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In a Stark Light
By Jillian Oliver
A ghost called Stephen made an appearance in our family life a few months after our father died in a truck accident. Mom grieved more over Dad’s death than even I did at the age of twelve, though my fifteen-year-old sister, Kat, had taken to crying heavily in the days and weeks that followed the tragedy. Perhaps their grief invaded so much space in our 19th century home in Pennsylvania that I didn’t see any room for my own. It didn’t help that the shock served as Mom’s breaking point.
Before his death, she had coated him in prayers and felt certain “the archangels watched over him” as he drove thirty miles out to his job at the Autoparts. He’d leave just before the dawn, so we awoke early to say our goodbyes. I’d wrap my arms tightly around his shoulders and sometimes wet my lips so the kiss on his cheek would be playfully unpleasant.
On the night of his death, Mom didn’t bother to come down. A goodbye shouted from her room at the top of the stairs was all she gave, though I knew she would pray once he left and “the prayer mattered most,” as she would say.
Once he was cremated and sitting in a brown box in her closet, Mom stayed in her bedroom all day and night. We assumed she wouldn’t leave the room since he couldn’t either. In consequence, Kat spent hours per day fixing meals and bloody marys for her. I’d walk in the kitchen to hear Kat playing her Johnny Mathis CD while she stirred vodka into a cylindrical glass filled with V8 juice. She’d place the drink on a tarnished, gilt tray next to a plate of burnt london broil or sticky pasta with starch clinging to the strands.
Occasionally, I’d follow her upstairs as she carried her tray, and we’d find Mom with her legs in lotus or straight out under the brown floral covers, a quartz pendulum dangling from her elevated hand. The pendulum swung over a ouija board she had crafted from a sheet of paper. There was always opium or chocolate-scented incense thickening the air.
My eyes always fell on her desk where there stood a framed, white cloth I had made for Mother’s Day with the letters “l love you” stitched in red. Looking at it by now, I started to wonder where the woman was who I had made this for.
Beneath the framed gift was a stack of Mom’s dream journals, tarot cards, and Gershwin and Beatles cassettes. The tapes had a film of dust coating them while the cards and journals lay pristine. Kat would set the tray in Mom’s lap, and Mom would tell us about how Dad and Stephen were fairing in the afterlife. “It’s more real than all this,” she’d say, gesturing at her room, indicating all its empty material possessions. “Anything can exist with just the mind’s power” was another line she’d commonly express.
She used a pair of scuffed CDs one morning to demonstrate how our world would overlap with the other dimensions she was told about. She set one purple CD at the tip of the other and slowly slid them together until they were stacked. When the night grew foggy we sat in front of an open living room window, taking in the cool air that percolated through the screen--and we wondered if this was the other dimension intruding upon our own.
There were thick patches of white that would settle at the farthest end of the street and beyond the forest, appearing to encroach and roll like apparitions of tumbleweeds. “Things are beginning to disappear outside!” Kat said to Mom. “Not in the normal way when you have fog, but in a weird way. The trailer is gone across the street, but the red house is still there, and they’re practically next to each other!” When the trailer, trucks, cars, or diners would reappear by morning, Mom would say, “Maybe it wasn’t time yet.”
I was unsure what kind of dimension was coming, so in trying to determine if this was a place I wanted to go to I asked, “Are there schools and theaters?”
“There can be great universities, structures of all kinds,” she said. “Stephen’s learning art.”
When we inquired about Stephen, Mom recited a story that left our mouths gaping dumbly as we sat planted against her lingerie chest. It was the story of a pregnancy she’d had at the age of seventeen. She had begun the tale by sagely folding the pendulum into a ball in her palm, and she talked about the time when her first boyfriend got her pregnant. This was a result of a Smithsonian excursion followed by a night in a Motel 6.
“Mom wanted me to get an abortion,” she said, with her eyes growing pleading and child-like, asking for something I didn’t know how to give.
Her look shifted to one of annoyance as she thrust the pendulum to her side.
“It made me feel dead inside once I went ahead and did it. I knew I had a bond with him that was deep, very deep.”
Though she didn’t know the sex of the fetus, she still referred to it as “he” and gave it the name Stephen, after our father’s older
brother--who’d also died in a vehicular accident, but as a teenager. I didn’t think about this spirit of Stephen often, though. Every time her pendulum swung, I wanted my father to be called upon, and she claimed he answered--but with a speech pattern too remarkably similar to her own I noticed.
In spite of her commitment to sitting with her ouija board, Dad never communicated information that was particularly interesting. He described his utopia vaguely, reiterating Mom’s common phrases about beautiful dimensions and realms. And, of course, he told us he loved us. It made me wonder what he was saying the rest of the time when I’d hear her laughing and whispering from behind the closed door-- which she emerged from only when she needed to go to the supermarket or the bathroom.
Over time, I learned to care about Stephen in some respect, as his presence became more intrusive. She asked us to reserve for him some of the toys in the cellar, left over from the last owners. With these objects, he would be “more in touch with our world.” We believed she wanted to bring him to the material world if she couldn’t be in his world fully. We were told to leave the plastic baseball bats and balls and one of the two sleds. We left them alone but, to prove to ourselves that we could be rebellious, we decided to sneak out late at night. With our defiance being part of our play, we made snowballs during the winter and threw them into the red sky where the boy may have hovered. “Can you even hurt a ghost with a snowball?” I asked Kat when our weapons splattered on the ground.
Sometimes we ended our play early, afraid of the omniscient presence that watched us, but other times we reveled in the danger. If we made the spirit angry, he would surely tell Mom. We knew he hadn’t so far, but we were invigorated and sometimes frightened by the thought that he was waiting silently, his anger building; anything could happen.
We challenged Stephen one evening when it was past midnight. Kat and I leapt from the sunroom steps and through the thin ice that had formed on top of the snow. We buried our calves and held each other’s pale hand tightly. The only light we had that night came from the lamps that lined the street, covering half the yard in copper, and the ceiling lamp from our mother’s bedroom, which meekly shone over our boot prints as they sat irreverently beneath her window. We laughed at our struggle as we thrust our legs through the thick snow. We felt a sense of urgency and pretended we were in a dream in which we were being chased up a staircase. We reminded each other to keep our voices down when we laughed too hard, and we regularly checked Mom’s window for any sign of motion. “Mom once said that some crazy guy could be watching us out here every night, watching our habits,” I said to Kat in a near whisper as if the perpetrator were hiding in one of the ditches or behind the house. She stopped and looked around the landscape; she watched the sparse trees in the forest beyond our driveway, which surrounded the mysterious red house made of brick that always had white drawn curtains and electric candles in the windows. I looked toward the trees that lined the other side of the street. They clustered over a steep edge till they reached the bank of a stream. Perhaps someone was hiding on the precipice behind one of the wide, black trunks, just waiting for the right moment to snatch one of us.
“Maybe we should go in,” Kat said suddenly, with uncertainty in her voice.
“But, I really like the red sky tonight. It’s deeper than it was last night.” We liked the sky when it had a red tint, because it was a change from the usual starry night.
“Yeah, but I don’t want to die for that!” she responded.
We eventually decided to make ice balls to defend ourselves against kidnappers, and we tested the efficacy of our weapons on each other. Despite our efforts to remain quiet, we laughed loudly when the wind kicked up, as if the cold air were a drug that hurried into our bloodstream. Still, there was no movement from Mom’s window.
“Let’s go sledding,” I suggested.
She hesitated, then flashed a quizzical look in my direction.
“It’ll be okay, you can say it was my fault,” I reassured her.
“Fine,” she said. “I hope Stephen’s not around.”
I headed over to the cellar, wiped the snow away, and pulled the rusted doors gently to lessen the screech. Even after having been kept closed for a year, the doors, to my surprise, opened with relative ease. I left them propped open and hoped the house and street lights would illuminate the darkness. I wondered if Stephen would be watching me when I collected our plastic sleds.
As I descended the creaking steps, I caught the scent of decayed wood from the damp beams that flanked the stairs. The repugnant smell made me feel the occasional urge to turn around and leave, as if it were trying to warn me off. But, I went onward, propelled somehow by my fear.
When I came across the barely visible sleds, there were sticky webs beneath and between them that felt as if they were entangling my cold hands. I expected giant spiders to make their way out of the sleds and up my coat sleeves, like they would have in some old Vincent Price or Bela Lugosi film, but there were only small ones dangling over the edges. I dropped the sled, afraid of something bigger appearing, and stepped back.
The black corners of the space darkened. My eyes refused to adjust; I was vulnerable like a deer clamped in a bear trap. I wouldn’t see someone if he were standing in a corner or beneath the staircase that led to the kitchen. I wouldn’t see Stephen, and it made me wonder what damage he was capable of, assuming he existed. I wondered what he would look like. Kat and I had that conversation before, but now I truly thought about since I may come face to face with him for the first time. Did he have the round, boyish, yet ominous face of that boy from The Sixth Sense? Perhaps he had the thick black bangs and blank stare of one of the boys from Children of the Damned.
I stared deeply into the corner beyond the sleds, with the hope that my eyes would adjust. If it weren’t for the silhouettes of objects I would have thought the corner was a black hole, but the outlines provided little comfort. One object was arced slightly, standing four feet above the ground, and, as I stared, I believed the form to be that of a human head staring back at me. Its stillness and silence was sinister, as if he didn’t want to give away his vantage point.
Seeing no other option, I motioned towards the cellar steps which led to a flimsy rope attached to a dusty old light bulb at the top landing--which I wasn’t sure still worked. With my heart knocking persistently against my chest, I ran, skipping a step or two so he couldn’t grab my feet through the gaps. I made it to the light and pulled the switch.
I sat on the top step, feeling drained. The head was a shovel Dad had propped up against some planks. It had stood there since he dug our dead cat’s grave two years back. I remembered the May morning when he stabbed the grass with his spade after he had made a small casket from a stack of cedar wood boards. I aided in its construction by placing the nails one by one into his scarred, tanned hands. Dad had a strange way of sweating down his forehead before he even began his labor, so Kat and I giggled when beads of sweat formed on his face and soaked his tee shirt as he started digging a hole that was barely a foot deep.
The tip of the spade was still caked in grass and soil. His dust and dirt covered weed whacker sat beneath it with the gasoline canister by its side. There was still gas half-filled in a thick, plastic compartment near the engine, and the monofilament lay near it. A few years ago, he had asked me to help him replace the monofilament with a plastic blade. He fumbled with one of the parts and wanted me to take over. Later, he went to Mom to inform her of my accomplishment. “Hey, she’s pretty smart, ya know,” he’d said. Despite the simplicity of his comments and the task I completed, I smiled, remembering the enthusiasm in his voice. There was even his stained tee shirt wrapped up on the floor, as difficult to identify at first as an old piece of roadkill.
I walked down the steps and towards the shirt and as I pushed it with my boot it slid stiffly, revealing the dirt and small black bugs that were hidden beneath it. I pressed my heel against the pocket, wondering if his cigarette lighter was still there, but it was empty. The objects stood resilient with the simple dignity of grey headstones. I studied them for minutes, examining memories of them, till the sound of Kat pacing impatiently near the cellar door came to my attention.
I backed away, knelt down near the sleds and turned them over. Gently, I brushed away the webs with my sleeve, stacked the sleds, then dragged them up the steps. The toys scraped and bumped loudly, and, when I brought them to the surface, I let them fall onto the snow. Kat stood near the opening, securing her black hair in a ponytail.
“Don’t be so loud,” she said, as she lifted her sled and carried it to the high end of the yard.
“If Stephen tells on us, we’re dead,” she said.
“Well, I didn’t see any ghost down there. I don’t even think he’s real.”
Kat was silent, making me wonder if she had even heard what I said. I wouldn’t dare repeat it, so I settled my sled at the top of the yard, casually, as if nothing had changed. I looked at the parts of the sky that were a light shade of orange with a soft mist settling over it. As I lay back on the sled, Mom’s light went out from the corner of my eye. And, when I descended the slope, I turned to see the cellar illuminated starkly, though it appeared so small beneath the ashy house.