A few years ago, the city council in my small town petitioned to get the street I lived on renamed Paranormal Place. The vote didn't pass, but everyone started calling it that anyway. Guess the more spiritual residents thought it would be a little too inviting.
Too late for that, I think. The block is full of ghosts and haunts, and I have the power to see and communicate with spirits. Families on my block tell ghost stories over dinner and think nothing of it.
When my friend Matt moved into the neighborhood, though, everyone stopped telling their stories to listen to his. We held bonfires by the pool, wrapped up in his words and sing-song voice and the nearly-visible spirits hovering around his head.
One night, he and I coordinated a big hangout session at my house, and we gathered seven of our closest friends in my living room. Matt sat in the center, pointing at the ceiling.
"I can still hear their ghosts," he said.
I stopped pouring pretzels into a bowl and frowned. "What ghosts? None have ever talked to me here..."
"The family, the one that died before yours moved in."
We all huddled closer as Matt began.
Valentine was the mother, a beautiful housewife. Charles was the father, a drunken abuser. One night, he came home straight from the bars, raging about his hunger. Valentine rushed to finish the meal, but he staggered into the kitchen and slapped her.
That night, Matt said, Charles got up from the couch where he'd collapsed and went into the kitchen. His meaty hand closed around a butcher knife. Still swaying, he crept up the stairs, and when it was all over, Valentine's guts were splayed across the bed. He lugged the carcass upstairs and stuffed it into an old trunk.
The next morning, Lionel and Stephanie asked where their mother was. Charles put on his best acting face and told them a sob story: their mother was cheating on him, having an affair right under his nose, and had left the family. He pulled them close, hiding the bloodstains on his fingers. He instructed Lionel to cook dinner that evening and left for work.
Once again, Charles came home straight from the bars. Lionel, who had never learned to cook, was struggling to finish, and Charles's anger grew inside his growling stomach. When the children went to bed, Charles took the same butcher knife and crept into Lionel's room. When it was all over, Lionel's blood stained the sheets, and Charles stuffed his son's corpse in a second chest next to his mother's.
Stephanie was sad and scared when Charles informed her that Lionel had run away in the night, overcome by anger at Valentine. Now it was Stephanie's turn to be instructed to cook the meal that evening; but when Charles returned home, he found her, red-eyed and snot-nosed, collapsed asleep on the couch. He grabbed the butcher knife and tried to dig out her heart, but she screamed and squirmed away from him. He finally pinned her and wrenched out the still-beating heart with the knife.
Matt paused in his story, to let us breathe.
The neighbors had heard her scream. The police arrived shortly afterwards, and their footsteps and shouted orders on the lawn forced Charles's hand. When they kicked down the door, they found his corpse sprawled across the coffee table, the butcher knife through his heart.
It was like a slaughterhouse. They found blood on the floors, ceilings, and walls of every room, and some of the officers swore they could hear the screams of Charles's victims, still wailing down the halls.
Matt's voice trailed off. My skin was crawling with insects sporting too many legs to count. In this house, in the very house I'd grown up in, was carnage that stole four souls to the underworld.
We sat in silence in the pitch black room, and suddenly there was a knock at the door. Most of us screamed, seven high school freshman boys clinging to one another. Matt just smiled and got up to open the door.
The rainwater blew in, and when I was able to move my arm away from my eyes, I saw a little girl, drenched and skinny.
"Can I come in and eat?" she asked in a tiny voice. "I'm very cold and hungry."
Matt nodded. "Let me get you some food."
I didn't even want to protest that Matt had no right to offer my house to a stranger. We silently followed them into the kitchen and hovered as she ate.
Then she clutched her chest. Matt lurched forward, his hands reaching to help, but she shook her head quickly. "It's just from the storm."
I was surprised to hear my voice chime in, small and uncertain. "Do you want to stay for the night?"
She shook her head again, and I saw a tear slip down her cheek. "No...I don't want to be a burden."
"It's not," I reassured her. "I don't want you to get sick from the rain."
"Thank you," she said. Her eyes were grateful.
Everyone quietly packed up and went home. I brought the girl some blankets and a pillow and settled her in on the couch, then said goodbye to Matt and went to my own bed, trying not to think about the carnage that might have occurred where my bed was.
My parents came home a few hours later, and, still lying awake, I rushed downstairs to shush them and let the girl sleep. They were miffed that I'd invited in a stranger, but agreed that she couldn't go back out into the cold. We let her stay.
The next morning, I was the first to descend the stairs. The blankets were neatly folded, and the girl was gone. I just hoped she'd be somewhere safe by the time night fell.
There was another knock at the door, when the sky was dark. My mother made me stay in my seat and answered the door. It was the little girl again.
"Honey, if you're going to stay, you need to tell us when you leave."
The girl's shoulders drooped. "Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry I left."
That night, when I brought her the blankets I'd put away in the linen closet, the girl was sitting on the couch, holding her chest. "I can't breathe," she managed to choke out.
"Do you -- should we take you to the hospital?" My heart started pounding.
"No," she said softly, and seemed to recover with a shrug and a sad smile. "I deal with this all the time."
Again, when we awoke, she was gone. We looked everywhere for her; my mother even began to cry. Finally, we had to give up. But that night, she knocked on the door again.
"You can't stay if you're going to run off like this," my mother said, the tears springing fresh to her eyes.
My father suddenly appeared in our midst. His face was pale. "You're Stephanie."
The girl seemed to flinch at the name. "Yes," she said quietly.
Light suddenly bloomed around her, and she straightened, a beatific smile spreading across her face. "Yes. I am Stephanie. And you have loved me, cared who I was and where I went, and restored my heart. I can pass on."
The light brightened until we were shading our eyes, and when we looked back, Stephanie was gone. But we heard her voice.