I guess I was five or six when I first really believed in ghosts. The belief must have been growing for some while before then, but only in the form of stories I tried not to think about too close to bedtime. Never as something that would ever show up in my house.
But show up it did, one dark night.
I didn’t think much of the noise at first. It was such a natural sound. But around the time it passed through the hall outside my bedroom door, my mind connected the facts that until then I’d taken for granted. Mom and Dad were in their bed, I was in my bed, and something else was outside. Its weight caused the floor to creak as it paced the hall. The creak caused my heart to race. I counted over and over the occupants of the house: Mom, Dad, me. One, two three. One, two, three.
Four, creaked the footsteps outside my door.
And four became such a terrible number for me. So terrible I couldn’t sleep. I wished our cat, a fat orange tabby, was with me, but he was sleeping with my parents. I was alone.
I waited for the footsteps to recede, then I crept to my door and peered outside. The hall was dark and empty. A foreign, nocturnal country where trespassers were hated. But I had to cross it, had to seek the comfort of my parents across the far border. I slipped out of my bedroom and went slowly, as if to stir the air would alert the hall country’s denizens to my invasion. Halfway there, the floor groaned, and my blood froze. I stood there, paralyzed, waiting for the return of the hall’s nighttime guardian. The trap had been tripped, the alarm sounded. I was caught halfway, as far from either border as possible. The only thing for it was to run.
Breaking the ice from my limbs, I darted the rest of the way, stumbling into my parents’ bedroom. Mom, Dad, me. One, two, three. Our entire family in one room now.
“What are you doing?” Dad asked, already awake. At his voice, I half-stepped back toward the door. “I-I heard a noise. S-something—”
“You need to go back to bed,” said Mom. “Now.”
“But what about the—”
They exchanged a look, clutching the bed sheets tightly at their necks. Dad almost said something, but Mom interrupted him. “You heard it walking around outside, didn’t you?”
And that’s when reality dropped from beneath my feet. I’d swapped ghost stories with my friends before. We’d laughed to cover our fear that wasn’t really fear because we knew it was all made up. But in that moment, in the dark, I saw that my parents weren’t angry. They were scared. Mom and Dad, my fountains of truth, were telling me that ghosts were real. Not just real. Something to be feared.
“You need to go back to your room,” Dad said. “Go straight there, and stay under the covers until sunrise. Understand?”
Oh, I understood. I understood everything. That living things turned unfriendly after death. That darkness was more than just absence of light. That people slept in the night to protect themselves. That night, and every night after, the house became a nightmarish realm. At some point around eight p.m., the air changed, and only a few islands existed in the sea of shadows that rose to drown us.
That’s not to say I went in terror every waking moment for the next several years. No. Like any child, I resisted bedtime. But it only took mention of the ghost, our home’s spare member, to bring me back in line.
“In bed, you’re safe,” Mom said. “But if it catches you out of bed…”
Dad, looming behind her, would add, “It hunts.”
I’d seen, on occasion, the prizes hunters brought back from the woods. I pictured a deer, hanging upside-down, its eyes open and vacant, a trickle of dried blood around the bullet hole. I pictured, instead of a deer in someone’s shed, a boy hanging from the doorframe to his bedroom, left there so his vacant eyes could forever gaze on the sanctuary he’d so foolishly left behind.
If ever my belief in ghosts waned, it was just until the next time I heard its invisible tread outside my door, which was often enough. Every night, it seemed.
“Sleep,” I was told. “Sleep, and you won’t hear it.”
But what child, so afraid, could easily sleep under such conditions? The only nights sleep came easily were when the cat deigned to join me in my room. His warmth, the soft rumble of his purring, carried me away like no lullaby could.
I was ten when even that rare comfort was denied me. Mom, while bringing in groceries, left the front door open. The cat, seeing his chance to hunt as his instincts demanded, was off like a fat, orange blur. In a moment of reminiscence that evening, Mom said it was comical, seeing something so ungainly run so fast. Her smile faded, however, as it must, since it was his mad dash that delivered him under the tires of the pickup that crushed the life from him.
I went to bed that night sad—and terrified. Always, there had been the hope of companionship, slim as it was. Now there was nothing. Just me, by myself in my grief, against the terror that stalked the hall. I went up early with tears in my eyes and waited for the dark to enforce its hold. Waited hours for the ghost to begin its nocturnal patrol. Waited. And waited.
But that night our house was silent. No footsteps. No phantom creaks. Eventually, my eyes were too tired to shed tears, and I slept. That night. The next night. And the one after that. Never had I gone so long without hearing the ghost. I began to suspect, but it was a whole week before I was convinced.
There was no ghost.
There never was a ghost.
I didn’t go to my parents with this revelation. About the same time I realized the ghost was fiction, I also realized that it was an intentional one. A lie. The object of my fear and the object of my comfort these past several years were one and the same. That was why, on the nights when our cat slept with me, I wasn’t afraid. There had only ever been the cat, our overweight cat, straining the floor beneath his massive paws. And my parents had known. They must have.
I waited for them to come clean. For the next week, I waited for them to confess their deception. They never did.
If I had to point to a single moment in my life and say, “That’s when I grew up,” it would be that last night as I lay in my bed, drowning in the silence. It was then I realized I’d caught my first glimpse behind the curtain of childhood. I’d seen a hint of what it really meant to be an adult. You might say it was that exact moment, when the hall outside my bedroom door suddenly creaked, that I stopped believing.
You’re too late, I thought to the night-engulfed house and whatever was listening outside. I know the truth now.
Another creak, receding from my door, moving across the hall.
I curled in on myself, imagining a spot of furry warmth in my center. Why’d she have to leave the door open? I opened my eyes and stared at the hollow formed by my arms and knees and stomach.
Outside, across the hall, hinges squeaked and the floor groaned.
I wiped my eyes and rolled over, putting my back to the rest of the house. It’s their fault. Both of them. All their fault.
From my parents’ room came a sound like blankets ripping. Layer after layer. I heard Mom scream, “What is it? What is it?” Beneath that, something else…I imagined tiny feet tramping through mud.
Later, after Mom’s screams abruptly stopped, I lay there, close to sleep. The footsteps came creaking back across the hall. The air in my room grew warm. The empty space in the center of my curled body shivered with a low, calming rumble. It worked its way into my arms and legs, all the way into my bones, massaging the last remnants of tension from my muscles, carrying me into unconsciousness, filling my dreams.
That noise has been with me ever since. It reminds me never to trust.