I’m Seth. Uh… I was good for a while. But I started again when this woman told me she had bones in her house. This was about a year ago? Really knocked me for a loop. I’m good again now, but for a while after that… Damn.
I used to manage this thing of townhouses in Poughkeepsie off 115. Right by that big storage place? You can get on the Rail Trail from there, walk by that cemetery… Anyway, my place was at the very end of the row, which was probably on purpose, now that I think about it—people had to really walk over to you if they had a problem, and most people were too lazy to. That was always kind of a bummer, actually, because I like helping people. Part of the reason I took the job in the first place—so I could help out. You got a problem with your sink? I’m there. Loose tile? You’re on. No heat? Lemme…buy you a blanket, I don’t know. But nobody asked for help. I mean, hardly ever. Too much of a walk, everybody too fat and lazy. So that was…ah…
So when this chick knocks on my door and I answer it, and she goes, “My name is Eliza, I live over in 102,” I’m like, Damn, you really want to talk to me, because that’s at the opposite end of the row, ya know? So I’m glad, I’m listenin. And she goes, “I got bones in my house.” And I’m like, “Uh… What?”
She starts pointing behind her and wavin her hand around, trying to explain. It’s ten pm in August, so it’s all wet hot and dark, and these bugs keep tinkin against the little porch light over her head. It’s lighting her up with this yellow flicker-light, like some faded film about a crazy person. She’s about forty-five, all skinny and worried. Hair frizzed out, sweat on her upper lip. She’s goin, “My home has, like, a very negative energy? It’s been really bad these last few weeks, and… My family is suffering a lot. I’m feeling depressed and there’s anger… It’s, it’s just very dark in there.”
“You need a new bulb?”
She gives me this big explosion of a laugh, like she’s about to burst at any second. Like this laugh is the whoosh of sparks that comes when you light the fuse, and the blow is somewhere inside itchin to come out. She goes, “Yeah, right, no, so I did some research? And. I found that there used to be this family who lived there in the sixties. And their, their little girl? Went missing.” She pauses, lets that hit.
I feel like I’m supposed to be like, That’s terrible, or something. So: “That’s terrible.”
“Yeah, nobody could figure out what happened to her. But. This family also had a new garage installed around the same time she vanished. So I’m thinking—”
I stop her, I’m like, “Whoa, wait a second. Hold on. I don’t know anything about that,” because I’m afraid she’s gonna accuse me of somethin. I mean, she walked all the way down here, starts ravin… I don’t know. I didn’t want to get stuck with some liability shit, you know? Plus, I’d been managing that property for about two years, and if anybody’d known anything about that, I felt like I would have heard. Right? Then again, if it was the sixties when this happened, it would have been long past that duty to disclose shit. Still, no rumors or ghost stories or nothin like that floatin around the complex? And then all of a sudden, this Eliza chick starts ramblin on about bones under her house? I don’t know, man.
But she just goes, “But you know that can happen, right? Restless energy affecting a, a space? Have you had complaints about that unit before?”
Not that I could remember.
“Well,” she goes, “Happens all the time. You get a negative energy in your home from…from…” She flicks her hands, like the word ghosts is some fly she’s swatting away so she doesn’t have to say it. “Anyway, you absorb that energy. I’ve dealt with this kind of thing before.”
Bugs are startin to fly into my house and shit, and I’m lettin out all the cold, but I lean against the doorjamb and, again, I’m just tryin to help, she’s not accusing me, so I’m like, encouraging, “You have?”
“I have.” Tossin her hair a bit. “I’ve lived in houses with negative energy. I’ve attracted unhealthy spirits before. You know, our apartment before this one? Something totally bad happened there. I mean, you can feel it. It affects your mood, gives you the goddamn willies. And here, I’ve just felt this…” She shoves her hands down, fingers spread out. “…crushing feeling. Even my kids can feel it.”
“To be fair, depression runs in families, though.” Like, I know depression.
“True… Yeah, true.” That one throws her for a loop, I can tell. But she sticks to her guns. “But I know natural depression. And this isn’t that. This is…this is something different.”
Her eyes get dark, and for a second, it seems like the bugs over her head are still. Like there’s this solemn steadiness radiating off her. Like she’s not gonna budge because…she’s right. And she knows it.
I don’t know about ghosts or energies in general. Aliens, I’d buy. But I’ve never had, like, an experience, and I’ve lived in some fucked places. Like, if there was an experience to be had, I would’ve had it, I’m pretty sure. My mom used to say she got visited by tall men when she was little. They’d just stand in the corner and watch her watching them, and in the morning, there’d be no sign of them. Happened…half a dozen times. According to her. But as far as, like, that shit goes…that’s about it for me.
But Eliza is so earnest about this, I can’t not believe her. And here she is, walkin all the way over here to tell me this, so…
“So,” I say, “you think this…missing girl is…under your garage. And her…restless spirit? Is…”
She’s already nodding, so I don’t have to finish that thought out loud. The more she nods, the more her hair frizzes out. “I just realized it has to be her energy. You know? Her, her sadness and loss and… Radiating out like…” She moves her hands around some more, in waves. “Like, working its way into my family. And I know how that must sound.”
I make some noncommittal grunt, like, Oh, don’t…say that…
“It’s gotta be what’s been making me so depressed lately. And my husband has been lashing out. He’s usually so nice, the sweetest guy, but…”
I dig my thumb into my eyebrow, which is where I used to get these headaches. It’s a bad sign when they show up. I mean, I gotta be ready for em, ya know? You’re not careful, start gettin headaches, you wanna cover up the noise, right? And that’s always bad. But I’m stayin pretty calm, and I’m like, “Alright, so… How can I help?”
She grins. “Well, I know this is a big ask, but…do you think…you could help me dig up the garage?”
“Oh, shit, that’s a big ask.”
“I know, I know. But I have to… I have to put her to rest.”
“So you’d, what? Dig her up and then bury her again in the yard? Make a little headstone?”
She keeps that grin glued on and shrugs. “I guess. Something like that.”
Before I can say anything, this huge moth lands on her head. Just perches on top of this mountain of frizzed greying hair, and sits there. Like a bow in her hair. And she’s fixing me with these eyes…
I don’t know. Like I said, I’ve never exactly believed in ghosts. But I believe in people.
“Look…” I tell her. “I’m really not supposed to do that kind of thing.”
She’s like, “Of course.”
“But,” I say, “if… I mean, if you keep it to yourself… Like, really… If folks hear you been messing with your garage, they’ll wanna change their walls, fix up the kitchens… This place’ll be nuts with ‘improvements’ that aren’t really approved by the…” I point my finger at the sky. Upper management. “Ya know?”
“Of course,” she says again.
“But if you keep this between us, and maybe…keep the mess hidden until some kind of storm… Like, make sure nobody sees it and thinks you’re renovating anything… Maybe we can say a tree fell on it or some shit. Then I’ll help. How does that sound?”
All of a sudden, she starts nodding so hard I feel like her head’s gonna fly off. She starts thankin me and shit. Almost starts crying there on the porch. She keeps patting my arm.
“You’re a really good man,” she says. “A really good man.”
It’s making my headache worse, the way she says that, so I’m like, “It’s all good, no worries, just…wait here a sec. I’ll be right back.”
I close the door on her, and as I do, I can see that one moth fly away her hair. Like, My work here is done, or some shit.
I think about texting my boss, but it’s kinda late and he’s kinda nosy, so there’d be no way to ask him if he knew anything about a missing girl without also busting Eliza for wanting to dig up her garage, and busting myself, too. Obviously, that’s a hard pass. So I just take a second to do a quick Google for missing girls in Poughkeepsie. I do a couple different combinations of words and things (you gotta hit that exact sweet spot sometimes), but I can only find one little article. It’s gotta be the same one Eliza found, because it has just enough detail to be creepy without being informative. Yeah, there was a girl who went missing. Yes, she lived here, she was never found… Somebody commented on the article that they heard her parents killed her. Some insurance scam or something. Somebody else replies to that, says their cousin lived next door and the family did have a new garage put in around then, so who knows. But all of this is, like, internet hearsay, which is usually useless. I feel like that goes without saying.
But damn, man, I mean… It is there. And the kind of people who lived in that complex with me—I wouldn’t put it past any of em to need a quick fix of insurance money.
Either way, I’m intrigued. Hell, I was just watchin tv before she knocked on my door, but this is kind of exciting, ya know? Maybe I’ll solve a cold case or some shit.
So I grab this sledgehammer that’s been sitting in my garage. Used to do some construction work after high school, and I still had all these random tools lying around. Didn’t know what else I’d need, I mean, I kind of figured I’d just see what everything looked like and go from there, so I just take the hammer and go back outside. Eliza’s still standin there under the light, and when she sees the hammer, she gets very excited. She leads me back to her unit, thankin me and patting my shoulder and shit the entire way. It’s so hot outside, I’m already sweatin by the time we get to her door. And that door—shit. I mean, everyone in the place had the same brown door. But hers was this…cracking, ugly brown. Panels peeling in big dry hunks. Definitely the kind of place you’d bury a kid under. Not that I’d know personally, I’m just sayin.
She ushers me inside and asks if I want a glass of water. Like I said, I’m sweatin, so I’m like, “Yeah, that would be great, thanks.” And I stand there all awkward as she goes into the kitchen to get me one. I’m holdin this sledgehammer like some weird-ass Ghostbuster. Wonderin what I’m gonna find, is it gonna be somethin spooky…
Now, all the units had the same layout, right? But this place… The carpet is a shitty beige, wine-stained and cigarette-burned. There’s that ammonia cat smell burning in the air, making every breath feel like a heavy wet towel. Coffee table covered in old water-warped magazines and crusty plates (like, crusty). There are toys all over the floor—Marvel heroes and dinosaurs and shit. A lot of them are broken, missing arms, legs. There’s Kleenex all over the place, crumpled up in old dry wads. The sofa’s fallin apart, weird yellow shit oozing out of the seams. There’s a towel wrapped around one of the seats, with a book of crosswords and a little dictionary next to it. I figure that’s Eliza’s spot. There’s a tv on, which Eliza has set to some sitcom, but you can hardly see the top right part of the screen because it’s all dented and cracked. The colors are all melting and staticky. All the faces that pass over that part of the screen get bent and ghoulish. And to top it all off: somewhere down the hall, there’s a kid crying. Crying and crying and crying behind some closed door I can’t see.
I wonder how many other places in the property looked like this. I’d seen pretty much all of them once or twice when people moved in, but over time, everything changes, right? Everything rots. Starts to, the second you move in. And there I was all along in my place at the end, totally oblivious.
My headache is startin to grow again, standing there, and I start holdin the sledgehammer more tight. I dig a knuckle into my eyebrow, trying to rub away the pain. It feels like shoving your thumb into a bruise, or picking at a scab that isn’t healed. You know? You shouldn’t do it, but ya do.
There’s a cough, and I realize this dude is sittin in the armchair in the corner. He’s watchin the tv. Doesn’t even glance at me. Probably wouldn’t’ve noticed him if he hadn’t’ve coughed—just part of the furniture, really. I’m like, “What’s up? I’m Seth.” Clutchin this hammer.
He goes, “Sure.”
The kid keeps cryin down the hall. Big, raw cries. The dude keeps starin at the screen. I’m like, “What, uh… What are you watchin?”
He takes in this big breath, gives a big sigh. “I don’t know. Some damn laughathon.”
The tv gives off this canned laughter. He doesn’t take his eyes off it. Points with a can of beer at it. “See? Laugh a minute.”
I notice this 24-pack of Rolling Rock next to the chair, and this plastic bag filled with empties. I wonder how long he’s been sittin there.
“Is your kid okay?” I ask. His cries are startin to slice into my skull.
“Oh,” he waves his hand. “He’s just makin a point.”
“Cool, cool…” I tighten my hand on the hammer. Start lookin around again.
That’s when I see this one shelf on the wall behind him. It’s the only place in the room that’s clean. Clean and filled with crystals. Crystals, ornaments, a large shell with this half-burnt stick of sage, dreamcatchers, animal totems, incense burners, Himalayan salt lamp, the works.
“Geez,” I say. “This all your wife’s?”
“Sure as shit ain’t mine. I wouldn’t spend my money on that crap. Always lookin for a reason. Gotta be horoscopes and astrology and shit. ‘Change your vibe with a crystal.’ Control, you know? Bullshit waste of time. Could be spendin her time cleaning this fuckin dump. Could get a job. For once. Know what I mean?”
“Mm. What do you do?”
He has to raise his voice now over the kid in the other room. “I got laid off a few weeks ago.” He glances at me, this one hard dart of a look, then back at the tv. “And I’m puttin my foot down. Figure it’s her turn to do somethin other than read cards and shit all day. I’ve worked hard enough.” And he drinks.
Now I’m rememberin what Eliza said about the ghost energy being really bad the last few weeks, which I guess would’ve been since this dude got laid off. But I don’t say anything about that, obviously. I just say, “Well, she seems to…like it.”
“She doesn’t like it, she trusts it. Fuckin driving me crazy. No grip on reality.”
Eliza comes back in the room with a glass of cloudy water. “I was thinking, if we do find the body, we’ll have to stop digging immediately and call the police, you know.”
I’m like, “Sure.” I look at that water. “I’m…actually okay on the water, thanks. Do you have to…?” I gesture to the hall with the hammer. The kid’s cries are clawing into my skull. Headache’s pumpin.
“Oh,” she waves her hand. “He’s just making a point. The garage is this way.”
“When you’re done, clean up these fuckin dishes,” says the dude in the chair.
“Of course, honey.” She puts the water on the coffee table and starts leadin me to the garage. We pass by the door the cries are coming from. I swear somebody was bleedin out in there. And I just walked on by…
The garage is all bare (no car), except for a punching bag in the corner and some duct-taped, dusty ski poles. There’s two bowling ball bags and some tennis rackets. I’m wonderin who did all the skiing and tennis-ing. I almost ask Eliza about it, but she’s already standin in the middle of the floor, this big bare fluorescent buzzing over her head, making her hair look like pale cobwebs.
“I sense it here,” she goes, gesturing down at the floor, moving her fingers in circles.
“Alright,” I say. “You sure about this?”
We can hear some more canned laughter from the other room. She glances at the door to the house and goes, “I’m sure.”
And suddenly… I am, too. It sounds crazy, but as soon as she says that, I can definitely feel something, ya know? I mean, there’s absolutely some energy comin up from the floor. I walk around on it a bit and I get this…pulse in my feet. Something bad is here. You can smell it in the whole place. Like mold, but thicker. Somethin…heavy. Dark. And I’m like, Oh, shit, we might actually find something.
Eliza goes, “You feel it?”
I nod. I start turnin the hammer in my hands. “Yeah,” I go. “Yeah, I… I do.”
“Well,” she says. “Whenever you’re, ah… And thank you, again.”
“My pleasure,” I tell her. “Okay. Stand back.”
She does. Presses herself against the wall. And I start swingin that damn sledgehammer. Start poundin it into the concrete, thinkin about what we’re gonna find. Is it gonna be bones? Some cursed-ass little girl? Who knows, man. I just keep swingin. Swingin and sweatin and this chick’s just standin there, flinching as all these chunks of concrete go flyin. I bring up these huge chunks and throw em into the corner with both hands. She offers me water again, but I don’t know about that cloudy shit from the tap, so I say I’m all good, even though so much sweat is gettin in my eyes it stings, and I can taste it, and it’s drippin into the hole in the ground and my hands are throbbing, and my whole bones hurt like that headache is in my arms and legs now, too.
But I keep pounding and pounding, and there’s just more and more dirt. I walk back to my place and get a shovel, and I start bustin into the earth under the concrete, and there’s just more and more dirt. I dig all night, but there’s no bones, no girl, no nothin.
It’s all just dirt.
Wherever that little girl is, she ain’t here, because here is just worms and rot and gunk. And that’s when I knew that everything just is. Ain’t no bad voodoo or vibes or whatever. It’s all just random hurt and loss and scrabbling. It all just is. And nobody wants to see the world for what it just is—nobody can see the world for what it is—because why would you want to? Way better to give yourself a little blindfold, a little reason. And you can’t actually help anybody but yourself, and even that? It’s just help yourself a little bit at a time. A little blindfold, fade-out a piece a day, and that’s when I started using again. That very second, soon as it hit me we were never gonna find bones. Just walked right out of her place, left her cryin in the corner of the garage, whimperin, “Where is she… She has to be here…” And I never saw Eliza again in my life. I just walked right over to this guy I knew had some a few doors down. Still carrying the sledgehammer and everything, almost morning, like four am. Head poundin, covered in sweat and dirt. But I knew he’d help me out. Told him I’d knock a few bucks off his rent if he gave me some. And he did. And I started using again. Easy as that. Always is.
And that was bad for a while. Really bad.
But… I’m here now. Again. So. That’s somethin. Every day is somethin.
I don’t think I got anything from that night. I mean, I still think everything just is, and I’m…working on that. Higher power and all. At the end of the day, it was a night that I got through, and I saw the morning. And every time you do that, it’s a night that counts no matter what, right? Whatever stupid bullshit comes up, even if the sun rises and you’re knockin on somebody’s door, lookin for pills, at least you saw the morning. And that’s…always something, I think.
I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.
Thanks for letting me share.
Sam Rebelein recently graduated from Goddard College with an MFA in Creative Writing. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Bourbon Penn, Shimmer Magazine, Planet Scumm, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Dark Moon Digest, and elsewhere. He lives in upstate New York and on Twitter @Hillaryscruff.