Jeremy Miller was never a man of God.
Whereas all the other kids he grew up with spent their Sundays in their respective holy houses, Jeremy spent his Sunday mornings glued to the television. He grew on the knowledge of the Discovery channel, the girth of the internet, and the pages of his textbooks. He used them to write his own story of creation. It was a story of evolution, probability, and string theory. He saw an enormity to the universe, and to the realities and dimensions beyond it. He knew he was small, but he knew that no matter how big and unbelievable the world got, everything could be explained. He was always certain.
Jeremy was never a believer.
He went on to Caltech to pursue a career in biological engineering, just as he had planned since he was seven years old. His parents were proud, and amazed. They said they’d been blessed to have such a smart son. Jeremy scoffed at the notion. To Jeremy it had been as natural as the world around him. It was a product of his will, and his actions. Alone, he could do anything. Now that was a miracle.
Jeremy didn’t believe in ghosts.
The old house, 25 Plummer Hill Road, struck him as perfectly quaint. The New Hampshire woods always peaked his interest. Partly for their ecological beauty; partly for their peace and quiet. That old house had buried itself within them. Jeremy wanted the same, but he also felt it was a great shame that the home’s beauty had been hidden from the world. The steep, sloped architecture of the roof was picturesque. The stonework on the outside had an aged, yet majestic feel. The gardens outside, long since neglected, housed much potential; when flowered, they’d wrap around that house like a stunning, knitted scarf. He saw it all in his mind, and it was magnificent. So, he made it his.
Now, he was told on numerous occasions about the home’s darker nature. They told him that homes that hold such unpleasant histories tend to hold a bit of that energy forever. They told him it makes the “spiritual foundation” weak. All he heard was “price reduction”.
Jeremy took it without hesitation.
For a while, Jeremy was content. He was finally home. He almost resented the day, and his job, for stealing him away from that home. He enjoyed his career, and he was excited to see what he could do for the world, but the house? Well, that house was his sick child, and he took great pleasure in nursing it back to health.
All evening, and most mornings, he put countless hours of work into the place. He had to replace many of the windows, and re-caulk their frames. The living room was quite dreadful, as the ceiling above had seen some awful neglect. He had to add a crossbeam for support, and completely redo the floor of the guest bedroom above. Then, of course, he tended to the gardens. There was only so much he could do about it mid-winter, but he did all he could to prep it. Come spring, he’d be ready.
It would be perfect.
However, as the renovations went on throughout his home, Jeremy started to notice some peculiar happenings. During his remodeling of the first-floor bathroom, Jeremy believed that he had heard footsteps in the hallway above him. Investigating he found that, of course, he was alone. The prospect of an intruder did come to mind; he was very jumpy and concerned in that regard. The house was large for just one person, and someone could easily hide in near plain sight. He slept unwell that night, but after two days of silence and thorough inspection he concluded that it had been his imagination.
It usually was.
However, when the sounds of footsteps continued, and then eventually evolved into sounds of actual conversation Jeremy became concerned. No longer was it a simple glitch in his mind. An exaggeration of a thought. This was real. Someone was inside his home. It became particularly frustrating when neither Jeremy nor the authorities could find any trace of an unwanted guest. As far as they could tell, Jeremy was the only one who’d set foot in there for some time. That left Jeremy pondering irrational thoughts.
He thought about ghosts.
Don’t be ridiculous. There was absolutely no such thing. Spirits? Silly, childish attempts to bring understanding to the abstract that was death. They were made for comfort; inventions for occurrences without explanation. Ghosts were life’s absolution. Its Deus Ex Machina excuse. Fiction. Jeremy was certain.
Then, Jeremy saw the girl.
She was young, probably about eight years old. She wore a teal flower dress, with frills around the edges. At first it was his eyes playing tricks, then it was simply his deceitful mind. The third time, however, the third time he had no excuse. The appearances became frequent, and impossible to dismiss. He saw the girl in the hallway of the first floor. Coming home from work he saw her peering out across the land from between the bathroom curtains on the second floor. She’d run by the bedroom door at two in the morning on a particularly sleepless night.
Her appearances would have been less striking had the house’s morbid history not been explained to him in gruesome detail. No young girl had been in that home for quite some time. Jeremy was convinced that there was still no little girl in that home. Yet, every day and night she was there. Without giving in to the paranormal rubbish, Jeremy had no explanation for why he could see her. The murdered child.
Jeremy could only hold out for so long.
One night, Jeremy had decided he’d had enough. Footsteps had once more disturbed his relatively peaceful mind before his sleep. Sleep and a restful mind were both in short supply those days. Again, the footsteps came. She was running again. Excitedly running. The sound of the girl’s feet echoed in his skull as she ran from room to room. He couldn’t understand why or how, but at the moment he didn’t care. He wanted it to stop.
Jeremy made a stand. Any fear he had was swallowed by his frustration and rage. He hesitated, but the entity (though he didn’t dare consider it as such) hadn’t harmed him yet. It was still possible that the mirage of the girl was still just a construction of his mind. It was quite possible he was in no danger at all. He couldn’t convince himself of that. He was no longer certain. He gripped the doorknob anyway.
Throwing the bedroom door open, he roared at her. She was there, at the end of the darkened hallway. Jeremy barely saw her face through the shadows, yet he saw enough to know that his outrage barely caused her to hesitate. He cursed at her, and ordered her to keep still. Silence fell after a few seconds, and she responded. Every word came paired with one single footstep forward.
“Mister?” She asked, innocently. “I can’t find my mommy. Can you help me?”
The space between every word hit him harder than the words themselves. It was a terrible, awful silence. Regret swelled in his stomach. It tugged at his arm trying to force the door shut. He refused it. Jeremy would rather stare it down than give in to his baser instincts. It couldn’t possibly be her. There was no girl.
“Go away.” Jeremy ordered.
“Please,” She smiled, “Please help me.”
She was almost upon him, and the air around him drew heat from his body like a vampire drawing blood. The thing, the illusion, the hallucination before him got within an arm’s distance from him. He was close enough to touch her, and that frightened him. What would happen if he was wrong?
“Stop it.” Jeremy instructed. He hoped that saying it would work, and his mind would stop. She remained. She looked like she’d been painted onto the air. Real, but not entirely there. Real enough that he could reach out and touch her if he had chosen to.
He had to know.
His right hand extended towards her, wary. She mirrored the gesture, reaching for him. Their fingers got so close, but the feeling Jeremy expected never came. Instead of the silky warmth of another person, or anything solid at all, all he received was a bite like a January breeze. Her fingers slipped through his palm, and then they appeared again on the other side. Jeremy held his breath, his hand shaking fiercely. It had been so long since anything had surprised him.
She whispered, her face suddenly sullen.
“I think he’s still here.”
There was a warmth that soaked into Jeremy’s naked feet. Blood. Blood had flowed across the hardwood floors, and swirled beneath his toes. His eyes followed the path of the river to the girl, and up her legs to her dress. He found its source. As clear as day, he saw two spots soaked in blood, with two clean tears in her dress. Two stab wounds that still bled fresh pain.
Out of the darkness a rapid emergence startled him. Behind the girl, where previously only the blackness had loomed, a face appeared. A man, twice the girl’s height, including the black top hat upon his head, stared at Jeremy with wide, black eyes. The eyes were encircled with red. They oozed with warmth and dampness. It looked as though all the skin from his nose and cheeks up to his hat had been peeled away. Torn away. The only skin left was around his mouth, and it had arched into an awful smile. It peeled back over filed, pointed teeth.
“Do you believe yet?” It asked, hissing.
Jeremy’s arm moved out of instinct to shut himself away from the horrors. An involuntary scream erupted from his mouth as he collapsed against the door. His horrified sounds drowned out the soft laughter on the other side of the door. Jeremy spent all night there, wondering if they did the same. He thought he could almost feel a moist wind upon the nape of his neck. For the first time since he was a child, Jeremy cried.
They had told him about her, of course. Before it had been such a trivial detail, but now he couldn’t stop thinking about it. A girl had been murdered there, by her own father nonetheless. She had been stabbed, strangled, and her body had been discovered in the attic by her mother. Everybody’s “favorite" part of the story was the singular fact that her father had escaped. Never captured. They loved wondering what happened to him.
The murder had occurred half a century ago, and everyone was still morbidly fond of it. It gave them something to talk about over their campfires. It gave all the teenagers a good hoot. Jeremy had often seen them passing by, their eyes open in awe as they were told. He was living their dream.
He was the one living in the haunted house.
No. He refused to believe it. His eyes had lied to him. There was no such thing. He was a scientist. His reasoning was in numbers, papers, statistics, and graphs. This meant nothing. It took a week for him to calm his nerves, and a single thought. He had pondered selling the house. He decided that was the final straw.
Never. Not for any demon or ghoul or Satan himself would he abandon that beautiful home. His first home. He would not run like some frightened school boy.
He was never a man of God, but he was a man of faith. His faith was in what he knew, and what he could prove. So, he studied the case of the little girl.
For a while, this proved more of a detriment than an aide. The girl he’d seen in the hallway surely was the girl who’d been murdered there. The likeness he observed in the pictures he found was indeed the girl he’d seen. That meant that it would have been impossible for his mind to create the illusions he’d seen previously. She was real, in some sense of the word.
Their presence had to have an explanation, however. Something had been there that night. Something had physically chilled him. He’d felt the thing’s blood on his feet. So, he pondered.
He nearly gave into their ruse.
Then, like the great Sherlock Holmes himself, he realized something. He looked back, and indeed his suspicions were correct. There was a flaw. There was one little detail that gave him hope. The flaw was so minor that had he not been actively searching for it he never would have seen it. It was unlikely to be mentioned by anyone, and therefore, it was easy to overlook. However, it was not necessary if one was simply pretending.
He knew for sure was that they weren’t ghosts.
He just wanted answers.
They came back again that night, for the last time. In the attic. Jeremy heard them talking above his head. Whispered voices. He climbed the ladder, and he pulled himself into the dark attic. He fumbled around, looking for the switch. The attic felt so empty. So quiet.
When the lights came on, he saw that he wasn’t alone.
The two dangling lightbulbs above revealed so little in that cramped attic, but they showed enough. She stood far from Jeremy, just beyond the reach of the furthest bulb. Jeremy took his spot under the other. He found comfort in its light. With both performers in their places, Jeremy recited his lines.
“Who are you?” Jeremy asked. His voice wavered just a bit; most of his fear was restrained inside.
“Sally.” The girl spoke, going through the motions. “Sally Johnson. I’m eight years old and can you—?“
“You were stabbed. Weren’t you?” Jeremy interrupted.
“By a very bad man.”
On cue, Jeremy felt the man in the top hat behind him. He didn’t need to imagine the man’s breath this time, but it made him smile. Why does a ghost need to breathe?
“He stabbed you?” Jeremy asked again, for clarification. “Twice?”
Sally, or whatever she was, nodded in sorrowful agreement. That’s when Jeremy smiled. He had her.
“Try again.” Jeremy said, pulling a newspaper article from his pocket. “This says you were stabbed three times in the chest. You’re missing a stab wound by the right clavicle.”
Sally looked downwards at her dress. It remained intact, and unsullied by her collar bone. That changed in a heartbeat. Blood poured from the wound and soaked her dress. Not a single drop dripped onto the ground.
“Even then, the two wounds you had before were mirror images. They were on the wrong side of your body. She was stabbed below the heart. Your cut is on your right side.”
Sally didn’t speak.
“You’re not ghosts.” Jeremy said, feeling very clever. “You’re just pretending to be.”
“Yes,” Sally admitted. “You’re right about that.’
Even though he knew the man was there, Jeremy jumped a bit as the man walked around beside him. The man was dressed in a rugged tuxedo. His left hand, gloved in white, gripped his lapel, whilst his other gloved hand held a black cane firmly. It clicked and clacked as he strolled by Jeremy. Every labored breath he took hissed through his bloodied nostrils.
“What are you?” Jeremy asked, to no reply. The man had reached the girl, and they shared some muffled words. She nodded in response to what was seemingly a question, and the man in the tuxedo chuckled. They shook hands, and he turned to take his place at her side. A pleased smile shone across his face.
“Please.” Jeremy said. His tone, his almost pleading, drew their attention.
“Please?” Sally asked.
“I need to know.”
Sally chuckled as she looked at him.
“My boy, you’ll find out rather soon.”
“I need to know!” Jeremy snapped. He was tired of the dark. “I deserve to know.”
“You deserve nothing. You will get nothing.”
“Now,” the man stated in a suave tone, “I believe the poor thing deserves a little. It can do no harm. Besides…”
His sentence trailed off as he leaned down to whisper in Sally’s ear. Jeremy couldn’t hear a single syllable, but whatever that man uttered in her ear caused the young girl to tremble. She nodded in agreement. Sally obliged to Jeremy’s request.
“I’m just—shopping, dear.” She said with a smile.
“Shopping?” Jeremy said, confused by her response.
“Yes, I suppose that’s what you call it, and I believe we’ve just closed a deal.”
To this, the man in the hat, literally, grinned from ear to ear. His mouth stretching across his face. A chuckle escaped his toothy maw as he took the young girl’s hand and offered a firm shake. The deal was done.
“Pity,” she continued. “I know how many were looking at this place. So many. Too bad.”
At that, the man in the hat bowed. He bent down low, behind the girl. Into the shadows. He didn’t come back up.
“I do enjoy this place.” Sally said, clasping her hands behind her back. “The pain is so, fresh.”
“My house?” Jeremy asked.
“No,” Sally said with a chuckle, “All of it.”
There was a flicker of the lights, and Jeremy thought he felt the house quiver.
“Why Sally?” He asked of the girl. No, the thing.
“When you stab something,” She began, licking her lips, “You damage it, irreparably. Sure, there’ll be a scar. That scar is a weak point. This house. The events here--”
Before Jeremy’s eyes, the scene changed. In the end of the attic where Sally had been standing, he saw her on the ground. Sally, the apparition, was on the ground, and she was gasping her final breaths.
Then, behind her, a shadow emerged. Sally’s voice, or whatever had been pretending to be her, spoke again.
“It’s so easy to see the scars. That’s where we come through.”
The shadow reached into the light, and a clawed hand gripped the young girl by the throat.
“The memory of that event, the scar tissue, gives us all we need to blend in. We wear the memories like clothes. Your superstitious nature does the rest.”
The shadow pulled, and Jeremy had to look away as it pulled the skin from Sally’s body like a tablecloth from the table. He couldn’t bring himself to watch as the shadowed thing filled the empty husk that was once that girl.
“It’s not always perfect, as you pointed out. Memories are blurry, and fleeting. There are always flaws, but they’re superficial. Who will care? It’s always the non-believers vs the fools. Always so willing to label what you don’t understand. You made it too easy.”
The lights flickered again, and again. The thing that was pretending to be Sally walked forward. Jeremy started to back away.
“It worked here. It worked everywhere. You were clueless.”
“No,” Jeremy said, concerned, “Not me. I wasn’t.”
“You got close.”
The house trembled and the roof shook as if barraged by a fierce hailstorm. The noise and shaking escalated until it felt like the roof would give in and the house would fall. Jeremy fell to his back, almost straight down the ladder that led to the attic.
“What is that?” He asked.
“Opening the scar.” She said, smiling. She was right above him, and as the noise reached its climax Jeremy asked his final question.
“Who are you?”
The silence that followed gripped his throat. She leaned down. It felt like a dream as she whispered in his ear.
“I’m the new tenant.”
With that, there was a blinding light from the back of the attic. Pieces of wood peeled away, strip by strip, and those strips in turn peeled into fibers. From them peeled the paint and the nails, and they all were ignited by flame. The pieces all burned away, but left in their wake wasn’t ash. No, it was if their burning tore through the air, and revealed what was behind it. As the entire back wall burned, Jeremy looked through the hole in space.
Another world lay before him. A world of nightmares.
Plains and hills of scarlet grass lay as far as the eye could see. Beyond it, more fire rings, like the one that had engulfed his house, raged. They all pulsated and crackled as giant clawed hands tended to them and molded them like they were clay on a pottery wheel.
It was impossible.
In the distance, rings taller than skyscrapers roared. They looked large enough to swallow whole cities. Through them, worlds scorned by fire and blood lay ravaged. Cries and screams echoed on the wind like bird calls. By each ring stood a man. A man in a top hat.
As the ring grew around him, Jeremy saw whole worlds come into view. They fell, and the red plains absorbed them. The ground came alive, and it gripped the worlds with earthen tendrils and spines. They reached through the fiery portals, and ensnared everything in their path. Every world, every universe, was strangled into submission. What happened next, Jeremy could only dread. The men in the top hats looked on in joy as thousands perished beneath the living ground. Around them, creatures indescribable gathered and bartered. They all fought for the chance to see. The men in hats smiled. They were the purveyors of worlds, and business was good.
Jeremy knew then, who the girl was.
As the wind from that terrifying world coursed in, and the house succumbed to its flame, the thing that had worn Sally’s visage, her memory, smiled and basked. Powered by her native land, her body formed corporeal, and her ethereal disguise was shed. The skin sagged from her face and hands, and from within her mouth protruded spider-like limbs. Those legs proceeded to pull free her skull from the clutches of her mandible and neck. As the monster reformed its ghastly exoskeleton before Jeremy, he could only chuckle.
As the visitor in his room had been, so had all the other “ghosts” been before. They weren’t lost spirits. They were just disguised wanderers. They were just looking. Sally was different in only one regard.
Sally decided to buy. Not him, not his soul, not his home. His reality.
As his world fell into the maw to become part of the one below, Jeremy knew. He was right.
There was no such thing as ghosts.
Credited to Ryan Brennaman