Friday, October 28, 2016
Living with Ghosts by Heather McCollum
I’m an only child and my parents divorced when I was nine. My dad moved to Virginia. He loved, and still loves, “fixer uppers” which is why he bought an abandoned house. I first came to see “the mansion” when I was twelve years old. The grass around the two-story, slate-roof house stood to my waist. A sloping wrap-around porch had turned completely gray and loose boards along it could swallow your foot if you weren’t careful. The clapboard paint was peeling but looked like it had once been white. A huge barn sat, its middle sinking like a swayback horse, in the yard. We didn’t go in that first evening because the paperwork hadn’t been signed yet, so I stared at the vacant, dark windows that reminded me of assessing eyes. Yeah, I was spooked, but Dad was so excited about the house and its history that I agreed it was beautiful.
The house had been built in three parts, the oldest being up front, sitting just a few steps from the narrow dirt road winding before it. This part of the house was built before the Civil War. It was the manor house of a small plantation, and unlike many others in the area, it hadn’t been burned to the ground because it was used for a short while as a hospital for the soldiers. My dad gleefully showed me several regimental-looking buttons that he’d unearthed in the basement.
The first time I stepped into the house I stood stunned, staring at the terrible graffiti that had been painted across the walls by vagrants who’d used the empty house for who knows what. Swastikas and profanity yelled back at me from warped, horse-hair plaster walls. While Dad mowed the foot-tall grass with a hand mower, I was supposed to sweep the floor and wash down the walls so we could paint them. The electricity had yet to be turned on in the house. I pushed the broom around in that silent room while the sun set outside. All I could hear was the whir of Dad’s mower as it choked through the grass and the broom bristles scratching the wood floor.
I stilled like a panicked bird as cold enveloped the room. Goosebumps prickled up all over my arms and I felt…anger. No ghostly howls came from the staircase in the hall, no chains shook, no television turned fuzzy (maybe it would have had there been one). But I had the overwhelming feeling that someone or something wanted me to “Get out!”
So I got out, running straight off the porch to my dad and refusing to go back in until he had electricity. Luckily by the time I turned fourteen and moved in with my dad and stepmother, he had electricity and running water and even a room for me. Guess where my bedroom was? In the oldest part of the house of course. We seemed to attract stray dogs, so we had five. One small Benji-looking dog was mine. Since I was an only child, and my dad and stepmother left at 5:30 AM and returned home at 7:00 PM, I was alone most of the time. Just me and my dogs and…
It became pretty apparent that something was going on in the house. All of us would hear footsteps going up the worn wooden stairs that led to the hall just outside my room. We’d hear the unplugged vacuum cleaners rolling on the wood floor at night and find it on the other end of the hall in the morning. The dogs would stare together at a single corner, tipping their heads in unison and whining.
“What? What is it!?” I’d yell, but they never told me. Once I woke up for no apparent reason to see my little dog whining at something in the shadowed corner of my room. Then she jumped up on my bed and dove under the covers. I joined her there until morning.
I had a friend sleep over. I didn’t tell her about the weird sounds in the house because I didn’t want to scare her off. We started hearing the rattling downstairs hours after my parents had gone to bed. I told her to stay put. I walked down the dark stairs into the dining room (yes, also in the oldest part of the house). Silence sat with the moon beams coming through the naked windows, as if waiting for me. Then suddenly all the china in the glass hutch began to vibrate in their little stands. Nothing else moved in the room, but all the china quivered, making a ringing noise. I was literally petrified, couldn’t move until it stopped and I ran back upstairs. Throughout the night I kept hearing it, but never again after that night.
Occasionally doors would open on their own, reminding me that we were sharing our home, but there were no more angry feelings. In fact I began to feel like the ghosts (as we felt there were more than one, not sure why) were looking out for me. Perhaps once they realized we weren’t there to harm the house further, they accepted us.
They certainly didn’t accept one of my boyfriends. Poor Mark. One night we had a fight. I remember him saying “fine, then I’m leaving.” I didn’t want him to go and perhaps the ghosts could see it in my face. As Mark strode to the door of the room (old houses seem to have doors on every room, no open floor plans), the door, which was standing open about three feet, slammed in his face. Well, now!
After that Mark wouldn’t leave my side when he visited. When I had to use the bathroom, he’d stay just outside the door. LOL! One night as he was leaving, very late after my folks were asleep, I stood on the front porch waving. He stopped his car, stared at me with huge eyes and then peeled out of the driveway, his tires spitting gravel. The next day I asked him what the hell he’d been doing as he’d woken my dad.
“Was your dad wearing white and standing on a chair right behind you when I was leaving?”
“That’s why I left. The ghost was watching me leave.”
“And you just left me there?!”
“They like you!” was his defense.
Well, yes, that was true. They did like me. They looked out for me, perhaps even growing attached to me. When I was packing up to go away to college, they were quite unhappy. I had a music box with a porcelain doll holding a miniature bird cage on top of it. For two nights before I left for the University of Maine, starting around 2AM, I would wake up to my music box singing and the doll’s coiffed head tipping and tilting on its gears. Yes, every hour on the hour, those pranksters wound up my music box and I’d have to listen to it until it wound down. I had already learned to sleep with my head under the pillows from years of freaky night noises. Perfect preparation for dorm life.
The first time I came home from college, the electricity just happened to be off only in MY room. I had been away, living with real people with no ghosts around, for months. When I walked into my totally black room, I felt what I can only call a presence or pressure, like someone was in the corner.
“I’m not used to you anymore. I’m sorry, but you’re scaring me,” I said. “I think you should move on or whatever you need to do to leave this house. I’m going back downstairs and when I come back in five minutes, I’d really like it if you were gone.” I threw in a “in the name of Jesus Christ” just in case and left. When I came back up, the pressure seemed to be gone. The next day my dad found the wire that had mysteriously come undone in the wall. After that Dad said he didn’t really hear anything from our ghosts. The footsteps up the stairs to my room had faded away.
Maybe I should hire myself out for exorcisms or something. Since then my dad has sold the house and a lovely family lives there. They have not heard nor seen anything unusual. I’m glad that the ghosts, perhaps of those soldiers (although I sensed a female at times, I mean what guy would bother to vacuum?), moved on to wherever their spirits were supposed to go. I will certainly always remember them. They have influenced me in so many ways, in my writing, my ability to consider the unusual, and my conviction that there are magical things in this world if we are willing to open our eyes and “see” them.
Have you ever experienced something you can’t explain? Do tell : )
Romance Wrapped in Magic
A picture of the house as it looks today is at the beginning of my book trailer for my YA paranormal romance, SIREN’S SONG