Introduction by Alyssa Songsiridej
Mrs. Whittaker, the chatty, old-fashioned, and long-dead narrator of Ren Arcamone’s “The Difficulty of Getting Through to You” does not seem like the best candidate to pull off a haunting. The domicile in question is in suburban Brisbane and serves as a temporary home to the living Katsoulas family, who are house flippers. Typically, polite Mrs. Whittaker would not bother them, but the youngest daughter, Cherie (“it’s pronounced ‘Cherry’ ”) can see her. After being fundamentally unseen both in her life as a 1960s housewife, and in her death as a wispy, insubstantial ghost, Mrs. Whittaker is ready for some company and will do whatever it takes to hold on to Cherie. So she embarks on a haunting project to frighten prospective buyers—though the most she can muster is dead geckos and light water damage.
The question of what makes a ghost, of why one wants to linger, is the driving force of this short story. There is no murder mystery—although, right off the bat, there is a murder next door—because Mrs. Whittaker reveals early on how she died: an accidental suicide following a bitter argument with her cold, podiatrist husband, Gerald. But she doesn’t show the whole emotional truth of her death, because she can barely face it herself. What if what makes a ghost isn’t revenge or anger, but simply guilt or regret? What if the antagonist isn’t really Gerald, who never took Mrs. Whittaker’s internal reality seriously, or Mr. Dent, the husband next door, but rather Mrs. Whittaker’s misunderstanding of herself, and the act that ended her life?
At just the right moment, Arcamone deftly cracks Mrs. Whittaker’s veneer to show the desperate hunger burbling beneath, a love for existence she hasn’t escaped in death. Barely able to acknowledge this wish to herself, the narrator’s feelings burst forth in carefully titrated moments of ecstatic emotion, a larger personality pushing out from housewifely seams. “The truth is I adored life,” she admits when this truth becomes too much to contain. “I only ever wanted more of it. I wanted to be as close as possible to it, to feel it filling me.” This story begins as cozy as a rumpus room—but it will not keep you safe. You are in the hands of a writer willing to push a narrative beyond any of your expectations.
– Alyssa Songsiridej
Managing Editor, Recommended Reading
I’m the Wrong Ghost for This Haunting
The Difficulty of Getting Through to You by Ren Arcamone
I was rematerializing in the garden shed when Cherie Katsoulas found me and said, “I heard screaming last night. Did you hear screaming?”
Well, this was a delicate thing to handle, because in fact I had heard screaming last night. This was due to the very noisy business of Mr. Dent, the next-door neighbor, murdering his wife. But Cherie is a gentle child, a sensitive child, easily affected by things. When I was alive, I had very little to do with children. It’s difficult to say what a nine-year-old should know, what she shouldn’t know. Just last week, Cherie watched a news video about a beached whale and cried for a good hour. On the other hand, she helped bury the family cat, Chuggo, with minimal anguish. I stalled.
“Screaming? What sort of screaming?”
“And crying,” said Cherie solemnly. “I think it was the man next door. I think he was screaming and crying.”
I said the screaming was due to Dent’s murdering his wife. But that’s not to say the screaming came from Mrs. Dent as Mr. Dent hacked her body to pieces with a butcher’s knife. Cherie’s two older sisters—Cleo in particular—watch television shows ostensibly concerning “law and order,” but which are usually about violent men who kidnap women and torture them or rape them or melt their dead bodies in vats of alkaline solution, and often the men are secret perverts with daytime jobs as solicitors or what have you. But Mr. Dent killed his wife by accident. Certainly, he hit her on purpose. But he wasn’t happy she was dead. Hence the screaming.
“Pick up that stack of pots for me, will you?” I said to Cherie.
Outside was sun and breezy Brisbane spring, the sky a high smear of blue. There were plastic gardening pots scattered higgledy-piggledy across the floor, some wedged inside of one another, which was no good to me; my arms were acting up again. Often, if I’m tired, my hands turn to mist, slip straight through whatever I’m attempting to grab, and I had already exerted myself a great deal this week, foraging the yard for dead geckos. Cherie, considerate child, picked apart a set of three pots and lay them upturned on the bench, as though readying us for a magic trick with an unlocatable ball.
“More, please,” I said. “Thank you, Cherie.”
Cherie clacked the pots one by one onto the table. I had hoped to hide the gecko corpses, fearing a beached-whale-style meltdown, but she saw right through me to the bundle of soft bodies and didn’t blink.
“It’s Cherry,” said Cherie. “Mum says it ‘Cherry.’”
“Nonsense,” I said. And I knew Cherie did not really expect me to change, and nor did I expect her to stop correcting me. I nudged the lizard bodies through the dust across the table, willing my hands to stay solid.
My plan was to place a dead lizard under each of the empty pots, leaving them conspicuously arranged along the length of the table, thereby frightening the unhappy discoverer. Possibly this would be Dina Katsoulas, or her husband, Nick, but with any luck it would be the potential property buyer scheduled to visit this week. I’d recovered about ten lizards, and though I would have preferred more—haunting is as much about scale as it is strangeness—this visit was an early one, a private enquiry, and if I needed to speed things along, then so be it.
I’d been thinking a lot about it, about how to haunt a residence. The Open House was scheduled for three weeks away, by which time I would hopefully have enough frightening phenomena to dissuade even the keenest buyer. The current long-term project was some carefully curated water damage: I was trying to spell out the words I AM STILL HERE on the master bedroom ceiling by arranging ice cubes on the ceiling’s reverse side. So far, this was going terribly. Only the first few letters were even faintly apparent, and I’d gotten the “S” backwards by mistake, so that if you were really looking for it, you could just make out the declaration I AM Z.
A good haunting ought to be a lot more magical than these small pranks. Blood bubbling out of the taps, fireless smoke filling a room, grandfather clocks winding themselves backwards. But I am just one ghost, and a not substantial one at that. My haunting ambitions fall within a narrow range: past “faulty wiring,” but not quite “demonic torture chamber.” I would simply like the house to be unsellable. The Katsoulases are young and full of life, and Cherie, remarkably, can talk to me. I’d quite like them to stay.
“Are we going to throw a funeral?” asked Cherie. “For the geckoes?”
“Yes,” I told her. “And we’re going to inter the bodies. That means we’re going to lay them to rest. We’re going to inter them in a mausoleum. That’s like a house for dead people.”
“Like our house?”
“No,” I said. “Ours is more of a shared residence.”
Together we placed a pot over each of the geckoes. I positioned them apart from one another; Cherie was curious but unwilling to touch the bodies. Some were quite fresh, still limp and juicy. The long-dead ones looked like hard little commas.
“Also I saw Marcus in the space under the house,” said Cherie. “Digging a big hole.”
“You saw Mr. Dent in the space under the house, digging a big hole,” I corrected her. “And you did not. I saw nothing of the sort.”
“Did too. He put a big plastic garbage bag in the hole and covered it up, like we did with Chuggo.”
“It’s very naughty,” I said. “To make things up like that.”
Cherie chewed her bottom lip. “Nobody ever believes me about anything.”
I considered this, poking a grey tail under the rim of a pot. The year I died, there was a new vogue for psychiatric terms: psychopathology, neurotic affect, catecholamine hypothesis. My husband was a doctor—not that sort of doctor—but nonetheless I had an interest in diagnostic terms. I am quite sound of mind these days. Still, I do experience these gaps, what one might call “involuntary dematerialization.” In the past, they could descend suddenly and for prolonged periods; the majority of the seventies, for instance, flew past without so much as a by-your-leave.
Last night—I’d assumed I had seen the whole event. Mr. Dent struck his wife. She fell backwards, hit the corner of the kitchen table, went limp, and Mr. Dent fell to his knees, howling, shouting, Get up, Lisa, get up. A dark puddle surrounded Mrs. Dent’s head, and Mr. Dent began to tremble. Afterwards—well. Perhaps Cherie had a point.
“He carried her under the house?” I said. The neighbor’s house, like my house, is a Queenslander, an old timber structure raised on stilts and enclosed by walls of widely-spaced slats. The Katsoulases had put in a floor and real walls, turning the space into a rumpus room. The Dents had left theirs untouched, although they kept a washer and clothesline under there. I imagined the dirt floor, upturned, a shovel stuck in the hard earth. I tried to remember.
“I saw it,” said Cherie. “Between the gaps in the walls. He turned the light on.”
Which does seem disappointingly in keeping with Mr. Dent’s character, burying a body in plain view of anyone who happens to pass by. This is the trouble with handsome men. They think everyone is so busy cooing over them that no one will notice if they act like perfect devils.
I examined Cherie’s face for signs of panic, but she was perfectly calm. “Get those pots in a neat row, will you, dear?”
Cherie straightened the pots. If I found more bodies, I could extend the row further. “Nice and cosy,” said Cherie, patting the last one.
“Were you frightened, Cherie?” I asked. “You see that Mrs. Dent is dead, don’t you?”
Cherie looked up at me with big eyes. They’re dark eyes, brown-black, like a muddy lake. Sometimes I see a flicker of light pass over the surface. I would like to think this is my reflection: silverly, a faint cloud catching itself in the water below. It has been so long since I saw my face. Whenever I set foot near a mirror I can barely make out my head: I look like I’m behind a shower curtain, or under a wedding veil. I think my eyes were blue. Only Cherie can see me in this house. No one else. She blinked slowly.
“She’s not really gone,” said Cherie. “Now you have a new friend.”
It was impossible to know this for certain, although I wondered the same thing, about Mrs. Dent. The hideous circumstances of her death seemed to prime her for an unearthly return—or so I suspected, having watched several episodes of Spectral Detectives, a favorite television program among the Katsoulas children. A so-called “reality” show, two young men visit supposedly haunted family homes to prove the presence or non-presence of ghosts. One of the men, Tom, a handsome young Asian man, is always convinced the house is haunted. The other, Brad, a handsome young Caucasian man, is always skeptical, and goes in with measuring equipment to detect drafts from the air vents or uneven floor surfaces. He often says, “I have a background in architecture.” Even though both men are beautiful, they are not intolerable; I put this down to the fact of their being inverts, or what my husband would have called “nancy men.” My husband was occasionally mistaken for a nancy man, being handsome himself. It troubled him terribly, and this, I have to admit, made me smile. Attention ought to have its drawbacks.
Anyway, these men, these ghost-detective men, spend a night together in the haunted house, preferably in the most haunted room, and are inevitably awoken by bumps and scratchings and sometimes whirrings from the ghost-detecting machines they’ve arranged in the hallways. Each investigation closes with Tom sitting at the family’s kitchen table, explaining that actually a little girl vanished from this house in the eighties, or that actually an old man had a stroke on this very floor. These explanatory stories are at the heart of the show. Everyone knows you need a good trauma to tie it all together.
I must confess that the bulk of my own understanding about hauntings is derived from these shows. Despite my circumstances, I’m no expert on the subject. What makes a ghost? How often are the dead required to remain?
Cherie is a devoted fan of Spectral Detectives, even though she is technically forbidden from watching it. Mr. Katsoulas lets her stay up and watch it so long as Mrs. Katsoulas is working late and Cherie promises not to tell. It doesn’t really give her nightmares, she says. She’s seen plenty of ghosts.
“There was one at the Buranda house,” she told me early on. “And at Indooroopilly.”
These are Brisbane suburbs. The Katsoulas family have lived in several houses over the years; Mr. and Mrs. Katsoulas are what the television program For Flip’s Sake tells me are “house flippers,” people who renovate old houses and sell for a profit. It has led the Katsoulas family to move houses roughly once a year. I was unsettled to hear ghosts were such a commonplace feature, if only for Cherie.
“Mum and Dad said he was a figment,” Cherie went on. “But there was a boy called Ron at Buranda. He always wanted to play tip. But it was boring and anyway Mum said I couldn’t run up the stairs. Mostly I just ignored him.”
The other ghost, at Indooroopilly, was a baby. They’d found a cot in an otherwise empty room. I thought perhaps Cherie had been shaken by this, or disturbed to find the ghost of a newborn, but when pressed she said only that it was annoying.
“It just cried,” she said. “And cried and cried and cried and cried.”
Cherie rarely speaks fondly of these previous playmates. No doubt it is tiresome to be pestered by the undead. Young Tom from Spectral Detectives reminds viewers that the continued existence of any spirit is centered upon “some real deep sorrow.” I don’t know about that, but I confess: before Cherie arrived, my days were dull indeed. You can only rattle the china cabinet for so long. It is refreshing to be addressed. To be seen.
Cherie didn’t know anything about how the boy or the baby had died. Babies die all the time, and probably the boy had tripped down the stairs, although for all I knew it was polio and the chasing game was making up for a sickly childhood. These assumptions tell me nothing about how ghosts become ghosts. Me, I took my husband’s penknife and slit my forearms open in the bathtub in ’64, went trembly and cold and floated out the bathroom window.
Cherie was right: Mrs. Dent did come back. It was evening. I was standing at the kitchen sink, trying to loosen the faucet, wondering exactly how I might get it to shoot into the air the next time someone turned the tap on. Through the window, I could see into the Dent’s living room, where Mr. Dent sat watching the television. The space under the house was so dark, it was impossible to make out the washing machine or the dryer or any sign of the makeshift grave, but I could see the faint shimmer of Mrs. Dent through the timber battens, curled up in the dirt, sobbing noisily. I went out and stuck my head over the garden fence.
“Mrs. Dent?” I said. “Mrs. Dent, I’m terribly sorry for your loss.” A chorus of bats chittered in the boughs of the paperbark overhead. I raised my voice. “Terrible business. A darn shame, about your husband.”
She had positioned herself directly underneath what I could see were the living room floorboards, so that her husband, if he were at all psychically aware, would hear the moans of her fury. But Mr. Dent, it seemed, was not the slightest bit preternaturally sensitive. He sipped a beer and fondled the remote. It’s difficult, getting through to the living. Mrs. Dent had not yet realized this.
Or perhaps I am too hasty in thinking he was deaf to her screams. Perhaps he heard her and thought nothing of it. My husband had certainly been that way, in my life. “Don’t be hysterical,” he would say, sternly, in response to my wailing. “I know you can help it, Cecelia, so snap out of it right now.” He would use his doctor voice. I said he was a doctor, didn’t I? Well, he was no psychiatrist, or even a general physician. In fact, he was a foot doctor, a chiropodist. But he had a lot of authority nonetheless, when he spoke like that. So I would—I would snap out of it.
Of course, it’s hard to fault him. I had nothing to wail about like Mrs. Dent. Gerald never hit me. I had several friends, I was on good terms with my mother and father, I had a very nice house and nice neighbors and was never hungry. In fact, I don’t know what it was, that ever came over me, why I ever wanted to cry like that. And Gerald was right, I could help it. There was always some sly part of my mind standing guard whenever I sank down into one of these low moments, some cynical and grounded part of myself that thought, Oh, I’m a fool for feeling this way, it’s not so bleak as all that. Sometimes I would try to shut that part of my brain off and really feel crazy, really hysterical. I would gulp air and hiss and let the shudders roll through my body, wait for the feeling to grip me completely. It never would, though. Not the way it was gripping Mrs. Dent right now.
“Mrs. Dent?” I said, louder. “Attempting a haunting, are you? I’ve been in this place a while. I could share a few pointers!”
The sobbing increased, as if in competition with the screeching and crunching of the bats. Given that my own attempts at haunting the Katsoulas family had so far gone unnoticed, I don’t know what tips I imagined sharing, but it would have been nice to talk shop with the new girl. I waved my arm at her, trying to make it look as arm-shaped as possible.
Her neck twisted very slowly as she turned to me. Her eyes were too big, as though they’d been magnified, or her head had shrunk.
“Oh!” I said, faltering. “Oh! Hello, dear.”
She crawled up to the wooden battens that enclosed the underside of the house and pushed through them with jerky, mechanical movements, her body flickering. She couldn’t come through the fence, surely. According to the television, ghosts are bound narrowly to the sites of their death. I myself have never left the perimeter of the property.
But no one had told Mrs. Dent. Spittle flew from her teeth. She was at the fence, raising her body up, up, up, pressing herself into the barrier and then through it, her face spasming through the solid fence post, and screaming, screaming.
I shot up and backwards and in through the wall of the house, my eyes shut tight. I tried to collect myself. How stupid, to be afraid of Mrs. Dent. There was a buzzing in my head, distant, like a motorized fan. I felt like I was still in her presence, or in somebody’s presence, so I opened my eyes. That’s when I realized I was in the bathroom.
I don’t like the bathroom. I don’t go in there, haven’t since I was alive. Now I stood in the bath. I was alone, but it felt as though I had intruded on someone; I almost said, “I’m sorry” into the still air. Right at eye level, there was a ring of decorative floral tiles, green and orange, and a mirror at the sink, through which I could see the tiled wall behind me and no trace of myself. Panic overwhelmed me. I slipped backwards, pushing myself through the bathroom wall like it was tissue paper, kicking my way down through the floor until I was elsewhere, anywhere else.
I found myself in the rumpus room, waist-deep in the television. The Katsoulas family, all five of them, were sprawled over the black leather sofas, a bowl of Bolognese on each lap. For a moment it seemed like they were staring straight at me. But no—they were watching the television—all except for Cherie, who gasped and clamped her hand over her mouth, and looked, in this instant, so appalled I thought Mrs. Dent must be behind me, until I realized it was me, I was the cause for the shock. My lower body seemed to hum inside the machine, but the top of me was smoky, diffuse, like a ribbon of ink dropped in water. You poor dear, I thought numbly. It’s only me, it’s me. From a distance I heard Cleo, the middle sister, saying “It’s just the DVD skipping, Cherry. God. You’re so dramatic,” and I watched Mr. Katsoulas muss Cherie’s hair, and Cherie’s face harden into a frown, her lips forming the words, “Go away.” But I couldn’t gather myself. I was soft, I was wet meringue. Their voices came to me from the other end of a long tunnel.
“It’s the ghost,” Cherie was saying.
“Cali, hit the DVD player.”
“You do it.”
“Don’t hit the machine, anyone. Pause it and wipe the disk.”
“Mum, it’s the ghost.”
“Yeah Mum, tell the ghost to wipe the disk.”
“Cleo, don’t make fun of your sister.”
“Hey now,” said Mr. Katsoulas. He bundled Cherie onto his lap, spoke to her gently. In the soft blue of the flickering screen, they were lit up like specters themselves. “Maybe your ghost can watch the movie with us.”
“Nick!” said Mrs. Katsoulas. “Don’t encourage her.”
“It doesn’t work like that.” Cherie sniffed. “She can’t do anything right now. She can’t even talk.”
I was in the elsewhere, nowhere, for perhaps three days, perhaps a week. I couldn’t tell. There is nothing that happens inside that space. It’s like being dead, if being dead were the way I imagined it was going to be. It’s like being asleep, except no dreams.
During my life, I had often wanted to be the sort of person who could disappear inside a mania. I had a girlhood friend, Eunice, who was like that, beautiful and manic. She had nervous, narrow eyes and frizzy hair and a slim figure and an impressive record collection. Her husband moved her out to Broken Hill a year into their marriage, said the country air would be good for her, as though Brisbane were anything more than a big country town. An odd man, Mr. Maclean, very boring. I never understood why Eunice married him, although I wondered if his boring nature were a part of it. A tether to her kite.
Even at the time, before she was sent to the sanatorium, I knew it was wicked to be envious of Eunice. And it was envy, it wasn’t simply that I loved her company, although I did. During those early years, when Gerald and I were newlyweds, Eunice would come over for Devonshire tea and bring a small flask of gin and sometimes a record. We were obsessed with Patsy Cline and we would sing as we baked; our favorite was “Walking After Midnight.” I’d burn the scones, tipsy, giggling, giggling about everything, this strange wondrous home with the salmon pink refrigerator and Pyrex casserole dishes and the ocean of time stretched before us, my new handsome husband, beloved by every woman he met, and so impressive to my mother and father—a doctor! my mother told everyone—and so charming, kind even though busy.
Mostly Eunice found everything very funny too, although if she was in a bad mood she was rotten. Sometimes she came round only to sit out on the veranda, smoking, half-catatonic, and when she spoke she said queer things: “I’m an egg without a yolk in it.” Sometimes she stood me up altogether. She didn’t like me visiting her. If she was doing poorly her house was filthy, chicken bones and other food remnants scattered everywhere, not even on plates, kicked to the corners of the room. I would go over despite her requests and find her shaking or crying, in bed in her slip, not caring what Mr. Maclean would say when he returned home from work. He was patient with her, I must say. His eyes, fat with panic at the sight of her like that, his voice soft, like he was coaxing a bird into his hand.
My husband, Gerald, wouldn’t have handled it nearly so well. He pitied Eunice, he said, but he didn’t like me hanging round with her. “A troubled girl,” he said, in his doctor voice. But there was an edge of fear in there, like Eunice was contagious. He took her seriously. He took her sadness seriously. He would never have told her to snap out of it. He knew as well as I did that she simply couldn’t.
Sometimes I hated Gerald. When Eunice went into the sanatorium it was as though, for him, she died, but in a very awkward manner we ought not to talk about. If I mentioned her he would stare out the window, or pat his pockets in search of a cigarette. In company he would change the topic. He was quick on his feet, conversationally, and early in our marriage I had found this charming, but now it struck me as a tic, a cover, for either impatience or fear. I grew to despise him. Whenever anyone said, “Your husband’s a doctor?” I would correct them: “Actually, he’s a foot doctor.” My mother once witnessed this and called me ungrateful. She doted on him. Everyone did. Nearly eighteen months after I died he had a new wife, and they lived here, in our house, my house, with my salmon pink refrigerator, for six months, before packing up and moving all the way to Adelaide for god knows what reason. The house was empty for a while after that, I believe. I wasn’t altogether present for it. For nigh on a decade, I wasn’t altogether present for anything. Later, I heard the house was said to be haunted, so it’s possible I did something I don’t remember, to him or to her. But then again that’s just the sort of thing people say about suicides in old houses, or about widowers who remarry too quickly, and anyway, those stories never stuck, the neighborhood changed and anyone who remembered moved away.
I say suicide. The truth was—this is quite embarrassing—it was an accident. Gerald and I had been having an argument, about Eunice, in fact. He disliked my friendship with her; he found it worrying, although he wouldn’t call it worry; he was “being reasonable.” He’d found the letter I was writing her, picked a quarrel before heading off to work, and in the evening, still stewing, I thought: I’ll give him a good scare. I ran a bath and took the penknife—it hurt quite a lot. I wanted to make it look authentic. I was trying to make a point, I think. But I went too deep. The water was pink and then very red. It was almost funny. I remember giggling. I kept thinking he would wander in at any moment, and then time started passing in an awfully queer way and I was fluttering inside like a gassed bug; I was embarrassed, so horribly embarrassed, and then afraid. I was just going to have to go along with it, pretend this was what I had meant all along. Gerald would come in at any minute and I would say to him, See? I thought: I am making a point.
Looking back, it’s tricky to put into words exactly the point I was trying to make. But what did that matter. I doubt anyone realized I was saying anything at all.
By the time I was me again, the visitor who was interested in buying the house had come and gone, with or without seeing the arrangement in the shed, I couldn’t be sure. Still, somebody had discovered it, and Cherie was getting the blame. She threw a tantrum in the backyard as her mother shook the pots out, gingerly placing the dead geckos in a plastic bag.
“I didn’t do it!” Cherie wailed. “It was Mrs. Whittaker!” She beat the ground with her fists, sounding just as insane as Mrs. Dent.
“Lots of kids still believe in Santa Claus at this age,” Nick Katsoulas said, once Cherie had gone to bed. He and Mrs. Katsoulas were arguing at the kitchen table, partly about the living room furnishings, but mainly about Cherie, what her mother called “her ongoing obsession with the supernatural.” “Lots of ‘em still have imaginary friends.”
The table was covered in paint swatches from Dulux. Several shades of green punctured the cream and beige, candidates for what the television program You Bloody Flipper calls “the quintessential feature wall.” I was hovering about the cabinets, feeling nervy. Several weeks earlier, I had crayoned the words I AM STILL HERE over and over on the linings of several typically-neglected cupboards, imagining the distress of prospective buyers on the day of the Open House. Now, I could see this approach was futile. Each of my haunting efforts so far had only gotten Cherie into trouble. I needed a new strategy.
Mrs. Katsoulas spread her hands between Alpine Dream and Canopy Heat.
“You know what I don’t like?” she said. “I don’t like her lying. Last week we were repainting Cleo’s room and she smashed Cleo’s alarm clock against the wall. Bits of plastic everywhere. Had to repaint the section.”
Mr. Katsoulas sounded dubious. “You saw her smash it?”
“Well,” said Mrs. Katsoulas.
She was sitting right near the affected cupboards. For a perverse moment I really did want her to open one, not only to see the writing, but to know it for what it was, to turn to Mr. Katsoulas in alarm, sensing my presence. I tried to focus my mind like a fine silver instrument, like the hooked scalpel I remembered from my husband’s medical bag. But then—just as Mrs. Katsoulas was tilting her head in my direction—I realized, with no small degree of embarrassment, what Gerald would have said to all of this. I was being a fool. If they knew, truly knew, that I was here, they would simply sell the house as fast as they could.
Mr. Katsoulas was at the kitchen sink, turning the water on and off. “Have you noticed this tap feels looser?”
“Listen, Nick. I heard it smash. When I turned around she looked guilty as sin. And I go, did you break that clock, Cherry? And she goes, oh, my ghost friend did it.”
“She felt bad. Hey!” He stuck his hands up. “I’m not defending her, she knows she shouldn’t lie. But you can be a bit harsh on her, Dina.”
“And how convenient for you. That I’m the bad cop who tells her off.” Mrs. Katsoulas lowered her voice. “You’re the one filling her head up with this shit, Nick. Scary stuff on TV, horror stories, the bloody ghost hunting show—”
They weren’t going to discover anything. Rather than feeling relieved, I only felt tired, and a little guilty. I had absolutely thrown the clock.
I drifted up and through the roof to sit on the eaves. All down the street, porch lights warded off the darkness, casting dim halos around the houses, the lurching eucalypts that divided them. A family of possums sauntered along the tightrope of a power line. Some part of me wanted to apologize to Cherie, but I suspected a tantrum would ensue if I approached her too soon. I would let her cool off. Soon, things would be back to usual.
In the house across the way, Mrs. Dent was standing in the kitchen, smashing wine glasses, stopping only when her husband entered the room. I considered floating up to the fence and shouting out some tips, then thought again. How daft. Mrs. Dent’s haunting prowess now far outstripped my own.
At the third smash, Dent jumped off the sofa, paced down the house, turning the lights on as he went—kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom—appearing in each box like a figure in a flickering film strip. When he settled at last on the bed, gripping his knees, Mrs. Dent crawled along the ceiling, kicking dust from the cornices, the dull thumps sounding in each room. “Marcus,” she crooned. “Marcus.”
On Spectral Detectives, the hosts describe three kinds of hauntings: residual, intelligent, and inhuman, the last of which is a consequence of demons, rather than ghosts. Tom calls these inhuman apparitions “salt-the-earth-bad-guys.” “I think we got a real salt-the-earth-bad-guy on our hands here, Brad.” The implication is the deceased are never truly malevolent. “Lost loved ones” only ever want to pass on a message. But what if the message is “go to hell?”
That’s what I thought Mrs. Dent was trying to say, anyway. In life, she had been patient. She had spent a lot of time reassuring Mr. Dent that things would turn out all right. When he was angry she often looked scared; she flinched at his raised voice, the tightening cord of muscle in his neck. But at other moments a terrifying compassion radiated out from her, as though Mr. Dent were a child with a skinned knee, and she knew that she of all people was equipped to tend to the wound. But death had transformed Mrs. Dent. She was no longer patient, or loving, or beseeching. She was all rage.
Curiously, Dent, too, seemed transformed. In the early mornings, when the Katsoulas’ oven clock showed the dim hour before dawn and Dent was waking, he would sit up and almost immediately crumple. Watching, I felt a strange and terrible shrinking feeling, not only disgust but—forgive me—sympathy. Still, I am glad, viciously glad, that Mrs. Dent torments him.
I have this funny thought, sometimes. Every now and then I come over all queer, and I imagine there’s another ghost sharing this place with me, one confined entirely to the bathroom. That’s silly, of course. That’s simply a personal aversion I have towards the bathroom, on account of my death. I know to be rational about these things.
Nonetheless, it gives me a prickling feeling. Once, in the middle of the day, when nobody was home, I became convinced I could hear someone crying in there, and even though it was stupid I fled for the garden, yanked like a magnet to the shed at the bottom of the yard. Among themselves, the Katsoulas children speak of strange noises coming from the drains, although Mr. Katsoulas puts this down to the old pipes, which he has yet to get around to replacing, and anyway the girls really aren’t helping the matter, what with their long hair clogging the p-trap, whatever that is.
“What does your ghost want?” California asked Cherie one evening. Both Mr. and Mrs. Katsoulas were working late, and Cali, charged with babysitting, had them watching Spectral Detectives. If it had been Cleo, it would have been a mocking question, but California is a gentle child, especially, Mrs. Katsoulas tells people, for a teenager.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Cherie, sounding like a world-weary woman of sixty. “Probably she just wants attention.”
I was in the wall behind the sofa, grateful I hadn’t announced my presence to Cherie. I felt sick, as though my stomach were turning, as though I had a stomach.
A week to go before the showing, the curtains had been decided upon. They were semi sheer, long and white, gauzy, tissue-paper-light. Despite my efforts, the Katsoulas residence had remained perfectly sellable. I would have to surrender; I would have to resign myself to solitude again. There was a stiff breeze, and in certain moments, the curtains looked much the way I imagined I did.
As if to spite me, Mrs. Dent grew stronger and stronger. Each night, she filled the kitchen sink with knives, overturned the furniture. The police swung by one Thursday evening to find Mr. Dent a wreck. They left without him, prompting a hail of lightbulbs from Mrs. Dent.
I wanted to ask Cherie about the Open House, but she wasn’t talking to me. Dina Katsoulas had found the markings in the cabinets, one of which read MRS.WHITTAKER LIVES. No one had yelled at her. It was past that. Mrs. Katsoulas had booked her to see a psychiatrist. I drifted into her bedroom while she was playing with the small yellow screen, the “game-boy,” and she ignored me. I called to her several times, even stuck my hands right through her middle, which normally produces a squeal, but she just pursed her lips and kept her thumbs on the buttons. Down the hall, Patsy Cline was playing from California’s foldable television, the “lap-top.” Something twanged in me, some mixture of nostalgia and horror. Patsy Cline was falling to pieces again. She had never stopped.
The night before the Open House, I perched myself on a lampshade in the dining room. California and Cherie and Mr. and Mrs. Katsoulas were playing a card game, Bastra. Cleo sat curled like a cat in a chair in the corner, immersed in the flickering of her phone screen.
“See?” said Mrs. Katsoulas. “See how nice it is to all hang out for once? Take a break from the idiot box?” She often said things like this: during dinner, or during pancakes on a Sunday morning, or the time the children helped knock down the dividing wall that once separated the kitchen from the dining room. She would talk about some time that was “quality,” and other times that were not. The times that were not were often the fault of the television, even though she loved it as much as anyone.
I was embarrassed by her, when she talked this way. But I understood. I had longed for quality-time. If my life had been a film reel with the non-quality parts cut out, the floor would be a mess of silver scraps and the ensuing film would run for perhaps a day. I am not trying to be morose. Perhaps I am simply forgetful. I do remember the bright parts: picnicking out at Kangaroo Point with Eunice and Margaret and Julie on a Friday evening, watching the sunset turn the Brisbane River grey-gold. I had finished school and gotten a job at a bank; I was no longer a child; the world was opening itself to me. Sitting next to Gerald for the first time at a dinner party—he was a friend of Margaret’s brother—and thinking he would never speak to me, he was too lovely for words—and then when he did my whole body was alight. The first time he kissed me, and I knew for certain I had him, and the way this knowing made me powerful and beautiful and perhaps cunning, like a story book sorceress. And stray moments that didn’t really mean anything. The first time I plucked a fig from my grandmother’s garden, early in the spring, before the bats had ravaged the tree. When the Browns bought a television set and invited the whole street to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents. A particular New Years’ Eve, watching fireworks over the river, eating grapes. Moments I was properly alive.
Because there were many moments I was not. I would be moving laundry from the machine into the basket and something would come over me, something that felt very important, and I would have to sit down right there on the tiles and wait for it to pass. It could take an hour, longer. I can’t tell you what it was, it wasn’t anything. It was total emptiness. I was furious with myself, every time, for letting it settle in me, this emptiness. I couldn’t move. Sometimes I couldn’t even move my eyeballs; they were fixed to the thing directly ahead of me, or down. The grout in the tiles, pink, where the mold was creeping in. In my head I was shouting at myself: get up, get up, get up. I remembered my father’s cousin, who had been thrown from a horse and paralyzed from the neck down. Somebody was going to have to find me and pull me upright. But it was me, who did it, in the end. Eventually I would get up again and hang out the washing, still with the dim nothing in my head, but moving, moving.
And of course later, after they had finished playing cards, Mr. Katsoulas brought something out of his pocket, placed it on the table, and said, “You kids see what I found when I was replacing the bathroom cabinet? Looks antique!”
I didn’t kill myself on purpose. It was an accident. Gerald and I were arguing. He’d found the letter I was writing to Eunice, reminiscing about the good old times, a little about the bad times too. Oh, I wasn’t trying to spook her. I was too much in my own head. I had started out normally enough, but then I remembered some afternoon picnic we had taken in the yard, the two of us on a gingham blanket, cutting mangoes on a pewter tray and talking about aristocrats dying of lead poisoning, and suddenly I needed to know whether it still hurt, whether she still woke up brim full of hot ash, frightened and volcanic. It wasn’t only envy and morbid curiosity; I cared about her, I knew how sick it was to fancy myself in her place. But now, picturing her surrounded by nurses, watched, watched carefully, tended to, I felt a putrid longing. In a madhouse you had permission to be mad; it was required.
Gerald was furious. He wanted to know: had I been writing to her often? Did I know how hard I was making it for Eunice to get better? How terribly Maclean was struggling in her absence? Even in anger he looked beautiful: cold green eyes, his teeth white and straight. He said I ought to trust that the doctors had everything in hand, that Eunice was being treated well. I said what would he know about medical care, really? As though he were a real doctor! I won’t deny it: in life, as in death, I was petty. It was pettiness that drove me to it. Then I was in the bath.
The children admired the penknife, the varnish of the handle. The hinge was stiff with age. The blade appeared rusted. I went rigid, watching them. I wondered which of them would see it, would recognize the rust as blood, and panic, or burst into tears—Cherie, surely, and it would be awful, I would feel so guilty, watching her suffer—it’s too much to know, at that age. “Oh, Cherie,” I tried to say, when she said nothing. She was looking right through me. I wasn’t present for her at all—she didn’t know what it was—and again I was nowhere, or everywhere, nowhere in time but still stuck in the walls of the house.
“Did you hear that?” said Mrs. Katsoulas.
I was nowhere, I was in the bath. It was late afternoon, overcast. The sun streamed through the window in intervals, covered by clouds and revealed again, like a great eye opening and closing. I was angry and trembling and I made the bath as hot as I could stand it. I wanted to be warm. I wanted to be awake, properly awake. The truth is I adored life. I only ever wanted more of it. I wanted to be as close as possible to it, to feel it filling me. Gerald’s penknife was on the side of the bath, open. It hurt quite a lot because I wanted to make it look authentic, and at first I was grimly satisfied, and I giggled, I did. But then there was the trouble with my hands, with my right hand, especially. Something twanged. I had severed something, perhaps a tendon, and I panicked. I worried I had broken something irrevocably.
I was nowhere, I was in the bath. It was midnight. I stood up, watched Mr. Dent through the window, shouting in an angry whisper, shaking Mrs. Dent, her eyes wide and terrified. I was watching as she hit the table. He had hurt her. He had hurt her many times before. He was always sorry and this time was no different, except for the main difference. He knelt down and shook her, gentle at first, then rough. I was at the fence, then somehow I was past the fence, far beyond the bounds of my own house, hovering by his kitchen window, watching him. He was crying. I couldn’t help myself; I screamed and screamed and screamed. Mrs. Dent was limp, face slack, and Mr. Dent, gripping her shoulders, looked like a man trying to wake from a nightmare, but there was no reprieve, there is no reprieve that follows anything like that, never again. It was dawning on him that he had done something irrevocable. This is what happens, when you kill a person. It doesn’t matter that it was an accident. Death is not a negotiable state.
I was nowhere, I was in the bath. I wasn’t really giggling. I was sobbing. My right hand hung like a fish. I had not meant it. I needed someone to find me. Gerald found me but it was too late. He went pale and sat down hard on the tiles. He grabbed the body and tried to lift it up and the penknife skittered away, lost itself under the cabinet, water splashing out over the tiles, but the thing he was holding was uncooperative and he staggered, placed it back in the water, put two fingers to her throat, waited. He left the room. He telephoned the police. He went outside, stood in the yard, smoked a cigarette.
There were people filling the house, chatting idly. It was morning. The house was bright and freshly painted, the curtains sheer and wispy. A woman in a sharp suit was leading several couples up the stairs, gesturing to the mid-century molding on the ceiling, and one woman turned to her husband and said, “Did you hear that?”
Because I was rising, I was out of the bath, flickering like faulty wiring, pressing myself to the walls. The tiles were cool on my warm skin. Below me was the body, slumped like a doll in a bath of tomato juice, like a child asleep, insensible. Like a child! Something was squirming apart in me. I wanted to hold her but I couldn’t, I was trembling too violently, my forearms were opening like mouths. I dipped my fingers in the red and wrote FORGIVE ME above the tub. She was still and she wouldn’t answer but I kept going. FORGIVE ME. FORGIVE ME. The shower spurted on, so did the taps in the sink and the bath, and the water was not water but something thin and red and the steam was the color of fat, and it filled the room, damp and hot and thicker than my own body, falling from the shower nozzle to drown me, the other me, the poor girl still stuck in the tub. Now only her head was visible. Her face. Her eyes, still open, blue. At the door, a woman screamed. Others were gathering behind her, gasping and clutching their faces. I couldn’t stop, I wouldn’t. Forgive me, I wrote, on the gaudy floral tiles. Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me.
The house didn’t sell.
It was Tuesday night, and California, Cleo, and Cherie were watching Spectral Detectives. Tom and Brad were shimmying up a ladder to a long-abandoned attic. “You know,” said Brad to camera. “A lot of these creaking noises could be explained by the timber contracting in the cool, dry weather. But we’ll have to explore all the possibilities to know for sure.” His smile was Cheshire-white in the dark.
Cherie is allowed to watch Spectral Detectives now. Mrs. Katsoulas delayed her appointment with the psychiatrist, in light of the events that took place during the Open House. None of the Katsoulases were present at the time, so they are fuzzy on the exact details and frustrated with Angela, the real estate agent. There were no problems with the plumbing in the bathroom when they left in the morning, they told her, and there was no evidence of a burst pipe when they got home, so exactly what the hell went wrong? Angela has yet to give them a clear answer. But Susan Hadid, a neighbor who came to the inspection, had her own take on it, which she shared with Mrs. Katsoulas the following day: “Mate, your bathroom is bloody haunted.”
Mr. Katsoulas approached Cherie in the evening later that week. It was clear she had nothing to do with it. He brought her a Kit Kat by way of apology. His mother had always said she’d seen ghosts, he told her. Maybe he should have taken her more seriously.
Cherie left wafer crumbs over the carpet as her father spoke, and he told her not to be such a grot or she’d get both of them in trouble, and Cherie smiled a monkey grin. He’s a gentle man, Mr. Katsoulas. The house would never sell now, not with the recent upset in the bathroom, and especially not with the news spreading of that other nasty business, the woman found buried under the house next door. The police had come to collect Mr. Dent early one morning, bent his head into the back of the police car. He had, as they say, gone quietly.
On Spectral Detectives, Tom and Brad decide, on occasion, to perform a cleansing ritual. Sage, for purification, and myrrh, for protection, to prevent any new spirits from taking up residence. Whether this is a kindly farewell or an outright eviction has always been unclear to me. The men burn their fragrances with the solemnity of funeral mourners. “She’s somewhere better now,” Tom says, tears glistening in his eyes. “She’s decided to move on. She’s making that leap.”
It doesn’t feel like I’m making a leap, exactly. Still, Cherie doesn’t see me anymore. She asks for me sometimes, alone in her room. “Mrs. Whittaker? Are you still here?”
It’s not that I don’t want to go to her. I try, on occasion. Every day I am less and less substantial. I am coming to pieces, but very gently, the way that clouds do.