I Come to the Garden Alone: A Ghost Story for Hallowe'en
NOTE: Each October I write a ghost story or weird tale for Hallowe'en and post it here. The following piece is 2021's "Ghost Story for Hallowe'en":
Following his mother’s death, a cynical self-love author, long estranged from his family, learns that he has inherited his deceased grandparents’ country homestead. Their Victorian farmhouse has been boarded up and lain empty for years – and he wants nothing to do with it. However, he decides to renovate and flip it with the help of an old mentor and friend, while sleeping upstairs in his childhood bedroom. The isolated homestead is filled with slumbering memories and lurking emotions, however, and the renovation rapidly descends from a simple real estate venture into a reality-shredding, metaphysical crucible – especially when his recurring childhood nightmare, of waking to a strange, feral man slithering into bed with him, returns with a shocking vengeance.
FOR GOD’S SAKE, DON’T TURN ON THE LIGHT
The drive from Nashville, Tennessee to Alexandria, Indiana was neither terribly long nor terribly boring, but it was terribly quiet. Passing through the steamy Appalachian foothills, he had no lack of scenery – the blue mountains’ heavy shoulders lay to the east, with rolling farmland on either side, teeming with loping horses and ambling cattle – but it was all so quiet and still. The interstate was unusually desolate, even when he drove through Louisville, with the golden sun melting in the western sky, followed by the orange glow of the city lights, and the muddy shadows of the dim, urban twilight.
He wanted to push through without stopping, and the smothering, quiet calm of the road that was taking him home piqued his determination to stay in motion until he had finished the journey. Truthfully, it was his own fault for starting out as late as he did – seven in the evening, just in time to hit the hideous Nashville after-work traffic – but now his focus was on pulling into Alexandria as soon as he possibly could. It wasn’t that he wanted to be there – he didn’t – or that he was expected by anyone – he wasn’t – but he simply couldn’t stand this heavy fog of silence. It seemed to bleed into his car through the air vents, and pool heavily at his feet. It was watchful and intelligent and it was waiting to see what he would do, and how he would atone.
Grace had immediately understood that he would need to go. Not only had the house been his grandparents’ house for half a century, and not only had it been built by his great-great-grandparents 130-some years ago, but he himself had lived there for three critical years in his life. When he was four years old the economy took a massive dive and his dad’s company tanked. His family had moved in with his mom’s parents and they had lived in the upstairs suite for a year. Two decades later, after he was accepted to Ball State University’s doctoral program in social psychology, he lived in those same rooms for two years. It wasn’t long after he moved out and began writing books that his grandparents passed – both suddenly and unexpectedly in the same year – that the house had gone to his mother. Grace knew this and she also realized that she couldn’t go with him: he made enough money off of book royalties that he could afford to pass on teaching summer classes, but she didn’t, and she would be teaching psych classes at Vanderbilt through the next four weeks. So he would have to go alone.
Grace also knew that it would be a hard trip to make. He had loved his family. His grandparents were good to their neighbors, showed up to his school events, and let him live rent free for those two years. But there had always seemed to be issues between them: his distaste for the small-town rural lifestyle, his revulsion at the way they seemed to draw the past into any conversation, and of course there was the way he made his living: his books sported titles like Fugitives of Faith: How to Decode the Psychological Lies of Religion; Seeing the Glory: A Psychologist’s Deconstruction of Religious Mania Past and Present; and Born Again: Restoring Western Democracy to its Secular Roots. Although he had only published one of these before his grandparents’ deaths – a little book called Pearls Before Swine: How World Religions Limit the Pursuit of True Self-Love – it was enough to become a wall between them. His professional focus on deconstructing the wish fulfilments and defense mechanisms of religious fundamentalism seriously chafed his devout, Nazarene family members. His grandma still told him she loved him and still sent him cards and letters, but when she finally passed, no one else in the family seemed to want him at the funeral. Other than his mother, he hadn’t heard from any members of his extended family in seven years. He doubted if that would change.
Pushing on into Southern Indiana he found the quiet even more pregnant with anticipation. The landscape leveled out as he came nearer to Indianapolis, replacing the swelling hills and wooded hollows with wide stretches of fields, black with recent rain and bristling with alert spears of corn. In the darkness the orange windows of distant farmhouses watched his passage like calm but vigilant eyes. He drove by two trucks on the side of the road – one giving the other a jumpstart – and the two men stood in silence with their arms crossed and watched him pass by. He was still one of only a few cars on the interstate that night. To his left he saw the brown glow of a sleeping suburb; to his right he saw a sign that told him he was fifty-seven miles away from his exit. What would his reaction be to seeing it for the first time in seven years? Would there be nostalgia or boredom? Would it be a significant reunion with a cherished memorial or a meaningless homage to a dead idol?
Seven years since he had been home. Seven years. And now he was the last one who could possibly decide what to do with his grandparents’ house. He had no siblings; his mom’s only brother was declining in a nursing home, and his ex-wife lived in Virginia with her second husband; of the three cousins, one had O.D.’d on pills in 2016, one lived off the grid with his husband in New Hampshire and was even less likely to come home again, and one had committed suicide in his garage after losing his custody battle. There were no other relatives left: the great-aunts and great-uncles had all died in the past decade, he barely knew their children or grandchildren, and since his own mother’s death he didn’t know a single person who would so much as be interested in accompanying him to the old farmhouse.
The farmstead had been in his mom’s name since grandma died, but it had been unoccupied for at least four years. Prior to that, his mother had used it as a rental (always to large families – foster families, homeschoolers, blended families – but the last two had done incredible damage to it, and after the last one, she had decided to board it up and save up for the repairs before renting it out again. The last family had attempted a series of unapproved modifications – turning the attic into a spare bedroom, blowing out the wall of grandma’s bedroom to make an “open concept” downstairs, and pulling down the plaster in the dining room to make way for shiplap – and none of them had been seen through to completion. Now the old windows were boarded up and the mutilated rooms had been sleeping in four years of darkness, with only the faint, red crack of sunlight piercing through the creases between the plywood slabs.
He passed the exits to Muncie and Anderson and continued on down a particularly dark and quiet stretch of Interstate 69 that would terminate for him at Exit 245. He would get off there, turn left, continue down SR-28 for a quarter of a mile, turn right – at the site of a burned-out house – on County Road 500 E, take that north for half a mile – driving parallel with the interstate, which would be glowing and humming a quarter mile off to his right – and then make that final left turn onto CR 700 N, which he would follow between two cornfields for less than 500 yards. And there it would be: a white, Victorian farmhouse with a wraparound porch, half-hidden from the road by an enormous, old oak tree, and sitting just on the edge of four acres of thick woods.
Before he knew it, he saw the sign for Exit 245, back-lit by the somber glow of the Petro truck stop that crouched in watchful stillness at the intersection between I-69 and SR-28. His grey eyes narrowed into cold, dark slits, and he rubbed the first two knuckles of his left hand rhythmically along his smooth jawline.
There was one last brick in this particular wall that he had fought to forget and roll out of his mind. That was the dream. Only Grace knew about this. He had never mentioned it to his mother, and had cunningly hid it from each of his therapists (and knew full well that he was hiding it). It was a dream that he had first experienced when he was five years old. A dream that he had again when he was thirteen, and again when he was eighteen – and twenty-one and twenty-five. It came so rarely that it hadn’t truly ever bothered him until the night that his mother died. This was for two reasons: firstly, because he had had it minutes before he got the phone call about her car accident, and secondly, because he had noticed, for the first time, a change in its predictable script. But this was the last place he wanted to think about the dream: just as he was flipping on his turn signal to leave the orange glow of the interstate for the purple-black gloom of the countryside.
He took the exit, made the left turn, and saw the blackened chimney of the burned-out house on his right. It was here that he would need to turn right. He imagined the house as it must be right now, gathered up in the deep purple gloom of the trees pressing against it, with its two, large upper-story windows. In a micro-second he had a vision of driving down CR 700 N in December, seeing the ranks of milk-jug luminarias that his grandpa would put out at Christmas, glowing down either side of the driveway like a landing strip. When the corn was harvested and the fields were laid low, you could see their soft glow from two miles off. He wondered what he would do if he turned the corner and saw the distant pinkish glow waiting for him. Without hesitation he maintained his speed and drove on down SR 28, towards Alexandria proper. He would find a room for the night at the Budget Inn. He did this without trouble: before twenty minutes had passed he had taken his rucksack and suitcase into the lobby, was given a key-card, had collapsed on the bed, and was swallowed in sleep. It was deep and long and dreamless.
SUNDAY, JULY 23.
By the time he awoke, it was well after nine in the morning, and he wasted no time in showering and hurrying off to find some breakfast. He realized that he hadn’t texted or called Grace to let her know that he’d arrived safely. It was very unlike him to forget to text her when he was travelling – her parents had died in a highway accident while on vacation, and he knew that this formality was one of her strictest pet peeves. As he rushed outside to his car, he balanced his cell phone between his ear and shoulder and tried to reach her, but she was unquestionably in the middle of a class by now, so he left an apologetic voicemail and headed off to Rachel’s Hi-Way Café for a plate of eggs and sausage. For some reason he felt incredibly hungry, and even though his usual breakfast consisted of a pair of cold, s’mores-flavored Pop-Tarts washed down with almond milk, he felt as though he couldn’t do anything else before he had eaten a large, hot breakfast, and he knew that Rachel’s would give it to him.
He ordered the largest breakfast plate and a whole carafe of coffee, and before the waitress had even left the table, and began plunging into it. His stomach was icy with hunger, and relief radiated down his spine as the eggs, bacon, and sausage warmed it. His education kept telling him that this freakish hunger was a psychosomatic defense mechanism – regarding the devil-knows-what exactly – but it didn’t stop him from eating everything on his plate and draining the carafe. He knew that he had to examine his choices, but he also knew that – in his mind anyway – there wasn’t any choice. Had his mom been there, this would have been more balanced and complicated, but he knew in his heart that he wanted nothing more than to be rid of the old house and everything – living, dead, or in between – that came with it.
The options were simple, and they both began the same way: open it back up and pay for some basic repairs. After this he could either sell it or rent it out. He was massively in favor of selling. Either way he needed to survey the damage – to see whether he could manage it by himself or whether he needed to hire out a contractor – and this was his first task. He finished the last of the coffee, paid his bill (the hostess wished him a “blessed day,” to which he grinned back weakly), and hopped back into his car. Pulling out onto the highway, he drove east – back into the country – with the mid-morning sun shining warmly on his face and chest.
Looking back on the long weekends they had spent there while he was growing up, it was surprising to realize – as an adult – how much it had been like slipping back into a different century, although he hadn’t known any better at the time. Of course, the house had running water and lights, but it had no air conditioning, no cable, and no furnace. In the winter, the downstairs was heated by an iron, woodburning stove and the upstairs was heated by a pair of radiators. In the summer it was cooled by opening all of the windows, and most of the evenings were spent on the south-facing porch. Even with the electricity, there were many nights when the dining room was illuminated by a pair of hurricane lamps, which sent the acrid tang of kerosene curling through the air.
If he had been a romantic he may have been charmed by the memories of spending those steamy, summer nights on the porch, with the curtains bowing and reaching in the open windows with every slight breeze. He may have seen it as a rare gift – to have been a child growing up in the neon-colored commercialism of the ‘90s, and yet to have spent long winter evenings sitting beside a wood-burning stove while his family members shared stories from the olden-time. But he wasn’t a romantic and he hadn’t enjoyed it. He had resented the sweaty, outside summers and stuffy, indoor winters. His only pleasures there had been time spent alone: reading books of adventure and heroics – like Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, and Robin Hood – or spending hours upon hours prowling his grandparents woods, or killing time at the campsite he had made in a clearing at its center, where he could play out his fantasies with his favorite family member – himself. Otherwise it had always felt stifling and forced. But now he had to come back to it all and bring it to some sort of final conclusion. A real adventure in which he would either play the hero or the villain.
He wasn’t interested in improving the amenities: none of the families who had lived there since 2006 had complained about the lack of heat or air conditioning. The six acres of land that the farmhouse sat on had apparently been sufficient to attract them, and four of those acres were, as I have mentioned, made up of dense woodland, which meant free heating, as long as you were willing to cut it. Window A/C units had come with the house since it was first rented out, and were still stored in the attic. All he needed to worry about was making sure that it was weather-tight and clean, and he was hoping that he could manage this by himself.
As he grew closer, he remembered the dream again. It came as suddenly as if someone sitting beside him had begun humming a love song that he associated with a particularly savage break-up: the reaction was instant and visceral. It probably the thought of the A/C units in the attic. The attic…
Like most true dreams, its details were muddled up in a vague mist, but their rudiments were always the same: he is sleeping alone in the upstairs bedroom that shares the attic door. The house is shaded by tall trees, and at night the room is so dark that if you were to wake up in the middle of the night, you wouldn’t immediately be sure of which way you were facing, or where the door was. It must take place in the fall: there were no sounds – no frogs or cicadas or crickets – but it is still warm. Somewhere in the blackness he hears the thick, raspy clack of a handle turning, and the tired creak of a door opening. It is either the bedroom door to the large, upstairs sitting room where his parents are sleeping, or the closet door to his right, or the attic door to his left. He knows instinctively that it is the attic door opening. A low, narrow door to a low, narrow room – or pair of rooms – that remained unfinished and haggard-looking, with heavy, grey beams studded by rusty nails, and the bare floor joists stuffed with pale yellow insulation, made navigable only by a series of boards nailed onto the joists to act as a stepping path. He had always been so terrified of stepping off the boards and falling into the insulation: he wasn’t sure where he would go, but he knew that he would be lost. And what was even in this attic? Bookshelves, tables, chests, bureaus, and trunks. All heavy and dark and closed up. All hiding things that he couldn’t understand, things connected to dead people he had never met, with stories that he couldn’t relate to, but which somehow were more a part of him than his own two hands.
And from this dark, chilly cell, something is deciding to exit and join the world of the living – his world. What it is he can never say, but he hears its feet creak on the floor as it comes over to his bed. He feels the bed sag to the left as it slithers in with him. He feels the covers rustle as it slides between them. With his left hand he touches cold skin with light hair on it, but no clothes. In spite of his deepest, most convicting misapprehensions, he slides it up what appears to be a shriveled human stomach, across a set of bony ribs, along a throat and jaw bristling with what his grandma called “whiskers,” and finally onto a face. It is the face of someone who is awake. Their expression concerns him. He feels clenched teeth, though he can’t tell if they are clenched in pain, or a frown, or a smile. He touches a gelatinous, unblinking eye.
He doesn’t dare turn the light on – he knows that this would be the worst thing: to see it and know what it is – so instead he bolts for the bedroom door handle that he instinctively knows is two feet from the right side of his bed and four quick strides to make it there. He rushes for it. Something rustles on the left side of the bed, and the sound is coming towards him. He gains the door and rushes towards the break-neck stairs. Miraculously he makes it down them and around the hairpin turn at the bottom without tripping, since he is bounding as quickly as possible – two steps at a time – and all in pitch black darkness. He has passed his parents in their bed. He doesn’t even consider going to them. He enters the dining room below, which is dimly illuminated by two oil lamps. He runs past the door to his grandparents’ bedroom. He doesn’t think to knock on their door. A cheerful song is being wrung from the dry lungs of the old organ behind him, but he doesn’t dare turn around to see who is playing it anymore than he would have reached over to turn on the light switch.
In the living room he sees sleeping forms bundled up on the couches and slumped in the chairs. His cousins must be spending the night. He jumps over two of them in pursuit of the front door: he must get out. He has heard the steps crashing behind him – thin, naked feet slapping on the hardwood floors – and knows that his only hope is to make it to the center of the wood on his grandparents’ property.
His little campsite hemmed in by soaring ash trees and fat beeches. He must make it there if he is to find protection – far from his family, far from their past-obsessed lives and their stories of dead great-aunts and great-grandparents, of people his own mother never met: of his mother’s 13 year old cousin Jerry who was messing with a cow in a way that was wrong and shameful, and of how he got its halter tangled around his throat, how he was strangled by the cow who dragged him for a mile into a neighbor’s field, and how the newspapers had said that he died falling from a treehouse (but his mother told him the shameful truth). He must run far from the frozen world of dying relatives and their dead gods. He knew that if he found the heart of the wood, he would be safe – he would live – and as he leapt from the porch, felt his feet crunch into the leaf-covered grass, and raised his eyes to the black mound of trees silhouetted against a purple sky flecked with flickering stars, he awoke.
And this has been his dream – at five, the week after they moved from the house to a place of their own, at thirteen, the age that Jerry was when he was strangled on the cow halter, at eighteen, when he first left for college, at twenty-one, when he decided on his career, and at twenty-five, the week before his grandmother passed away. And then there was the most recent one, now that he was thirty-three and his mother had died. But that time it was different; he thinks this to himself slowly, as he glances at a derelict barn in an overgrown field, with one great, black rent in its splintered, grey face – like the dead socket of a once all-seeing eye.
Looking ahead he saw the old ruin’s blackened chimney jutting like a signpost just ahead of him, with the wide, morning sun hovering directly over it – as if it had been speared on its jagged masonry. Obediently he turned left and found himself engulfed on either side by cornfields. It was already late July, and the season – so he had heard – had been a very wet and warm one. The cornstalks were already over six feet tall, and obscured what might otherwise has been an instant view of his destination. As it was, he had to wait to make the turn on CR 700 N before he could catch a glimpse of it.
He continued down the green corridor, hemmed in by barbed-wire fences and bordered by ditches half-filled with brown water which was slowly steaming off as the sun climbed higher and burned hotter. Here was a turn, then, and with a sigh of relief, and caught his first glimpse of the house where it watched him from beneath the shade of the massive oak tree. Here, he smiled to himself, in all of this white heat, under the glaring watchfulness of a July sun, he saw that the illusion was shattered.
This was no ancient family manor or grim country seat isolated in a rain-flogged moor: it was a simple, eight-room farmhouse dozing comfortably in the season of its retirement. It came with no curses, no dangers, and no appetites.
Best of all, it came with no occupants. Just the basic responsibility – in the memory of his mother who loved it and grandparents who had lived and died there – of doing it justice and selling it for a decent price. With the money from his last royalty check he would easily be able to cash flow up to $18,000 in repairs without putting a dent in his August living expenses, and – if need be – he could easily finance a further $50,000 or so. Now, as he grew near enough to see the individual slats of the siding, he would just need to make an assessment, plot out the repairs, and hope to have it all wrapped up and on the market by September.
The farmhouse was, as I have said, a Victorian. It had been built in 1893 and had the conventions of the era: from overhead you will think it looks like a Swiss cross: it is a squarish building composed of two intersecting wings; there were gables on all four sides – each steeply-pitched – and girded around the front-facing cross-arm by a wrap-around porch, done up in what is called “gingerbread” detail. In the front, of course, you see an immense oak tree – which was a good twenty feet taller than the house itself, with a trunk a bit wider than ten feet. Behind it, as you as the garage and walk around its side, you can see three shabby outbuildings: a grey barn with great, black gashes torn in the dry wood, a rusted storage shed tucked away amongst a protective grove of hickory trees, and a long, sagging chicken coop, studded with small, black windows. At the far corner of the property, just beyond these, you will find a shaggy cluster of apple and pear trees, whose low-hanging branches are already heavy with swelling fruit. It will be understandable if you eye one of these and – although they are sweetest in September – decide to pluck one and eat it as you make your way back towards the road.
Nothing is to the left of the house (the direction from which he approached it) other than a tangle of grape vines and a long strip of overgrown yard which had once been his grandma’s vegetable garden, which you will walk through to regain the front yard. As you cross this and move towards the far side of the property, you wil