you try the lightswitch like it'll still work, but you abandoned this place so long ago, to think the electric would still be on is foolishness — but wishful thinking was always your most valuable asset here, wasn't it? old habits, and all.
the flashlight still works. its battery buzzes in protest and its beam doesn't go as far as you wish it would, but it's enough. there's cobwebs in every corner, geometry muddled with soft thread.
you hurry past the old photos on the walls. they aren't something you want to see.
if you cut two holes in one of the sheets, you could really play the part of the ghost. it's been a long time since somebody laughed in these rooms.
easier to be invisible.
now, the microwave on the wall looms over you. the numbers on it flash for a moment out of the corner of your eye. there's a dent in the cupboard door.
the lightbulb says: stay. it defies the laws of electricity to lure you in. it smears the faces on the framed photographs lining the walls, puts lightglare over hollowed-out eyes so you can no longer tell which one is yourself.
it isn't a flame, and you aren't a moth. keep walking.
the centerpiece is a family portrait. remember that photo studio at the old mall — the mall's been torn down now, an ikea or something taking its place where the rubble used to be, but the studio had too-bright lights and props lined neat against the wall, and the camera flash always hurt your eyes. you're blinking in the picture. you don't think they noticed before they printed it off.
your mother is smiling but it's strained at the edges.
your sister is too small to know anything's wrong, bouncing in your mother's arms.
wasn't there someone else in the photo? if you squint you can almost see it. like a magic eye puzzle on the back of a cheerio's box, an optical illusion — is he two vases, or simply a memory you no longer want to have?
one theory about ghosts is that they're an echo of imprinted energy. a living thing does something over and over and over in a certain space — fights, sings, weeps, gazes melancholy out the window past the encroaching tree branches and into tomorrow — and the action gets stuck.
when the living thing is no longer living, the air doesn't know what to do without their repetition. so it keeps going.
over and over.
you're seven and your sister's room is next door to yours, for now. you look up and see the shadow of a man. he's wearing a tall, wide-brimmed hat, and he walks through her door as if it was air and not solid blue-painted wood.
your first memory is sitting against the front door and crying. you must be two or three. the entryway felt the closest you'd ever get to escape, even before you could conceptualize the word.
you're twelve and something is scratching in the walls and you're much too old to still be so afraid, so instead of shaking you cry. there's enough reasons for that.
you're seventeen and you're leaving and you don't shed one tear as you pack your things. this place has too many things buried in it. no one should live here.
when you're nineteen, you'll hear about this in a podcast and have to sit down for a very long time. you'd nearly forgotten about him. when you're twenty, you'll mention ghosts to your sister, and she'll bring up the man in the hat without prompting.
but when you pull it back, there's nobody there. just houseblood falling from the faucet.
the mirror doesn't have anyone in it, either, but you blame it on the dust and keep walking.
instead, you slip in your haste to get away and land hard on the concrete stairs, giving your blood to the house one last time. not enough to seriously harm you, but your palms will be feeling the scrapes for days.
you sit there a while, feeling the sting of it.
and then you leave.