The house was old. It was large by most standards—to a child of four or five, it was enormous. A large front porch braced the entry, protecting an oversized door. Heavy and thick, it swung smooth and noiseless on large, well-oiled hinges. A massive spring bumper checked the fluid momentum.
Nearly everyone paused at the first step inside. The eddies of air from the arc of the door settled. A long stairway, straight without any landing or turns, confronted you, commanding your attention and directed your eye upward to a small bright window on the second floor.
Our family moved to this great beast of a house when I was four. It seemed an amazing place, in the middle of ten acres of walnut trees, and that a family as poor as ours could live in a place so large. It was owned by my father’s boss, a rich man with many properties. I assume now he needed people on the place to keep his tax liabilities within the rules by declaring it as a working farm.
We didn’t work it, though—laborers came once a year to clear the huge trees of nuts-those we didn’t claim for ourselves. We ate a lot of nuts, true, but to a child in southern California, walnuts were the perfect substitute for snowballs. Forts were built, ammunition stored, battles fought, won and lost as the missiles found home and raised plump red welts. There was then a general truce in the mad rush to the cooling water faucet near the back door.
My parents were divorced—a small anomaly at that time in our Catholic community. We went to the parochial school tuition free—another emotional hurdle as the children in our respective classes inexplicably found out, and pressed their advantage. It was, though, without knowing to compare, a happy enough time for us all.
Except for the ghosts.
The kids slept upstairs. It seemed an incredible journey to get to the second story. The tall, tall ceilings on the first floor pushed the second floor skyward. We shared bedrooms at times, and other times not as there were plenty for all. I declared my independence at five and claimed a room of my own. It was a long narrow room with two dormer wings on either side of the door. A lone window at the end overlooked the front of the house and a busy intersection in the distance.
And, as experienced by younger brothers throughout time, it didn’t take long for the wiser, more experienced siblings to inform me of my peril. “That room’s haunted. You’re gonna die.” “Yeah, says you,” my only retort, but inside I could feel my vital organs liquefying. “You watch out tonight, we’ll come in when the sun’s up and pick up the bloody pieces.”
Generally, summer nights are unfair for the younger ones. “Go to bed,” is simply wrong before the last traces of color are erased from the sky. This time though, there were no complaints. I had to plan my defense. The door was wedged open—an army man sacrificed bent double for the cause. Sheets were untucked for an easier escape. Closets were double-checked. Even the walls were tapped and prodded to check for secret entrances, exits and passageways. Finally, and while it was still barely light out, the underside of the bed was swept clear with a purloined flashlight.
Everything was secure. But the fear was there, my pulse rhythmically clicking in an eardrum worn fragile by repeated infections. It was a loud and unsettling noise—heard throughout the house. I started as first one, then another brother shouted his final goodbye from down the hall.
Obviously, I couldn’t sleep.
The darkness outside came slowly. The dusk was further along inside. The feeble light from my bedside Howdy Doody lamp lit the bed and little else. The flashlight worked fine, but a dread of an ill timed and critical battery failure kept it off.
The first star clicked on in the little window and I was ready: “Starbright, starlight, first star I see tonight…” A prayer to some other god, the god of first-star-wishing-supplicant must surely be overlooked by our most catholic and ferocious Father in such a desperate time. We’re talking ghosts here afterall. Who knows from where the protection can come? As such, all the saints I could recall and any other deity, orthodox or not, were summoned into service, including Buffalo Bob, Engineer Bill and Captain Kangaroo.
Time passed. And then something had moved by the door—I was sure I saw something. It was late enough in my vigil to sense my solitude. Everyone else was asleep. I wanted to call out, to summon a brother or even my mom, but surely a call would create a focus of attention where I least wanted it. Maybe if I was still and quiet enough, not even a ghost would see me.
There it was again! The faintest light moved across the door, from one dormer to the other. “Oh Lord, I’ll always be good—I promise.” I hoped there would be time later to atone for the lie. There was nothing, then, for the longest time. Maybe the nuns were right, perhaps guardian angels and supplications work as predicted.
But no, I was alone and the ghosts came back. They moved from side to side, sometimes one way, sometimes the other.
And there the memory of that night ends. I’m here, so obviously I survived. I suppose fear gave way to sleep eventually, but I must have spent a long time under the covers before the mercy of it arrived.
It wasn’t until I was in college that it all finally made sense. A book—title and author long forgotten—described the ghost fears of a young girl. The poor girl didn’t know how or why the ghosts appeared because the author was omniscient and cruel and didn’t let her know right away. The ephemeral spirits, the phosphorus images scanning the wall from one corner to another, came from headlights. Cars would pass outside, sometimes turning at a nearby intersection and cast their beams through windows and curtains propelling the limned spirits—uncaring drivers unknowingly reducing untold numbers of children to jelly.