Fiction

An Ordinary Kind of Haunting
- Adam Kotlarczyk

John wasn’t bothered the way Travis was by the discovery of the ghost that winter in their lake house. It didn’t wander around shaking chains or moaning or anything – not at first. In fact, it took them a few months to figure out finally that it was even there.

But when they did, John just strapped on his tool belt and got back to work, plastering and sanding the living room wall. He handled it the way he seemed to handle everything – with an aloof calm that made Travis wonder if he understood the situation.

‘The agent said the house was built in 1913,’ he shrugged, mudding a drywall panel.

‘As if that explains everything, John!’ said Travis. But John was back at work.

John had not been handy until they bought the summer home. He had always preferred hiring a contractor or handyman to take care of those things. But they lived in the suburbs when they weren’t at the lake house, and handymen were easier to come by.

Once they bought the lake house, though, John became someone new. He fixed everything himself, quietly parading around the house, scratching his chin and sizing up loose bannister rails or assessing the condition of the floorboards like a grizzled contractor. He bought tools and a beautiful, riveted leather tool belt. Because John was such a small man, Travis had punched extra holes in the belt so it could fasten around his waist.

For anything that broke at the lake house, John put on his tool belt and a stern face and fixed it. He remodelled the bathroom. He fixed the drywall in the dining room. He paid someone to fix the leaky roof, but he repaired all the ceilings himself. Wiring, vent work, plumbing. Ten minutes on his iPad watching YouTube videos on any repair and he was an expert. He was always off by himself; there was always something to fix.

John’s repairs and restorations agitated the house. Sure, John and Travis had noticed some strange things when they first moved in that summer. The box with Travis’s office books somehow wound up in the dining room, even though he was sure he’d put it in the studio.

John’s drill disappeared on the second day, right after they hung their favorite picture – a shot of the two of them on the ferry to Washington Island -- in the kitchen.

            ‘Where did you leave it?’ asked Travis. John could lose his temper when it came to his tools.

            ‘Right here on the counter.’

            But it wasn’t right there. Then, two hours later, it was.

Had they stopped to think, they might have noted the odd disappearances and reappearances, the pattern. But between the chaos of the move and the stress of planning the wedding, they didn’t have time to connect the dots. It didn’t come to a head until the fall.

‘Have you been smoking?’ Travis confronted John one rainy day while he was peeling the old wallpaper out of the dining room.

‘Of course not,’ he said.

‘Well, the bedroom reeks of it.’

John wrinkled his face in that way he did when he was confused and annoyed. He followed Travis upstairs, still carrying his wallboard knife. Sure enough, the bedroom was thick with tobacco. John thought Travis had smoked and was blaming him. They fought.

The next day they made up over orange juice and Travis’s famous omelettes. That was when they started to make the connections.

‘What were you doing in the kitchen this morning?’ Travis asked, flipping an omelette.

‘I haven’t been in the kitchen,’ John said, rubbing some sleep from his eye. ‘Just got up, haven’t been down here yet.’ Travis put his hand on his hip and waved the spatula. ‘What?’ said John.

‘Then why were all the cabinets open?’

‘All of them?’

‘Every single one.’

‘Can’t be true. The one above the oven doesn’t even stay open. Hinge is bent.’

‘Well, it was open this morning.’

John didn’t believe him until the next morning, when Travis brought him downstairs to show him all the cabinets open again, their doors at perfect 90 degree angles. They closed the one over the oven. Then they tried to open it again. No matter what they did, it wouldn’t stay open. They closed all the cabinets that night before bed.

The next morning, they were open again.

‘House must be settling,’ said John, but Travis knew better.

It was around then they started hearing the bangs. Night or day, random bangs, like a heavy door slammed shut. Travis had John check all the plumbing, the electricity, the vents. Nothing was amiss – nothing at any rate that could explain the sudden sounds, or sometimes at night the sound of footsteps dragging across the roof. It became very tense and impossible to relax.

Travis went to the library. He was determined to figure the thing out.

‘We should have done all this research before we bought,’ he said to John and to everyone at the marketing firm when explaining how his new summer home was haunted.

It wasn’t something they’d thought about when they were buying. They’d walked through and seen the eight-inch hardwood floors, the crown moluding, the charming wraparound patio like a southern plantation.

But it was the three season room that had really sold it. The view of Lake Michigan, where they’d met as teenagers working summer jobs as car porters on the ferry to Washington Island. That was the whole point of the summer home – they wanted to wake up every day and see the lake where they’d met.

From the three season room they could see all the way across the bay to the town. They were a hundred yards from the shore, but it wasn’t a beach home – the shoreline was gravelly and rough.

Far up the shore, near the point, on clear days they could see the pinstriped lighthouse. When the view first struck them, Travis reached for John’s hand without even thinking about it. But they had never asked about the history of the home, a question which, in retrospect, seemed painfully necessary.

So while John painted the kitchen cabinets and put up the backsplash, Travis settled into the library and the county records office.

John, of course, thought the whole thing silly. He didn’t plan on even asking about it at dinner. But Travis looked so dejected that night he couldn’t help himself.

‘What did you find out?’

‘No serial killer,’ said Travis, not trying to disguise his disappointment. ‘Not even a single murder, suicide, or accidental death. No instance where this place has been used as a prison or sanitarium or hospital. A doctor lived here, but he worked at a hospital. Not even built on top of an Indian burial ground.’

‘Nothing?’

‘Nothing,’ sighed Travis. ‘It’s housed a series of couples and families, once a widower, but each as boring as the next.’

Right after he said it, they heard the unmistakable sound of children laughing in the basement. John stood and then Travis. They creaked down the stairs, John in the lead with a flashlight and his hammer for defence, and Travis following with his hand on John’s shoulder. But the old basement was empty.

‘We need to talk about this,’ said Travis.

‘No time,’ said John, ‘I’ve got to re-grout those tiles tonight.’

‘Tonight?’

‘Yes.’

‘What is it with you and the tools lately?’ said Travis.

‘Don’t know,’ said John. ‘I used to work with my dad on things around the house when I was a kid.’

Travis didn’t push. John was always quiet about his dad. They more or less stopped speaking when John had come out in college; his dad was the only of their four parents not to come to the wedding. John’s father had died four years ago.

‘Can’t you wait with the tile?’ asked Travis. Then he whispered, ‘I think we have a ghost.’

‘No,’ said John, as calmly as if he were asking for a 3/8 wrench. ‘That must have been some kids outside. I’ve been meaning to fix that fence.’

It was then, that moment when John took his grout tube and float and closed the door to the bathroom, that Travis realized: there were men who understood they were haunted, and men who did not.

When having the house officially blessed didn’t stop the incidents, Travis next turned to psychics. The first one he brought to the house claimed there had been a suicide by hanging in the attic. When Travis pointed out there was no attic, just a crawl space hardly sufficient to hang a Smurf, the psychic said it had been upstairs, anyway. Another said a serial killer had lived there. Travis rolled his eyes, wrote the cheque, and sent him away.

Travis hosted a séance. By then John had had enough. He drove to the hardware store that night while Travis was still setting up the candles. But Travis reported there were no compelling spirits; the only mildly interesting one made his presence felt by turning on the stereo to one of John’s Ramones CDs.

Other than that they were dull ghosts, just passing through out of boredom: a curious motorcycle accident victim from twenty years ago, a suicided mother – still sad, a lonely sailor who’d fallen off his steamer while transporting timber in a storm on Lake Michigan a hundred and seven years before. Not one of them claimed responsibility for the house or knew anything about it.

On the unanimous advice of the psychics and all his friends at work, Travis flatly refused to use an Ouija board.

‘It’s more likely to bring something in than chase something out,’ he said.

Still, John never seemed bothered by the strange happenings. Travis lived alone with two ghosts, always scratching curiously in another room, but seldom seen. One banged on the pipes and one fixed them; one rattled window panes and one tightened them, one was invisible and the other visible. Increasingly, Travis retreated to his piano in the living room or to the three-season room and read his books, frequently looking over one and out to the grey lake.

#

Travis was in the house by himself, in the basement doing laundry, the afternoon he saw the shadowy figure. It was only out of the corner of his right eye, but he could see it was a tall man, much taller than John. He froze, felt his heart pound. When he turned his head, he saw it full for a split second before it melted back into the other shadows. It was wearing a hat; that was all he could clearly remember later. He called it ‘a black, transparent mist.’ It was the last straw.

‘What do you want me to do about it?’ asked John that night. He was wiring in a new light switch.

That was when Travis started crying.

John watched him for a moment. Then he put down the switch and his screwdriver. He unfastened his toolbelt. It clattered to the floor. He put his arms around Travis. He cradled his head. Then he covered his ears.

‘Listen up, goddamnit!’ he shouted so loud that Travis jumped. The house grew unnaturally quiet. An odd electricity buzzed invisibly through the room. ‘This is our home now. If you think you’re going to scare us out – after what we’ve been through – you…’ he took a deep breath and boomed, ‘You can kiss my ass!’

Travis half-expected the house to respond. A footstep, a slammed cabinet, a flickered light. But there was nothing. If anything, it seemed to grow slightly lighter. The refrigerator kicked in and hummed.

The next morning, the kitchen cabinets were closed when Travis got up. Their two favourite coffee mugs were already waiting on the counter.

Things changed at the lake house after that. There were no more bangs or dragging sounds, no footsteps on other floors, no more disappeared keys or cellphones. If John and Travis went somewhere with one another, the house always seemed a little tidier when they got home than when they left. Travis could swear the rugs even looked freshly vacuumed. Towels were always straightened on the racks. No one ever lost their wallet or keys or lip balm in the washing machine – somehow it always ended up safely atop the dryer.

Not long afterward, while tearing out some drywall, John found an old shoebox of black and white photographs. He shared it with Travis. There were no notes or letters inside, just pictures. Travis didn’t recognize anyone in the photos from his research.

They went through the photos together at the dining room table, pausing over each one: a moustached man at a painting easel, a stern doughboy in uniform, a group of straight-faced women in floral dresses gathered on a blanket around a picnic basket, a smiling mother and baby. Sometimes John and Travis exchanged a word of admiration or wonder about these people, their lives.

When they were done, John wanted to throw them away, but Travis convinced him not to. One Sunday morning Travis left the house with the shoebox of pictures tucked under his arm. He returned that afternoon with all of them in frames. The rest of the day they walked around the house together, hanging some pictures in hallways and bedrooms, putting others on shelves or on the mantle above the fireplace.

#

Some summer nights they still sit, side by side, reading novels in the three season room, listening to the surf on the rocks. The breeze blows in off the lake and the wind chimes toll from the darkened eaves like a distant clock tower. If it is early summer, lightning might dance across the lake, leaping from cloud to cloud.

On these nights, when the air is charged and they sit on the couch together or in their facing wingback chairs, Travis’s piano in the living room will sometimes faintly play by itself: a few seconds of music, a fragment of melody, a pianissimo memory.

Travis will look up, his eyes wide, until John reaches calmly across the space between and puts his own hand over Travis’s. Then they smile at each other, finally sitting together, slowly growing old in the cooling darkness.

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Adam Kotlarczyk's fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and recently won the Editor's Choice Award from Dual Coast Magazine. His stories have recently appeared in journals such as The First Line, SQ Mag, and The Tishman Review. He has a PhD in American literature and teaches English at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy near Chicago.