Fiction · 03/19/2014

The Haunt-Away

A little more than a year after my brother, Henry, disappeared, my aunt opened a boarding house for ghosts. The Haunt-Away, she called it. She advertised in the local newspaper just before Halloween and got more than a few confused still-living spirits. She turned them away and advised them to come back once they had shed their mortal coils. My parents thought she had lost it.

“It’s sick,” my mother said, drying dishes one night. She gestured wildly, and my father rescued a plate from her grip.

“It’s her way of coping,” he said, still a protective older brother.

“You’re always defending her,” mother replied, throwing her towel onto the counter. But she had grown up as an only child. Unlike my father and I, she didn’t understand that it was always the older sibling’s duty to protect the younger. It was an unwritten law, like respecting your elders, like not eating before swimming, or like walking away when you’re really mad at someone because the words would show you cared.

Father and I watched mother leave the kitchen. We listened to her walk upstairs to the bedroom and shut the door. I put my head down on the counter, and Father washed the rest of the dishes alone.

+

My mother forbade me from going to the Haunt-Away, so I went every day after school. My aunt and I had never been close. Her husband, George, had died thirteen years prior, just months before I was born. Now, each afternoon, I watched her wash sheets and remake untouched beds. She set out plates of cookies and brewed pots of tea which, when poured, grew cold in unused cups. She talked and laughed to empty rooms, and sometimes when I entered, I had the distinct impression that I was interrupting.

In her old Victorian house, it was difficult to deny the existence of ghosts. Floorboards creaked, doors wobbled open, lights flickered on windy days. Always, some part of the house was groaning, tapping. Cups broke, and books fell. My aunt blamed the crooked foundation. “It’s always been like this,” she said. “I’d be lying if I blamed my boarders.”

And then there were mirrors. They lined every hall, surrounded the dining table, and stood behind each bed and couch. Even the kitchen had two: above the stove and sink. I can’t tell you the number of times I’d been startled by my own reflection, by my own pale face.

+

“I’m not asking them for help with the mortgage, you know,” she told me one afternoon over a mug of earl grey. “I just want information.” She gestured at the Ouija board and its silent planchette that sat between us on the table.

“About what?” I asked.

“Oh you know. The afterlife. If any of them have seen my George. Or Henry.”

My spine stiffened. To hear his name said so casually. At home, my mother had already cleaned out his room and replaced all of the family pictures with new ones, so we wouldn’t have to see his face. We’d even had a funeral and buried an empty coffin. “For closure,” my mother had said, not meeting my eye. They never blamed me. Still, when we spoke his name, we whispered.

The floorboards above our heads creaked, like someone shifting weight.

“He could still be alive,” I said, uttering the words I could not at home.

“Honey,” my aunt began. She reached out and covered my hand with hers, but I pulled away. I couldn’t stop.

“They never found a body. They never found anything. He was just gone.” A tremble shook me as the words left my lips, uncontrollable, like a sob.

“Same with my George,” she replied, staring at a space beyond my shoulder. “I woke up next to him one morning, and he was simply gone. Heart-attack in the night.”

I wanted to tell my aunt that these were nothing alike. That an eight-year-old being abducted at a park was nothing like a forty-year-old dying in bed, but that would have been impolite, so I said nothing at all. The mugs of tea set at empty seats cooled on the table.

+

Sometimes, I still rode my bike to the park where Henry disappeared. Where I was supposed to be watching him.

Sometimes, my chest hurt like being buried under too much sand when I watched toddlers dart unattended across the mulch, their mothers staring at their cell phones somewhere across the playground.

Sometimes, I sat in the swing where I last saw him even though my legs were too long for it now and my knees folded up past my hips.

Sometimes, I stared at the oak tree where I sat that day, where I told him, “Leave me alone. Go away,” and I calculated all the angles I could have watched him from, but didn’t.

+

“I think I’m beginning to see them,” my aunt said to me that winter as we ate shortbread cookies in the kitchen. The rest sat cooling on the counter.

“I haven’t seen anything. Are you sure it’s not just the mirrors?” I asked, and she frowned.

“No,” she said. “I can see them in my mind. Not with my eyes. I just know that they’re there. What they look like. I know what they want to say.”

I nodded.

“I keep asking them about Henry,” she went on. “And George. They tell me they will find them.”

I swallowed my cookie, and its dryness stuck in my throat. I saw my aunt and I reflected in the mirror above the stove, the same plum-colored crescents under our eyes. Other people, lots of people told us they would find him too. The police sergeant stood tall in our doorway that first day, his broad shoulders filled the frame. He spoke those words like a promise. But each day, his visits got shorter, his shoulders slumped a little more, until he stopped coming at all.

Hearing another such promise, I froze. I fled.

“I should go,” I said, pushing my chair out from the table. It was easier than hope.

+

I waited a week before I returned. I did my homework, and my teachers praised my test scores, covering each paper in little gold stars. I rode my bike from one end of town to the other, but these rides were no longer enjoyable as they once had been. Instead, I flinched at each car that passed. I imagined that the kidnappers had returned. That they had come for me too. I listened for the sound of the engine slowing, and pedaled so hard the gears skipped. I could see them, jumping from a van with black ski masks. I felt their cold black leather gloves against my shoulder, against my lips. I imagined myself limp in their arms, letting them take me to wherever they had taken Henry, where no one would ever find me. But then the car would pass, and so would the vision.

As stressful as the bike rides were, it was better than being home. My father returned home for dinner each night, appearing long enough to eat what my mother set in front of him, wipe his mouth with his napkin, and kiss my mother and I both on the forehead before retiring to his den where he had to continue working on his big case.

“It’s a busy time for the firm. It’s a good thing,” he told us. Mother and I only looked at our plates. We said nothing when the den door clicked closed behind him. The quiet in the house sat with us at the table, followed us into each room. I began to imagine the silence like one of my aunt’s ghosts.

My mother and I worked on the only puzzle we had in the game closet full of board games we no longer touched. It was five hundred pieces of bright hot air balloons rising into a blue horizon. We sat next to each other in silence as we fit the pieces together, night after night. When we finally finished, we realized a handful of pieces were missing. My mother placed a finger in one of the empty spaces.

“Henry lost these,” she said, still looking at the table. “He dumped the box out after he and I lost to you and Dad in Pictionary. Remember that? Remember the tantrums he used to throw when he lost at games, and so we would all have to pretend to lose for a while?” A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to find all the pieces when I cleaned them up.”

Instantly, anger consumed me. I could feel it crackle in the air around me, hot and blinding. I remembered his temper tantrums, but how could she blame Henry for these lost pieces, which she couldn’t find? As his older sister, as the only voice in the house who still spoke for him, I came to his defense.

“So, really, you lost the pieces,” I said.

She looked up at me then, her eyes narrowed, like she couldn’t quite remember my name.

“Now we will never finish the puzzle,” I said. My mouth twisted into a sneer, and my eyes stung as I held back tears. I couldn’t tell if they were from anger or something else entirely, but I wouldn’t let her see me cry.

My mother took my hand. “Where has my Celia gone?” she asked.

+

Sometimes, I dreamed of the park where Henry disappeared. In this dream, I’m looking for him again, just like that day, around the swing set, around the playground. I am alone. I call his name over and over, but only my voice echoes back. I run through the trees, over dry and fallen pine needles. I shout and I cry for help, but the world is empty, and the park never ends.

+

I went back to the Haunt-Away. The sun was already low in the sky, and a thin layer of snow powdered the lawns in the neighborhood like sugar. I entered my aunt’s house without knocking and leaned my bike against the wall in the foyer. My nose and fingertips burned in the sudden heat. I listened for my aunt’s voice, but the house felt empty.

“Hello?” I called.

“Celia!” my aunt shouted from somewhere upstairs. “They found him! They finally found him! Come quick!”

I ran up the stairs and down the hall, so fast, my reflection could hardly keep up, but still it felt too slow. The pounding of my heart drowned out my footfalls, and the setting sun caught in the mirrors of every room. They flashed at me as I passed, and the light was so bright, it stung my eyes. But I would not close them for fear that I would miss my Henry, for fear that he would disappear again.

My aunt’s back filled the doorway at the end of the hall, and as I neared, I could hear her sobbing. Beyond her, there was the mirror’s blinding white light, illuminating everything, lighting the very air.

“Where is he?” I called. “I don’t see him.”

“Just look,” she said, as I pushed past her, as I came to a halt in another empty room. “Georgie has come home. My George is here.”

She wiped at her eyes, her sobs giving way to laughter. The orange and red rays of the sun caught dust particles in the air, and they drifted, pink, in the light.

“I thought,” I said, barely trusting my voice, “I thought you found Henry.”

“Oh we will, honey,” my aunt said, staring at the space in front of her. “Now that George is here, we will.”

I looked at my aunt, at the joy and elation on her face in the soft orange light, and I realized in that moment that I would never find Henry. I could keep looking my whole life, in real life or in the ghosts my aunt saw in her house, but Henry was gone. Really gone. And something opened up inside of me, empty, gaping, and deep. It took my breath away, and I stared at the carpet, watching it grow blurry and thick. My aunt squeezed my hand and smiled at me, mistaking the tears that ran down my cheeks for tears of joy, like her own. I guess we only ever see what we want to.

I took my hand back and wiped the tears from my cheeks. I put on my winter hat for the cold and snow that I knew waited for me outside, and I walked out of the Haunt-Away with my bike beside me. I didn’t look back.

The sun had set, and fat snowflakes spun through the light of the street lamps. My shoes were wet, and my toes quickly went numb. The heavy, singing silence only snow can bring enveloped me, and I welcomed it.

A car approached, and it slowed behind me. The beams of its headlights lit the snowy lawns, and I flinched. The kidnappers really had returned. They had come for me at last. I gripped my handlebars. My arms shook with fear, adrenaline, cold. Though I had let them take me in my daydreams, I didn’t want to go away. I didn’t want to disappear. I didn’t want my aunt to wait for me in her house with all its mirrors.

My heart jumped into my throat as a mechanical whirring filled the air and the window lowered. I peered into the black interior of the van, ready to jump on to my bike. Ready to scream.

“Your aunt called,” my mother said. “She told me you were walking home.” The dashboard lights gleamed green in the dark, and the reflection of the headlights on the snow lit the contours of her face. “It’s freezing out. Why don’t you get in?”

The van idled as I put my bike in the back and hurried into the front seat next to my mother. I clicked my seatbelt into place, and she pulled away from the curb.

“You scared me,” I said.

My mother looked at me and away again. “I’m sorry. I thought you would know it was me.”

We rode silently in the warm car, listening to the windshield wipers as they pushed melting snowflakes from the glass. The taillights of the other cars glowed red in the darkness ahead of us. As we pulled into the driveway at home, our headlights washed across the front of the house, flashing against each window, lighting each dark and empty room. My mother and I, we bowed our heads together to stare up into Henry’s window, at the light that lit the spackle on his ceiling like craters on the moon.

+++

Rebecca King is the founding editor of Origami Zoo Press and received her MFA from Chatham University. Her stories have appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Corium Magazine, A-Minor Magazine, and others. She lives in the Midwest.