The Quotable


This one’s not mine. This one I can’t claim, but it’s here. I met him at Cinescope some Friday the fall of my senior year. He wore scarves and shoulder bags and he sat near me during the screening of some movie I don’t recall. We made quick work of small talk and I asked him over. He said sure.

Lying in bed, late, with the main act finished, there was less and less to say or suggest. But Brandon—that was his name—Brandon gave me this:

He told me his house was haunted. His parents’ place, rather. A spacious two-story deal with a large yard, lots of tree cover. Way out in Collegeville and only a few neighbors here and there.

“Maybe it’s not the house itself,” he said. “It might be us. Mom says when we moved it followed us. So it might just be us. We’re the ones maybe.”

He was young when it started. Eight, maybe? Ten at the oldest, when it started to be a problem. Something they could no longer ignore.

“The dishes were the first to go. Cracked to begin with, like it was taking them out late at night and banging them against the counter. Plates, mugs, soup bowls. We’d see them the next day—breaks and fissures on the outside. Chips. Then, real late, when the heater quiets down and you can’t hear anything for minutes and minutes? Then. That’s when.”

Piles of pieces, pieces spread and scattered across the kitchen floor. At first it was the dishes. Then the doors.

He’d be in his bedroom, or the playroom he shared with his little brother, and his mom would be in her bedroom or the kitchen or in the bath with a washcloth over her face, and all of the doors would slam, one at a time. One after the other. And they’d scream and pull on the handles and bang their hands against the doors and they could hear whoever yelling or banging at the opposite end of the house.

“And it always sounds like more people than how many of us were actually home, right? Dozens of us screaming from every room of the house. All separated, hidden. Even if there’s only actually three or four of us.”

Eventually the doors opened and they spilled out, rushing upstairs or downstairs to find each other, his mom draped and dripping. The lights were always off, like whatever it was had flipped every switch in the house. Screaming, scrambling in the dark, turning the lights back on—finally finding the family room, the soft chairs and sofas, the kids asking what and why and his mom saying I don’t know, I have no idea.

He said his dad came home late and stood at the kitchen counter, above the sink with water whining at the tap, steam. He’d stand looking out the windows at the wide yard, taking in slow chestfuls of breath through his nose, his eyes watching and searching, saying nothing to the kids or his wife.

Sometimes, very late, Brandon could hear them talking in the adjacent bedroom. His mom would plead, beg. Something has to be done, Jim. I can’t live like this. I’m beside myself. His dad was mostly silent. Sometimes he said Yep, yep, I hear you, yep.

“They did something,” he said. “They did something that sounds silly as shit but they had to do something about it. They had this small séance. Mom. Dad. And this lady from the church who sold, at some shop downtown on Main Street, beads and incense and sage and CDs with sea sounds. She stopped over and they turned out all the lights.”

The lady, jewelry jangling on wrists, on her neck, set squat candles on the coffee table. They all held hands while she spoke in a forceful, well-postured monotone. Voice touching the ceiling, the far walls. She told it to come forward. She asked its name. She asked what it wanted from this small, scared family. She asked, finally, if it would leave.

From some distant, tucked-away spot—under the stairs or behind the furnace or in the small spaces of the unused guest rooms, somewhere dark and cramped—a chatter came, like the giggles of girls in the back of a classroom. They were so soft they were hard to spot, even as they held their breath. Tiny laughter almost impossible to tell from the hot air blowing through the vents, or the refrigerator in the opposite room. After a few moments of listening, of looking at each other, the laughter lost its girlish gait, lost the small qualities of children and became more adult, more robust and broken in gasping fits. Laughter like crying in great gasps. Like loud rough calling that rolled out from under the stairs, from the corners of unseen and unused rooms, from the shunned spaces underneath beds, behind pantries, in closets. It climbed and crawled over the floors and walls of the house, resonant and fully-shaped. It sat on their shoulders where they hunched cross-legged on the carpet. It joined the conversation. It gave them their answer.

“The woman never came back,” he said. “She said it was more than ghosts, more than spirits. She said it was a curse, an affliction. That they were damned and that they’d pass it on to me and Michael if they didn’t do something about it. She said that curses carry out through families.”

It was around this time that the dreams started. Because on that evening he’d seen it, whatever sight could see anyways. In the hail of laughter and the shifting shadow he’d seen a figure sneak around the corner, around a wall on the fronts of its feet. He’d seen hair and the ridged contour of its back. He’d seen shoulder blades, finger nails. And nothing.

“At first I was glad I could see it for once, but then it started to bother me that I hadn’t seen its face. I’d only seen a sketch, an outline of something more, something that was probably much worse and more real. That whole night I laid there with my sheets in my fists, sweating, thinking, waiting. I listened to the doors slam downstairs and to feet traveling across the carpet, going upstairs and downstairs, upstairs and downstairs all night long.”

He said he fell asleep sometime in the hours before the sun came. The dream was this, and it’s always been this from then on: A train, broad daylight but darkness. Like a sky so blue it’s somehow without the light it promises. A train with no one, going nowhere. Boxcar after boxcar after boxcar, like riding a ramp in reverse.  Going against the movement beneath his feet.

But he knows he’s trying to avoid someone, something, the thing in his house. He knows it’s following even if he can only see it inside of his mind as something retreating around a corner. The sun outside the windows does not exist and the blue is a lie. He sees nothing when he looks over his shoulders. Feels the floor pull his feet beneath him. He looks left and right, checks the seats, checks the compartments for what he never knows and he looks over his shoulders at nothing until, suddenly—something.

He sees it far off, a small figure in the distance behind him, the figure he knows from his parents’ living room, from the laughter and the shadows and the candles. He sees it, feels it close in, coming closer while the floor pulls at his feet, pulls him in reverse toward the thing from the house. He seeks shelter in a side room, like an office room reasonably suited to a train pulling no one to nowhere. It’s a wide room, and long. It’s not a train any longer but static space with the same Crayola daylight snaking through the windows. On the wall furthest from where he stands is a mounted moose head. Large, gray, the eyes glassy—staring through the world. He watches the moose head, watches its huge presence, the most commanding feature of the room. And he gauges his moods, his feelings as he watches without speaking or moving. As he watches, he feels himself getting irritated. Increasingly, with each passing moment, an anger, a hostility even, rises toward the moose head on the far wall next to the window. He knows now, and he’s sure he knew then, as a boy, that if he gets mad the thing from the house will be here, won’t even have to open the door to enter and he will see it. All of the thing that had previously been hidden, he’d see.

“I’m angry and I raise my fists and start stalking over to the wall when the thing shrieks and closes in from the side, reaching out before I can even register its face. And then I’m awake, soaked,” he said.

“In daylight, it’s fine.  I can usually shake it pretty quickly. But if it happens early in the night, and I awake in all black, I thrash and reach and pound my fists against the mattress waiting to find the present, to feel the floor beneath my feet.”

I asked him what’s happened at the house since, if anything’s changed. He told me that it wasn’t long after the séance that his little brother told their mom that their dad was sneaking in at night, sneaking into his room and into his bed, pulling the covers over the both of them.

“Mom reported him immediately and Dad was charged, convicted. It was in the paper. What a mess. For years Mike woke screaming thinking Dad was in the doorway, a silhouette against the light from the bathroom, standing and watching in the doorway before coming inside. He’d scream night after night. And the feet would patter upstairs, downstairs, back and forth all night long.”

We sat in silence for several minutes. He pulled his arms through his t-shirt and told me that his brother jumped from the window of his apartment in the cities. That his mother lived in that house and never left, that she never went to town or called anyone she used to know. He rolled over and coughed into his hands. “And it’s still there,” he said. “I’m sure.”

In the night I could feel him jerk his legs under the covers. Once I heard him call out for help, call somebody’s name. Then it was quiet. Then it was still. When I woke the next morning he’d already left.


Joel Kopplin’s stuff has appeared in places like red lightbulbs, Metazen, HOUSEFIRE, and decomP magazinE. He’s from Minnesota.

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The Quotable - Issue 5 "Place"