20 Jan 13th and Elm
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"13th and Elm"Written by
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Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
I always get a little uncomfortable when the topic of the paranormal comes up, particularly when some people seem to be so adamant that ghosts simply can’t exist. I don’t attempt to convince them otherwise. As a matter of fact, I don’t share my experiences with them at all. This is actually the first time I’ve attempted to chronicle everything my family went through. It was only for a brief window in time, just a few months. But it burned a scar into my consciousness that will never go away.
I remember my mother and father being so excited at the prospect of all of us moving into our first house. They had been raising four young children in an apartment; just the idea of finally having our own bedrooms (and more than one bathroom) had us all elated. When we first glimpsed the house at the corner of 13th and Elm, my siblings and I almost couldn’t believe it. The place seemed enormous. It was an old colonial-style house with wide-open rooms on the first floor, and all of the bedrooms on the second floor, connected by a grand old wooden staircase.
My brother and sisters and I raced through the place, exploring each room with a sense of excitement and wonder. It was my brother Tommy who first noticed the door in the corner of the kitchen that led to the basement. He swung it open and he and I stood at the top of the stairs, peering down for a few moments. We carefully descended down into the basement, unsure of what we would find. Once we got to the bottom of the stairs, we were a little disappointed with how benign it seemed to be. It was a bare room with a concrete floor, a utility sink in one corner and a single window that would have been peering out into the garden in the front yard. We gazed around at this rather boring space for a minute before Tommy noticed it. “Hey, what’s with the floor over there?” He pointed to a patch in the concrete, about four feet long and three feet wide. It was a different color and texture than the rest of the concrete. It was obviously been torn up at some point and then patched up. I didn’t think much of it, until Tommy spoke up.
“You know the lady that lived here died, right?” I didn’t know that. I recall my mom and dad mentioning something briefly about the family that owned the house having to move out in a hurry; the circumstances behind it were never discussed, as far as I can remember.
Tommy continued. “Yeah, she died in a really bad car accident. Dad said so.”
“So?” I countered, growing a little uneasy.
“Well, I bet that’s where they buried her, right there,” Tommy said, pointing to the odd patch in the concrete. For some reason, this ridiculous theory seemed to make sense in our child minds.
I distinctly remember right at that moment, the atmosphere in the room…changed. The air felt electric; I could feel all the hairs on my arms stand up. I was suddenly claustrophobic and felt a wave of panic and unease wash over me. I didn’t even respond to Tommy; I dashed up the stairs as fast as I could. Tommy was right on my heels, chuckling at how easy it was to freak out his little brother. Once I was back in the kitchen with the thrum of activity going on, the feeling passed instantly, like flipping a lightswitch off.
The next few days were a blur of unpacking and getting settled. Tommy got his own room at the top of the stairs, and I got the one next to him. Our older sisters Cheryl and Cindy share the bigger bedroom across the hall. My dad was a long-haul trucker who would be gone for days, sometimes a week at a time, so we had barely gotten moved into the house when he reluctantly had to go on the road for a few days. The first inkling that something wasn’t quite right with the house happened the next morning after he had left. My siblings and I were walking out the front door to get on the bus to school and we noticed a cigarette butt lying on the wooden front porch. Not exactly strange, but…we knew it wasn’t there before. We had cleaned the house top to bottom after moving in, including the porch. A rather obvious cigarette butt lying directly in front of the door would have been noticed. But there it was. We call kind of caught each other’s glances as we looked at it. We shrugged and got on the school bus and went on with our day.
A few days later, my brother Tommy and I were playing outside in the yard, when we noticed a second cigarette butt, this time on the lawn, directly under Cindy and Cheryl’s bedroom window. Once again, Tommy was there with a brilliant theory to scare the pants off of me. “I bet it’s the family that used to live here. They keep coming back and hanging around outside, because they know their mom is buried in the basement.” The mention of the “grave” in the basement made my eyes wander over to the single window in the basement that was barely visible at ground level. It was at that moment that I was certain someone was looking back at me through that window. Tommy read the expression on my face and followed my gaze to the window. “We should go check it out down there,” he said. I reluctantly followed him. As uncomfortable as I was going down there, I was more sensitive to looking like a wuss in front of my older brother.
As we got to the door to the basement, even Tommy paused. “We should take the Patches with us,” he said, referring to our family mutt. “Patches will protect us.” Patches was an easygoing, agreeable fellow. I guess he would have to be, with four rambunctious children constantly terrorizing him. We found him dozing next to the couch in the living room. Tommy grabbed him by the collar and led him over to the basement door. When Tommy swung the door open, Patches immediately resisted. He plopped his butt down on the kitchen floor and refused to move an inch. Tommy yanked on his collar, but Patches pulled back. Eventually Tommy decided to just pick the dog up and carry him down the stairs, with Patches struggling mightily the whole way. Halfway down the stairs, Patches went berserk. He yelped and growled and snapped his teeth at Tommy, who let go of him in surprise. Patches raced up the stairs and scampered under the couch. Without the dog’s protection, Tommy and I abandoned our mission.
That night, we were all around the kitchen table having dinner. Patches had been in a sour mood ever since the incident on the basement stairs. As we were eating dinner, Patches rested on the kitchen floor, his eyes never leaving the basement door. His ears were perked up and his attention was focused on the door. At one point, his hackles raised and he rose to his feet, snarling and growling at the door. We all stopped our dinner chatter and turned to look at the dog. Patches was in full-on protection mode. He was snarling like someone was coming up the stairs. This lasted for a moment before he calmed down and went back to lying down on the kitchen floor.
It was maybe a night or two later when I first heard the footsteps. I was lying in bed in the middle of the night when I distinctly heard footsteps coming up the basement steps. They were heavy, very deliberate steps, slow and steady. THUMP. THUMP. THUMP. I strained my ears as much as I could in the darkness. When the steps reached the top of the basement stairs, there was a pause. I didn’t hear the basement door open, but the steps then started through the kitchen. THUMP. THUMP. THUMP. When they reached the bottom of the staircase, again there was a pause. Then just as slowly and deliberately, the footsteps started up the stairs. By this point, I was wild-eyed in terror, but I honestly couldn’t think of what to do next. I was frozen in place in my bed, pulling the covers up to my chin.
The footsteps reached the top of the staircase, at the end of the hallway leading to our bedrooms. Again, a pause. Then the lumbering steps started down the hallway. They slowly advanced past Tommy’s room. THUMP. THUMP. THUMP. God forgive me, but I prayed that they continued down the hall towards my mother’s room.
But they did not.
The steps stopped right outside of my bedroom door. There was a long, painfully drawn-out moment when everything seemed to stop. I wasn’t breathing. I wasn’t moving. My pulse was thundering in my ears and every nerve in my body was howling. After what seemed like an eternity, then the next noise jangled my senses. It was a tapping noise, almost maddeningly quiet at first. Something was tapping on my bedroom door, about once every three seconds or so. As I strained to listen to it, I felt that I sounded rather metallic, like a key. It sounded like someone was tapping a key on by bedroom door. TAP. TAP. TAP. Just as I was beginning to think of an escape route (perhaps going out my bedroom window?), suddenly it stopped.
My eyes must have been the size of hubcaps as I stared at the door. I figured next whatever was on the other side of the door would turn the doorknob. Seconds went by. The air was thick and suffocating. I was plotting my route to my bedroom window should the door fly open. However, I was taken by surprise with the next sound. The footsteps started again, but again they started from the bottom of the basement steps. THUMP. THUMP. THUMP. What the hell? How on earth did this…thing get back down to the basement without me hearing it? It was at this point that I had enough. I jumped out of my bed, threw open my door and raced to my mother’s bedroom. When I entered her room and flipped on the light, I saw that she was sitting up in bed, completely awake and aware, her eyes wide and panicked. She had heard it too. When she saw me, she immediately tried to downplay the situation. She smoothed my hair and rubbed my back and tried to convince me I had a nightmare. But I knew better. I could see in her eyes she was as unnerved as I was. It was then that I realized that whatever in this house was terrifying my mother as much as it was terrifying me. And that made my blood run cold.
My dad came home from his road trip and for a few days, things returned to normal. My mother and I exchanged nervous glances across the table as we had dinner with my father. He was completely oblivious to the situation, and we obviously didn’t know how to bring it up with him. How do you tell a burly trucker that you heard a ghost coming up the basement steps? Eventually he had to go out on the road again. I could sense the tension in my mother as she helped him pack up for his next road trip. She tried to play it off with us kids, but I knew better. I was dreading what was coming next as much as she was.
The first night home without my father seemed to be uneventful. I was uneasy and slept fitfully that whole night, but nothing of importance happened. At least not for me. The next morning at the breakfast table, I noticed my sister Cheryl seemed to be a little unkempt. She was normally annoyingly bubbly and vibrant in the morning, but this morning, she seemed a little disheveled. Eventually she turned to my mother. “Thanks for closing my window last night, mom. The rain would have ruined everything.” My mother blinked for a moment while holding the coffee pot. “What are you talking about, Cheryl?”
Cheryl seemed a little confused. “Mom…you came into my room last night and shut my window. Remember?”
My mother was now more than a little disturbed. “No, Cheryl. I didn’t come into your room. What do you mean?”
Cheryl was now frustrated. She started using that tone that pre-teen girls use when condescending to their mothers. “Mom. I woke up last night because it was thundering and raining outside. You were standing next to my window, and you closed it and then walked out. I remember because your white nightgown was flapping in the breeze coming through the window.”
The color drained out of my mother’s face, and the lines around her mouth suddenly became very pronounced. I had never seen her looking so old. “Dear, I don’t have a white nightgown. You know my nightgown is red. You know that. You…know that, Cheryl.”
After a very uncomfortable few moments, my mother regained her composure and suddenly switched gears. “You had a dream, honey, it was just a dream.”
Confused and frustrated, Cheryl was now defiant. “No, that wasn’t a dream, mom. My window was open when I went to bed, and it was closed in the morning. You closed it. Why don’t you remember?”
My mother was flustered. Her cheeks burned red and she stared at the kitchen table. Her head jerked up and she looked at the clock on the kitchen wall. “Oh, you’re running late, dear. Get ready for school.”
A few days later, Tommy and I were raising hell outside in the yard again. We came around the corner of the house and stopped in our tracks. An old tricycle that had been out in our back yard was sitting there, directly underneath Cindy and Cheryl’s bedroom window. On closer inspection, we noticed that the seat of the tricycle was bent slightly, as if someone very big and heavy had been standing on top of the seat. There were also not one, but two cigarette butts lying on the ground next to the trike.
Eventually Tommy stated the obvious. “Was a guy standing on this to look in Cheryl’s window?”
I didn’t answer. I picked up the tricycle and whipped it as far as my little frame would allow back into our back yard. Tommy looked at me for a moment with a puzzled look on his face, but he let the moment pass and we went back to playing.
A couple of days passed with relatively little happening but one morning, it was Tommy who came to the breakfast table looking haggard. I questioned him about what was going on, but he waved me off. His eyes kept darting around the kitchen table, as if he was looking for someone who was missing. Eventually our mother joined us at the table and Tommy spoke up. “Mom, did Dad get back last night?”
Our mother looked dazed for a second. “No…no, honey, Daddy didn’t come home yet. Why did you ask?”
Tommy furrowed his brow and looked down into his cereal bowl for a long moment. He leveled his eyes at our mother and said, “But…but he came in my room last night.”
I was getting all too familiar with the unnerved look that swept across my mother’s face. She pursed her lips for a moment before croaking, “Did you have a dream last night, Tommy?”
Tommy sighed and shook his head. He seemed to be far too world-weary for a boy his age. “Mom, you know I sleep with a radio on next to my bed, right?”
My mother nodded her head very slowly and deliberately, her eyes never leaving Tommy’s. The lines around her mouth became very pronounced again.
Tommy continued. “Well, last night I woke up because the radio dial was spinning up and down, like someone was looking for a radio station. I sat up and looked, and Dad was standing next to my bed, fiddling with the radio dial.”
There was a long moment of silence as my mother stared at Tommy. Her lips were pursed tight as if she had tasted something sour. Eventually she broke the silence. “Was that it? Was there anything else, Tommy?”
Tommy looked more befuddled than ever. He gave the room another scan, as if he couldn’t believe that our father would come around the corner at any moment. “Well, I talked to him,” Tommy said. Mom’s eyebrows went up. “Oh?” She said. “Did he say anything back?”
“No,” Tommy responded. “I said ‘Hi, Daddy,’ but he didn’t say anything back. He just turned around and walked out of the room, and I went back to sleep.”
Our mother stared a Tommy for an uncomfortably long moment. This was the first time I noticed gray streaks hanging down in her brunette hair. In a moment she suddenly snapped back to her normal self. Her face brightened and she said, “It was just a dream, baby. You were dreaming. Don’t worry about it.”
Tommy wasn’t as convinced. He frowned deeply as he turned back to his cereal. The rest of us were mostly silent as we finished our breakfast and went off to school.
The footsteps hadn’t stopped in the meantime. The pattern would always repeat. The footsteps would lumber up the basement steps, then up the stairwell, and then stop outside of my bedroom door (why was it always MY bedroom door?), and then it would start tapping on the door. It would tap for a while, and then the pattern would repeat, back from the bottom of the basement steps. As routine as it became, I couldn’t get used to it. I was as terrified on the tenth night as I was on the first. I was convinced that whatever was tapping on the door would burst in eventually. It was almost more maddening to me that it never did. It just kept repeating on that same damned loop, over and over again. For how long? Was it doing it even when I wasn’t home?
One afternoon I had dozed off on the couch in the living room while watching my afterschool cartoons. I started to groggily come to a bit when I became aware of a…presence within the room with me. I kept my eyes closed tightly, but my brain snapped back to awareness as my ears went on high alert. Someone was standing at the entrance to the living room, shifting uneasily from one foot to another. I could hear the wooden floorboards squeaking underneath the person’s feet. The person started slowly advancing towards me on the couch. Each floorboard squeaked distinctly as the footsteps grew closer. The footsteps stopped at the edge of the couch, near my feet. Whoever this might be was now clearly standing at the end of the couch, staring at me. I sensed the presence as it started to lean over the couch, lean over me. I heard its clothes rustle slightly as it loomed over me. Its face had to be inches from mine. But I never heard nor felt its breath. It was there, but it was not breathing. It was not alive. In my panic I started to make a high-pitched whimpering sound that I couldn’t control. It was at that moment that a sharp blast of cold air washed over me, sending up goose pimples over my entire body. And then…nothing. The presence was gone. I knew it immediately; it wasn’t there anymore. I leapt off that couch and out of the living room, probably without even touching the ground.
I started noticing my mother growing more and more uncomfortable and restless. She didn’t have to say it; I knew she was experiencing things, too. At first I noticed she used to stay up later and later at night when my father wasn’t home. Whether it was watching late night television or busying herself with household chores like staying up to sew patches on our clothes, it was obvious that she didn’t want to go to bed. She installed glow-in-the-dark lightswitch covers in her bedroom and in the second floor hallway. At first it seemed like a benign safety measure until it occurred to me what those glow-in-the-dark covers actually were for: she wanted to see the shadows moving around in the dark. They couldn’t be real to her unless she saw them moving through her room.
Things came to a head one night, which ended up being our last night alone in the house. My father was again gone on a road trip. We were all huddled in the living room watching television with my mother. It was late, but not terribly late, maybe ten o’clock or so. Suddenly a very heavy…mood enveloped the room. We all sensed it immediately. I looked over at Tommy and Cheryl on the couch with me. The unease was evident on their faces. Cindy was sprawled on the floor in front of us. She whipped her head around and looked at the rest of us as if to say, “Do you feel that, too?” We did. Our mother was in the recliner beside us. Her response was to gather up Cindy off of the floor and join us on the couch, all of us huddle together. She stretched her arms around all of us. The air in the room became thick and heavy. We all kept our eyes focused on the doorway between the living room and the kitchen. It seemed whatever was causing this feeling was going to be materializing there. It was Cindy who first started to whimper and cry. She was quickly followed by the rest of us children. We were all grasping each other as tight as we could, now openly crying and blubbering. Eventually even my mother started to moan with tears in her eyes.
Patches went on full alert; he stood in the middle of the living room floor, staring at the doorway with every muscle in his body taut. His hackles raised and he started a low rumbling in his throat. The footsteps started as they always did at the bottom of the basement steps. THUMP. THUMP. Patches started barking in a frenzy, flashing his teeth and throwing spittle.
That was enough for my mother. She threw open the front door and ushered as all out of the house as if it were a fire drill. We ran to the neighbor’s house and my mother made up some excuse for needing shelter for the night (I think she said she thought we had a gas leak, or something like that). We slept fitfully on a pallet on the neighbor’s living room floor. At the first sign of light the next day, we started loading up all of our earthly possessions and taking them to my grandparents’ house.
The house on Elm Street was the elephant in the room for my family for decades afterwards. All of us kids grew up and had families of our own, and even then, we wouldn’t say much about what happened in that house. Only now do I dare to document all of it here. I don’t even know why, really. I guess I just needed to convince myself that it was all in the past, and it’s all over now.
So again, if you don’t believe in spirits or ghosts or the paranormal or whatever, I won’t try to convince you. But I know for a fact there are things shuffling around in the darkness.
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