It sat quietly, with random lights turned on and the flickering of the television apparent all night. No one came and no one went.
I didn’t understand as a child, but I understood now. The house was haunted, but not by ghosts. At least not the kind of ghosts you expect to find, but ghosts all the same; very real and very much all in my head.
Releasing a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding, I shoved the heavy gates open and cringed at the loud squeal of unused hinges turning. A glance across the yard reminded me of the tangled jungle I used to wade through just to get to school every day. The handlebars of a bike, one I knew would be green and white with a bell that was probably rusted to hell and back, poked through the thick greenery, and I didn’t envy the yardwork someone else would have to do.
I let my feet carry me towards the porch, the three concrete steps beckoning me home to a place I hadn’t been in twenty-four years. With a brief hesitation, the soles of my sneakers planted on the hard surface and propelled me forward. To the left was a porch swing, and it swayed with the gentle winds that danced across the porch. My hand rested on the doorknob, eyes drinking in the swing that represented a special type of hell for me, and I could hear it all over again.
The shattering sounds of glass, the raised voices, the whimpering cut off by hard, flat thuds and then the eerie silence that remained unbroken until my mother lowered herself next to me on the swing and rocked us back and forth with her toes. The soft creaks punctuated the lies she told me and eased the anxiety brewing in my gut like only a mother’s words could. And we swung, sometimes for what seemed like hours, while I pretended not to notice the swelling in her face and she pretended each movement didn’t send spasms of pain up her legs.
That was my life for the longest time, and it seemed normal for me. I had decided at a young age that it was a special normal for my family because other mommies didn’t wear glasses all the time and other kids didn’t walk themselves to school or to birthday parties or have to avoid their daddies when they were home. I never knew what scared my mother the most about my father, but she seemed worried about me being alone with him. He wasn’t allowed to tuck me into bed at night after I turned six, I think, but that was okay. He smelled funny anyway, like a wildfire and a hospital all at once.
The winter that I tuned twelve-years-old, though, everything changed.
I returned home from school, my friends leaving me off at my gate with a wary glance towards the attic windows. They thought they saw something in there, a figure, but I knew that the only monster inside was sitting in a worn recliner chair and reeked of beer or whiskey. I dropped my bike, my green and white prized possession that I’d bought at a thrift store with money earned from babysitting, in the yard, my thumb casually flicking the bell one final time for the day. One of the handle bards dug into the dirt, and I frowned, knowing I’d forget tomorrow morning and my hand would be covered in the grit. My head full of math formulas and the boy in English class, my feet pounded up the hard steps and pushed through the front door.
I knew immediately something was wrong.
A car horn yanked me back to the present, and startled, I glanced around, seeing the abandoned living room that used to be a minefield for my mother and I. The door stood open behind me, and the stream of light from the outside was filled with dancing particles of disturbed dust and memories. My hands hugged my arms to me, causing me to wince as I squeezed the purple swelling on my upper arms, and my eyes automatically found the darkest spot on the stained area rug. It was larger than the rest, pooling out from a central point that no longer lay there. The air in the room was heavy, chilled, and I struggled to clear my head off the memories that bombarded me. That’s not why I was here. I didn’t need to remember because I’d never forgotten. I didn’t forget through the sirens, the drugs, the therapies, the nightmares. I relived this day every day since. I didn’t need to remember.
The day I left this house, for what I’d believed to be forever, was permanently etched in my mind. The police officer had led me away, urging me not to look at my father’s mangled body behind me, and she sat with me while the rest of the force took turns searching the town for signs of my mother, who had seemingly vanished.
I sat in silence, not answering any questions because silence was my normal and I desperately needed that normalcy. Then I was sent to foster care, where I bounced around for several years until aging out. I was a problematic child and that turned into me being a problematic adult. Jail and rehab were my solaces, the quiet seclusion a refuge in a world designed to shut you down.
But nine years ago my life changed, and I saw my mother again every day. She was in every mirror I looked in, every outfit I chose and every word I uttered.
She was in my entrapment as I stood quietly and said nothing... until today.
“Mommy, why are you crying?” A small hand slipped into mine, and I jumped instinctively, tossing an apologetic smile to the little boy who stood beside me.
“Am I?” I asked lightly, my thumb brushing over the purpling knot under his eye, grief in my heart because I knew I had done that by staying. He nodded as he flinched, and I hugged him closer to me. “This is where I grew up. Just a little sad is all.”
“Is this where we’re staying? Where he can’t hurt us?” I had thought about it, but even if his father hadn’t forced me to sign the house and lands into his name after our marriage, I didn’t think this was the place we needed for a fresh start, a new life. I shook my head, eyes drinking in the room.
“No... no, it’s not. We’re going to a city. A place with lots of noise and people and energy and life.” The time for silence was over and I couldn’t let the boy by my side slip into it and lose himself. “We’re only here to say goodbye.”
I knew he didn’t understand because I barely understood, but as I locked the iron gates behind me, I felt a chain fall from around my own heart, a lightness to my step.
Growing up, they said this house was haunted. And it is, but not by ghosts, not really.