Okay, for starters: our stepdad was a dick. He’s the kind of guy who would have an “I want to believe” bumper sticker on his car as he cut through four lanes without signaling. That kind of dick. He only married our mom because he wanted “special” kids. He’d married his first wife for the same reasons, had a son who didn’t quite pan out so he ditched them. I don’t think our mom ever knew. To her, we were just playing dolls up in our room. It was cute when her husband started poking his camcorder in our faces, we were “bonding.” She couldn’t pick up on all the signs, but he zeroed in on them like blood in the water. Four months of dates and then a wedding. She never knew what hit her.
Me and Sarah were seven and eight, respectively. And the things that happened to us only happened when we were together. It’s not like in the movies. Ghosts are different. They don’t look like gauzy, pale people. One of our friends was “Mr. Sal,” he came the most. He was black—not pigment black, but ash-black, like he’d been charred, and crusty— and his eyes were clusters of nails. It didn’t look like he had proper sockets, just that these bunches of nails were his eyes. He would stand behind us and whisper things that weren’t words but we could understand anyway and left black smears on the pictures we drew.
I know. Salad days, right? They were all like that. Dora no-face, Willy Pete, Dr. Splitfoot.
Like I said, we were seven and eight and we never really knew our father, but Riley was never ‘dad’ to us. He was always “Mr. Swanson” or “doofus” (when he wasn’t around) and we were onto him from the start. He tried to disguise it, he would always say, “oh, Sarah and Megan are having one of their little games, can poppa play?” or, “you girls have quite an imagination. Who’s that?” and he would steal our pictures, even the ones we took from coloring books. And he would always be hiding behind things, watching us. Our mom was too swept away from the honeymoon(she hadn’t been flooded with attention like that since her last marriage) to notice anything. Besides, she started this habit of having a glass of wine in the middle of the day and passing out. So, no help on that front.
We had to start playing outside more. Neither of us liked it, because the ghosts in our house were bad enough. But we couldn’t stand him anymore. He started trying to corner one of us at a time and try to sweet talk us(“you know, you’ve always been my favorite”) or pit us against each other(“your sister told me she only pretends to make you feel better”) but like I said, the juju didn’t work when there was just one of us.
He didn’t give a hint of what he was going to do, didn’t attempt to pass it off as something else, which is why it blindsided us. This was craftier than we’d been led to believe he was capable of being. I still wonder to this day if he wasn’t just playing dumb the whole time, or if he just on a whim decided to chalk a pentagram in our den rug and invite all his friends over.
We were coming down the stairs to kiss mom goodnight. We were in our nighties. Suddenly there were all these strange dudes in our living room and our stepdad in the middle of all of it.
“Megaton! Sahara desert!” he called to us with his phony pet-names. It didn’t work. We bolted. He was a good sprinter.
He dug his fingertips into my shoulder as he steered us back into the living room.
His friends were here for a demonstration. We didn’t want to let our ol’ dad down, did we? Because if we did, he was going to kill our mom. He showed us a pistol to let us know he wasn’t joking.
He re-introduced us to the dudes in the living room as the next Fox sisters. I wonder if the asshole even cared that they had been outed as frauds
He told us to do what we do. We, not really sure of what we do, sat cross-legged on the floor, facing each other. Sarah looked pissed. I have to say I was in agreement. The tricky thing about this, though, was that we had to be relaxed for it to happen. Both Sarah and I had developed a high fear threshold early on. You can’t call a ghost if you’re rigid. So I sat there and wondered what the hell we were going to do. Sarah was moving her mouth really fast like she was muttering. I thought she was just really mad, but then she turned to Riley.
“The Bone Man is behind you,” she said in a perfectly flat voice. Even I couldn’t tell if she was shitting with us or not. Riley actually got a little nervous, but tried to laugh it off.
“Oh really?” he asked, “and what’s it doing, kiddo?”
“He’s going to slap that shelf down on you,” Sarah said, “he’s going to bring it down on you for calling him back. He was asleep and you woke him up.”
Sarah went on to describe him, using lots of gory adjectives. Riley’s face drew, his cocky self-assurance slowly dissipated. Maybe he’d always believed in our gift, but he’d never believed it could affect him.
“Now he’s reaching up,” Sarah said, “now he’s touching the shelf. He’s going to bring it down on you, any second now, any second now…”
Riley set his beer down wrong. It flipped the coaster and crashed to the floor. Everyone jumped. Riley started laughing.
“You little liars,” he said.
And then a friend of his who was wearing this grody leather jacket said, “Swanson, we didn’t come here so you could jerk us around.”
They started leaving.
Riley panicked and ran after him, screaming that it was just a fluke, he’d make us behave. He forgot his gun. We locked the door behind him and told the cops he was touching us. The fact that he’d drugged our mother’s wine that evening and his habit of filming only us worked against him. He couldn’t even work his magic on our mother, who was aghast when she got up. He went away, mom went back to long island ice teas. Somehow we made it to adulthood, and Sarah and I went our separate ways.
I know, I know. But here’s the thing: it only worked like it did when we were together. So it was the smartest thing to do. It wasn’t that we didn’t love each other, quite the opposite, it was just that we knew we had to be like other people if we didn’t want a repeat performance. Not like stuff didn’t happen when we were on our own, it just became easier to laugh off. We got jobs, made friends, and formed bad habits like any people our age.
I went out with Michael because he reminded me of this actor on this sitcom I watched when I was young. Shallow enough, but there wasn’t that much to him. It was a short relationship, I think we both knew that going in. He never asked me to meet his mom, and I never told him I had a sister.
That night he told me we were going to the movies. He didn’t say anywhere special, just the local theater for a crappy supernatural horror flick starring that actress with the really big gums. He told me to fasten my seat belt. When I turned around, he hit me on the head.
I woke up in his trunk. He didn’t talk to me for the ride, I guess he wasn’t that kind of madman, just drove and drove. It took hours. When he popped open the trunk, I could see an old, rotten house. My house, from when I was young. My pretending to still be unconscious lasted up until he picked me up by my hair. He dragged me up the driveway, and threw me on the porch. Through the porch. I fell past rotten boards to the little space beneath the front step.
“You know,” he said, breezily like we were talking about the weather, “I don’t know what my dad saw in you bitches. I dated you for months, and you’re just like any airhead your age. You’re not special. Neither was my dad, but I guess he really wanted to be. Asshole.”
I realized that he’d been trimming a few years from his age, and he’d lied about his last name.
“You’re Riley’s son?” I asked. He shot me a finger-gun.
“I grew up having to listen to what you did to my dad. He was a shit, but he wasn’t a kiddy fiddler. Then I got a hold of some of his old papers and well…” he shrugged.
I could play this to my advantage, I thought. “Look, whether you believe it or not, your dad was ultimately his own undoing. Why live in the past?”
“Nice sentiment, coming from you. When he left us, my mom couldn’t make ends meet. Dad was a loser, but at least he paid bills. You don’t even appreciate what you had, do you?”
“Had? We didn’t have anything,” I said, forcing outrage into my voice.
Michael clicked on a flashlight and pointed it beside me.
“Funny, that’s just what she said.”
I screamed as Sarah’s body was illuminated beside me. She was wearing her waitress uniform, and he’d gagged her with her underwear. One eyelid was scrunched up, one hung open to display her cloudy blue eyes. I screamed in rage and loss and sorrow and Michael danced the light over our heads.
“You know, you’re both a lot alike,” He said. Fucker sounded amused. “Women think they’re this big mystery, but you two are just little girls who never got a daddy.” He squatted. “well, you’re both here now. How ’bout a séance?”
“Fuck you,” I screamed. He laughed.
“Well, I suppose I should…” he trailed off. I don’t blame him. The look on my face was probably a sight to behold.
Because I saw a ghost. Me, all by myself. I did. And it was behind him. And it was the worst one I had ever seen.
All logic centers shut down. I kicked and writhed until was upright. I wormed my torso up over the broken boards, then rolled in an undignified manner down the steps.
Michael was screaming and I couldn’t look at him. Had to relax.
I managed to shuffle forward onto my feet. I don’t know how I didn’t fall.
Michael was screaming next to me. That thing was next to me.
I made myself start hopping for the car.
Michael had a switchblade on the seat, presumably for backup. Sawing through the synthetic rope was hard, but I got through one line and the rest slid off like snakes. The ones on my feet were easier.
The asshole had even left his keys in the ignition. I drove away as he screamed into the dark.
I was smart talking to the cops. Nothing about seances or ghosts or even my stepdad. Just that he had dated my sister and I and was planning on killing the both of us. The rest could come out on its own.
It was good that I kept it simple, I was in too many pieces afterwards. I couldn’t make something connect, somehow. Even when we’d been apart, Sarah and I had never really been alone. Now I felt lost, rudderless, and I was afraid. Because I had seen a ghost, all by myself, and it had been wearing a waitresses’ uniform.