervous. She sat in the passenger seat of our station wagon and stared at the unassuming one-story house.
“Does it give off a vibe or anything to you?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure what answer she was looking for. “Not yet.”
“Okay then,” she said and opened the car door. I grabbed our bags from the back seat and followed her up the sidewalk to the front door.
“Are we supposed to knock?” I asked.
Laura’s dark brown eyes opened wide. “I have no idea.”
I shrugged and knocked loudly on the heavy oak door. The sound echoed into the house but nothing stirred.
“How about this?” I said. “If it’s unlocked we stay. If it’s locked, we get the hell out of here and go get some ice cream.”
“Deal,” she said. It felt nice to agree on something.
I turned the handle and the door swung open to reveal a charming house. Wood floors. Big windows that let in tons of light. A fireplace and an open kitchen. Everything Laura wanted in our dream home back when we had dreams. If only we were here house hunting and not trying to scare our relationship back to life.
Laura walked in as if we were about to put in a bid. All of her previous fear was gone.
“Can you imagine?” she said.
“Lost my imagination a long time ago,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “Which is why you’ll never get promoted.”
I shuffled into the house behind her and was surprised by the thick coating of dust on the floor. Supposedly hundreds of couples had come here hoping to save their relationships, but I didn’t see a single footstep or a fingerprint smudge near any of the light switches. As if no one had been here in years. “I thought you said this house was booked solid every day. That we were lucky this spot happened to open.”
“We were,” she said sharply.
I dropped our bags on the floor and walked past her, dust billowing behind me. “Where are we supposed to sleep? Or sit down? There’s no furniture.”
Laura rubbed her temple in the way I always loved, like she was stimulating her brain to work harder on a problem. “We’ll improvise,” she said which I knew was a dig at me because that’s what I always said. She was getting too good at the role playing.
“You’re telling me Bob and Rose slept on the floor?” I said. “Bob won’t even ride in the back seat of a car.”
Laura moved toward the kitchen like she already owned the place. “Maybe they were too terrified to notice there was no furniture.”
I scanned the eggshell white walls and the wood base boards. There was no sign that these walls ever had blood on them. There wasn’t even a single spider web. It was starting to feel like we’d been duped. I knew exactly what was going to happen. We were going to stay up all night in an empty house and talk about our relationship.
“Well, I’m going to the bathroom before this poltergeist gets started,” I said and left Laura in the kitchen opening and closing the mahogany cabinets. I walked down the hall and dust continued to explode around me. The first door I opened had a small toilet and a sink inside. I went in and shut the door and paused to take a deep breath. I needed to figure out my main goal for the evening before I went back out there.
After I finished pissing, I let the lid slam loudly so Laura could hear it in the other room. I stared at myself in the mirror as I washed my hands. I hoped my eyes might give away something I was hiding, like if I was prepared to see this journey all the way to the end or not. But I did have to admit that Laura was right; I no longer looked like the guy she fell in love with. She’d said that during our last session, and I’d stared at her even though she was unable to meet my eyes, and I realized she still looked exactly like the girl I had fallen in love with. But I had to figure out if that mattered anymore. I splashed some water on my face and wondered what was going through her mind out there in the kitchen. Did she think this house could fix anything?
Something moved in the corner behind me. Just a shimmer, but enough to give my heart a jolt. I leaned toward the mirror and watched a shadow peel away from the wall like a Band-Aid.
“I’m the poltergeist,” a crinkly voice said.
“I can’t believe you’re actually real,” I said.
The poltergeist sounded wounded. “You don’t believe in poltergeists?”
“I do. It was just you I doubted,” I said.
“Because this was Laura’s idea, right?”
“You got me there,” I said, and I felt pretty shitty about it.
The shadow leaned a little closer, and I tightened my shoulders. “You need to stop always expecting failure,” he said.
“I hear you,” I said, but he was making me full-on uncomfortable now. “Are you only in the mirror?”
“Oh right. Spoiler alert. If you turn around there will be nothing behind you.”
I finished washing my hands but there was no towel.
“Fresh out of towels, buddy. Use your jeans,” the poltergeist said.
“Laura hates when I do that.”
“It’ll be fine,” he whispered and reached toward me. I felt a cold breeze on my neck, and it finally struck me how terrified I was.
“Are things about to get scary?” I said.
The poltergeist laughed. “What do you think?”
“I think this is going to be too much for Laura. Maybe we could ease in to the terror? Let her warm up to it a bit.”
“Who’s in charge around here?” the poltergeist bellowed.
I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth, ready for the walls to start bleeding. I waited. I listened. Nothing.
Then I heard stifled laughter, as if the poltergeist was clamping his hand over his mouth. “You should see your face,” he said.
I slowly opened my eyes and it was true, my reflection in the mirror looked ridiculous. Like the picture taken at the top of a roller coaster. Just a few weeks ago, Laura had told the therapist that she was still upset that we hadn’t bought the picture of us at the top of Zoom Mountain when we went to an amusement park not long after we were married. I don’t even remember the “picture incident,” as Laura called it, but apparently, I’d said it was a waste of money. “We looked so young, so pure,” Laura had said. “Scared to death of the upcoming drop. It perfectly encapsulated our relationship. I wanted that picture so much, and he didn’t understand what it meant to me. That was where it started.”
“I think you’re putting a little too much emphasis on this picture,” I’d said in my defense. “It probably cost like thirty bucks. And we were probably screaming.”
The poltergeist cleared his throat. “Whoa, lost you there,” he said. “You know, it’s considered rude to space out when a poltergeist is attempting to terrify you.”
“Oh god. I’m so sorry,” I said. I started to turn from the mirror.
“Ah ah ah. You can only see me in the mirror, remember?”
So I was forced to continue staring at myself and the dark shadow of the poltergeist hovering behind me like a cloud of bad ideas.
“This is how things are going to work. I’m going to start by asking each of you what would scare the other the most.”
I couldn’t help it. I groaned.
“It’s more role playing.”
The poltergeist growled.
Every single hair on my body stood up. “I’m sorry. I know you’re doing your best here.” Then it hit me. “Wait a minute. Did you already ask Laura? Did she say I’d be scared of more role playing?”
The poltergeist snickered. “I don’t know, did I?”
Now I was angry again. “So you can literally do anything?”
I thought about this, watching the shadow stretch like a rubber band. I really wanted to come up with an idea that would scare Laura the most.
“I got it,” I said. “You should tell her she has to accept me as is. That would scare the shit out of her.”
The poltergeist made a loud yawning sound. “Could you be more boring?” Then he laughed and disappeared.
I spun from the mirror but there was no sign that he’d ever been there. I couldn’t help feeling like I’d failed the first test. I wiped my hands on my jeans and opened the door.
Laura was standing on the other side. “Anything?” she asked.
“You didn’t hear all that?”
“I just talked to the poltergeist.”
Laura narrowed her eyes, but she craned a little to the left so she could see into the empty bathroom. “I wish you’d take this seriously. I had high hopes going into this.”
“I really did talk to him,” I said. “He wasn’t that bad to be perfectly honest. Actually seemed kind of open-minded.”
“You’re a dick.” She pushed past me into the bathroom. “And would it have killed you to put the toilet seat down?”
I looked past her and sure enough, that crazy poltergeist had put the toilet seat up. “The haunting has begun,” I said, and she shut the bathroom door.
It wasn’t until I returned to the front room that I noticed something strange. Laura had left no footprints in the dust while I could see every step I’d taken since walking in. It was like I had come here alone.
While I waited for Laura, I wandered from room to room. When I wandered into the master bedroom, which was pretty stellar with a skylight and two walk-in closets, it occurred to me that the poltergeist was probably talking to Laura.
I went back to the bathroom and put my ear against the door. I didn’t hear anything.
I opened the door onto an empty bathroom.
“Laura?” I backed into the front room. With her suddenly gone, I could feel the emptiness of the house. The unmoving air. The missing weight of Laura’s hopes and disappointments that had become part of my fabric.
This felt like she was gone forever.
A face appeared in the dust on the floor like a child had drawn it with his finger. “You okay?” the poltergeist asked, the dust mouth moving as best as it could to form words.
I squeezed my eyes closed. “Is Laura dead? Did you kill her?”
The poltergeist laughed, and I was sick of all his laughing.
“She’s not dead,” he said. “She’s over there by the window.”
I turned and found no sign of her.
The poltergeist chuckled. “I split reality in half. You’re both here but neither of you can see each other. Pretty cool, right?”
“That’s why I can only see my footprints.”
“Yeah. It’s like that biblical allegory. But I’m not planning to carry you at any point so don’t get your hopes up.”
I glanced around the empty room. “Now what?”
“You wait,” he said and then the face blew away in a small breeze, as if someone had left the door open.
I moved to the window, hoping to feel some sign of her. Maybe if we were standing in the exact same spot, we would suddenly be in synch again. I tried to look where I thought she’d be looking. I watched a young boy ride his bike up and down the street, unsteady, as if he’d only recently taken off his training wheels. It’s interesting how many crutches we are given as we go through life, all to keep us upright and moving forward.
Later tonight, when the poltergeist brought us back together after whatever terrifying visions he had in store for us, I would take Laura in my arms and tell her I understood what she’d been doing all these years. She wanted me to remove my training wheels. I didn’t necessarily agree with her tactics, but I could kind of see where she was coming from. After this, we’d have a lot to talk about at our next therapy session.
“Hey poltergeist,” I said.
“Whattup?” I couldn’t tell where his voice was coming from.
“Can you send a message to Laura for me?”
“No can do.”
It had gotten dark now and the house seemed a bit more menacing. Any one of the gathering shadows could peel away from the wall at any time.
“I know you have a plan and all. But just tell her I don’t need to role play anymore. I think she’ll know what I mean.”
“I can’t do it, man.”
“I won’t try to change anything else,” I said. “Just do this one thing for me.”
“She left,” the poltergeist said with a loud exhale of breath. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you for the last hour or so.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Trust me, I was as surprised as you. She even thanked me for showing her a reality without you in it.”
I didn’t want to believe him, but I knew that I did. I couldn’t feel her anywhere in the house. I truly was alone. I lay back on the hardwood floor and closed my eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“Sleeping,” I said.
“Oh. I figured you’d be heading out now. I was hoping for an early night.”
“Nope,” I said. I wanted to understand the emptiness before I left. I wondered if Laura and I would forever be on different realities even outside this house, never to cross paths again. Because maybe, if I really stopped to think about it, we were always on different paths. Maybe the roller coaster was never a good analogy because we were sitting next to each other and going down the same track.
The poltergeist was right next to me now, breathing loudly, but I’m not sure how I knew that because I still couldn’t see him. “What would I have to do to get you out of here?” he asked.
I thought about how the poltergeist had already accomplished what I’d imagined would scare me most, and yet I was still here. “You could make the walls bleed,” I said.
“Done,” the poltergeist said.
Josh Denslow’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Catapult, Barrelhouse, Third Coast, Cutbank, Wigleaf, Split Lip, and Black Clock, among others. His debut collection Not Everyone Is Special will be published in 2019 by 7.13 Books. In addition to constructing elaborate Lego sets with his three boys, he plays the drums in the band Borrisokane and edits at SmokeLong Quarterly.