Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
“It’s a simple question: Do you believe in ghost?”
“Hold on; I’m not in the mood for ghost stories tonight.”
“I didn’t ask for stories, I just asked—hold on, where’s that waitress? Has anyone seen the waitress? Like I said, I didn’t ask for stories, I just asked if our new friend here believes. So do you?”
“I don’t know about ghosts exactly. But I believe there are strange things in this city.”
“That’s hardly news.”
“Yeah, I’m looking at a strange thing in the city right now.”
“I don’t mean strange like that. What I mean is…it’s hard to explain.”
“Well I’ll say one thing—waitress!—I’ll say one thing right now, I do believe. So I’ll make you a deal: This next pitcher is on me provided you’re willing to tell us what you know about it.”
“Don’t force him to talk if he doesn’t want to.”
“No, I’ll talk. It’s not usually a story I like to tell, but now that you’ve brought it up I won’t be able to get it off my mind. You ask me what I believe in? I believe in the city. I’ve always believed in the city. But it wasn’t until recently that I learned what that really means.
“It all started with my morning commute…”
The man had lived in the city all his life, and yet he knew nothing about the Neighborhood, and that frightened him.
He was a worker. In the morning he took a bus to his first job and in the afternoon he took another bus to his other job and then he took a third bus home. He knew every neighborhood those busses passed through: the Marina, the Mission, North Beach, Noe Valley, the Tenderloin, SOMA. They each had a personality of their own. Old neighborhoods sometimes died, but new neighborhoods were born all the time. The worker knew them all.
Except for one. His morning bus took a shortcut down a narrow, shady avenue with a decorative fountain (empty of water except on a few days of the year) every day. Here was a neighborhood of only a few blocks filled with large, furtive-looking houses and drooping willow trees and silence. Like all of the city’s neighborhoods it had a name, but people rarely spoke it. In the worker’s mind it was just the Neighborhood. He would give it no name more definite than that. He was afraid to.
He wondered why the bus passed through these few blocks; no one who lived around here would ever need to take a bus. Nobody ever got on at the stops in the Neighborhood, and no one ever got off. And he noticed that people never talked about the Neighborhood, even when he asked them about it. It was as if they knew not to. Who lives here, he wondered? Rich people, obviously; workers like him couldn’t afford such houses. They were not mansions (there were few real mansions in this part of the world and none in the city), but they were still big, and expensive. But most rich people in the city lived in penthouses or sometimes in the painted Victorians on the avenues. Who lived in these secretive homes hidden on these tiny streets in this hilly hollow?
This question became even more pressing the day he noticed there were no people there. He’d never once seen anyone on the streets of the Neighborhood, or anyone standing in a doorway, or anyone moving behind a window of any of the houses. It seemed to the worker that whoever lived in the Neighborhood did not deign to leave their homes, or maybe it was just that (and he could not shake this thought no matter how irrational it seemed) they simply never left their homes during the day. Since he took a different bus home, the worker never passed through the Neighborhood at night. He became glad of that. It seemed whoever lived here didn’t want to be seen by outsiders.
One day a woman at the worker’s night job took a vacation. His boss asked the worker if he wanted to fill in for her during the morning. Tips were supposed to be better in the morning, so the worker agreed to switch his day and night shifts at both jobs. This meant, of course, that his bus route would be reversed, but that did not occur to him until it was too late. That first day he took his night bus in the morning (the streets looked so different with the sun up, so alive), worked his night job during the day, took his afternoon bus the opposite direction (he could not shake the feeling he was traveling backwards in time, somehow), and, finally, caught his morning bus at night. The dark streets of the Neighborhood, with all the long, clinging willow vines fluttering in the evening breeze, lurked ahead of him, and the worker realized that he had been dreading this all day.
He chided himself; there was nothing to be afraid of. It was just a street. But look at the faces of the other people on the bus: Yes, they were all afraid, though none of them would admit it. One woman, he saw, was even holding her breath. They crossed Sloat Boulevard and the first of the quiet houses. The worker avoided looking out the windows. He realized his heart was pounding and he had to force himself to breathe. The steady hum of the bus tires comforted him a little; it took less than a minute to cut through the Neighborhood. They’d be safe soon.
He found himself turning toward the window. He did not want to, but it was like an itch; the harder he tried not to scratch, the worse it got. He could not help but turn. Was it his imagination, or was the woman sitting across the aisle trying to warn him with sideways glances and half-hidden gestures not to look? He could not be sure. Heart pounding, he turned all the way and he looked into the darkness. He saw…
Nothing. Nothing except the same streets and the same houses as always, the same leaning trees and the same showy fountain. There was nothing strange or sinister about it after all, and he laughed at himself. How childish his fears had been. It was just a neighborhood for rich snobs who liked their privacy and were probably annoyed by the loud, smelly city bus that drove down their private little avenue a hundred times a day both ways.
In fact, now that he was not so afraid, he realized that it was really a pleasant looking little neighborhood. It was inviting. Only half aware of what he was doing, the worker rang the bell. Several people in nearby seats jumped; no one ever, ever rang the bell for a stop in the Neighborhood. But the worker just had. The driver glanced at him and then looked away. The woman across the aisle was now, very clearly, looking at the worker, and he saw her shake her head a fraction of a degree, but he ignored her. His feet seemed to move of their own accord, one in front of the other, down the short aisle and into the stairwell where the automatic door hissed open, and then he was outside the protective shell of the vehicle and setting foot, for the first time in his life, on the streets of the Neighborhood.
The woman who’d tried to warn him stared down from a window, her face bleached and her eyes wide, but then the snap of the automatic door and the hum of the tires whisked her away, and the worker was alone. It was a warm night. There was no moon. A small breeze was, as always, coming from the direction of the ocean. The stirring of the willows was the only noise. The worker looked around; something was strange. The streets were deserted, as usual, but there was something about the houses. He realized there were no lights on in any of them. Every window was dark. The breeze turned cold and the worker rubbed his bare arms. He now felt foolish for getting off the bus and making himself late. He did not understand why he’d done it. And the old fear was creeping up in him again now as all those dark windows, like the empty eye sockets in a pile of skulls, stared at him.
He did not want to wait here for the next bus, so he started to walk. The top of the hill would be better, he reasoned. Safer. He tried to keep his eyes on his feet, but again he found he couldn’t help glancing from side to side. He prayed for a sign of life anywhere, something to reassure him, but it was all darkness and silence. Nothing here looks lived-in, he thought, realizing that had been the disquieting quality of the Neighborhood all along. It was less like a real neighborhood as much like a museum display of how a neighborhood might look. No one who saw these streets for even a second would mistake them for the habitat of any living thing. This he had always known, deep down, even if he only just now knew how to articulate it.
He walked faster. It seemed to the worker that the hill was steeper than usual (all rich neighborhoods in the city were built on hills). Was the grade becoming more severe so as to slow him down? Absurd, he thought. Then the wind changed direction, blowing in his face hard enough to make him take a half step backward, like a hand trying to hold him in one place. The houses crouched on their lots, waiting for him. The windows were dark, the doors were closed, the—
He stopped. One door was open, on the little cream-colored house with the tile roof. It was wide open, in fact, revealing a dark hallway beyond. The worker looked around; still no one in sight. Why should this door be open in the middle of the night, he wondered? It did not look like anyone was home. A house like this should be locked at night; perhaps there’d been a robbery? Perhaps someone was hurt? Perhaps…
He was walking toward the door. He did not want to and he had not thought about doing it, just as he hadn’t really thought about getting off the bus, but still, he was walking toward the door. The toe of his work boots tapped the stone porch steps on his way up. Why am I doing this, he thought? But it was already too late; the door was open and he was inside. The house closed up around him.
The worker stood in the foyer. Though dark, there seemed to be nothing strange about the house. It was clean and furnished. There was a faint, underlying scent of mustiness but there was also a perceptible effort to cover it up. Everything was neatly in its place. Yes, it looked normal enough, he thought.
But it didn’t look lived-in…
A flicker of movement caught the worker’s eye. He saw that the front door had closed. Not all the way, just halfway, gliding on hinges so quiet it would seem they scarcely moved at all. It was enough to jolt the worker out of his reverie; I should not be here, he thought, and he went for the door, but something moved again. Not the door but something just outside it. There was a flicker and a shudder and the worker swore he saw something pale flop against the door frame. Surely that was not an arm? Surely flesh could not be such a color? Surely it was the dark and the worker’s imagination that made it appear that a barely glimpsed, quasi-human figure with flesh like an earthworm crouched on the porch, shuddering and gibbering?
But then it was gone.
The worker backed away. He wanted to get out, but not that way. He noticed, now, that there was light in this house after all, the bare illumination of a candle flame in a nearby doorway. Instinctively he went toward it, wanting to huddle around the light for protection against whatever was in the dark. He pushed on the half-closed door and there was indeed a single candle flickering on a table. Four figures sat around it, four people in claw-footed chairs, four men and women whose heads turned in unison toward the worker and smiled as their yellowing eyes met his. But the worker was not looking at the people around the table. No, he was looking at what was on the table, next to the candle. He was, he realized, trying to scream. No sound came out.
“We have a guest,” said one of the men. His voice was neither high nor low, neither young nor old; it was a blank voice. “We were not expecting you. I’m afraid you’ve already missed dinner.”
The worker could not move. He tried to run, but his legs were frozen. He continued to stare at the table. The man who had spoken balled up a red napkin and tossed it onto the tablecloth. “At least we can offer you the hospitality of our company. Why don’t you sit and tell us a little about yourself. What’s your name?” The man still smiled. His face was the color of chalk. The worker realized they expected him to speak but his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth.
“What’s the matter with you? Can’t you talk? Or are you one of those…unfortunates?” The man’s bloodless lips sneered.
“Look at his clothes,” said one of the women “He looks like some common rabble off the streets. Probably came off of that bus.”
“Do you think so?” The man peered at him. The two silent figures nodded in agreement with the woman. “Well, then since we’ve already eaten and since he cannot speak and since he is not the right sort of person, I suppose we have no choice but to throw him out.”
The worker felt a hand on his shoulder. No, he realized, not a hand, just something cold and clammy that might be called a hand if you knew no better word for it. He felt something at his back, a shape that shuddered and shook. The man with the pale face smiled at whatever was behind the worker. “Just in time. Please show this person to the door.”
The clammy hand squeezed the worker’s shoulder. He did not want to turn around. Awful as what he was seeing was, he was sure that whatever was behind him would be worse. But whatever irresistible force first compelled him to get off the bus and then compelled him to enter this house (the same force, he was now certain, that lured any number of people into these homes each year, never to be seen again), was now telling him to turn around and look at his escort. So he did.
And then, mercifully, came unconsciousness.
In a way, nothing changed for the worker after that. He still got up at the same time each day, still went to his same jobs, still took the same busses and, yes, still passed through the Neighborhood each morning. He thought he would be afraid to, but he soon realized that the Neighborhood was not the same creature during the day as it was during the night. There was really nothing to fear in the Neighborhood by day.
Yes, in one sense nothing changed, but in a more important sense things were never quite the same again. The worker always thought he knew the city the way like he would have known a brother if he’d ever had one. But now the city seemed dark and alien, and he began to suspect he did not know it at all. Worse, he began to think he did not even want to.
It was not the people at the table who haunted his dreams, not their bloodless faces, or their long fangs behind sneering gray lips. Nor was it the shapeless, gibbering thing they called a servant. No, what haunted the worker was the memory of that bloodstained napkin on the table, and the remains of the nightly meal spread out on the red-dappled tablecloth. “We’ve already eaten,” the pale man had said. Whenever the worker closed his eyes he glimpsed what lay on that table, and he remembered what was left of its face. And the worker knew that if he had come to that house an hour or perhaps even fifteen minutes earlier they would never have simply thrown him out, never have just laughed at him and let him go.
And now he understood why the Neighborhood was empty by daylight, and why it never looked lived-in. Because certainly the things that inhabited those houses could not be called alive, and they could not abide the light of the sun. But the city belonged to them, and they were its true inhabitants in a way that the worker never could be. In all likelihood, they had been here since it was founded. And would stay here forever.
“…and that’s how it happened. I don’t expect any of you to believe me, but that’s all right. I’d almost rather not be believed.”
“Where is this neighborhood? What route is that?”
“Let’s not pester our new friend with a lot of questions.”
“You were the one who was interrogating him in the first place. I just want to know—”
“Well I don’t want to know what route it was. Even if his story wasn’t true…can we just talk about something else?”
“Yes, we can and we should. My story’s done and there’s nothing else to say.”
“Now wait a minute, friend. I appreciate you breaking the ice for me, as it were, with that story, because I have a story of my own.”
“Oh, here he goes.”
“I’d say it’s even stranger than yours, and since you were honest with me I think it’s only fair that I be honest back.”
“If he’s going to do this we need more beer.”
“I needed more anyway. Does anyone really want to hear this?”
“I do too. I believed every word of that first story and in fact I have one a lot like it. And if anyone else has one too, I want to hear it.
“And I’ll buy the next round.”
Credit To – Tam Lin