When I ran away from my life for the third time I only had a card of Valium to my name. I ended up at an abandoned house way out in half built suburbia.
It was a flat, concrete, by-the-book commission house. There was a long hallway behind the living room and kitchen, with the basement door at one end and the bathroom at the other. The bathroom had blood and swear words on the walls, which was cool because I am into metal. The basement was dark and ordinary and freaked me out a bit. Gloria lived in the crawl space in the roof because she is a ghost.
On the first night I had a panic attack and tried not to think about the card of Valium. I knew if I took it I would calm down and just go back like every other time I’d run away. Instead I splashed water on my face and looked at myself in the mirror and tried to have a moment. The shower sputtered for a second and I saw Gloria appear reflected between two graffiti dicks.
She was pressed up against the corner of the roof and the fertile grey shower tiles. Her black hair had bloody dreadlocks and she looked at me curiously because her neck was broken. Sometimes I see things when I get nervous so I tried to wait it out until she disappeared but she stayed where she was.
I tried asking some questions. Who are you? What is your name? How did you die from a broken neck? Gloria didn’t reply but she also didn’t move a lot so I calmed down. I sat on the corner of the sink nearest to the open door. I looked up the hall, now darkened by the wearing afternoon and saw the door to the basement stairs hanging open.
I punched myself in the leg and looked back to Gloria but she was gone.
That night I slept in the bathtub because it was the only place not tiled or growing. In the morning I was woken by the grey sun glaring through the dirty bathroom skylight. I adjusted myself in the bath, heard a crackle and pulled the full card of Valium out of my pocket. I sank down and looked up at the skylight. There was a scratched out hole leading to the crawl space. I put the Valium back in my pocket.
The basement door was open again and I closed it on my way to the kitchen. I said good morning to Gloria who was in the kitchen skylight now and then I ducked around her, trying to do inventory. There were a couple of toxic bowls in the sink and a blackened square on the floor where the fridge should be but not much else. My stomach gurgled.
I tried the taps and the house rattled and then the frosted sheet of the skylight crashed to the floor. Gloria scurried back into the roof. The tap spurted and the cupboards all burst open at once and I saw a can of beans in the pantry. I ate them and felt solid and decided to go for a walk.
I walked past a building site with thick fences and german shepherds bigger than I am, and then I cut across a dirt hill and down the highway. I stole a couple of cheap bread loaves from a rack behind a service station and then, on a whim, a can of black engine paint from an auto shop down a side street.
When I got back I washed down some of the bread with water and tried to figure out what to paint on the living room wall to break up the stark white and stick figures with boobs on them that was already there. In the end I decided to paint Gloria because I thought she might like it.
I started from the bottom up which was a mistake because I made the legs a bit too big, then the body a bit smaller and then the head really very small. I tried to paint over the small head with a big head but the roof cut me off and I just ended up making a large black semi-circle.
I stood back, looked at the picture and said “Good work moron, you’re gonna piss off the damn ghost”. I punched myself in the leg again.
I patted down my pockets for the valium, but I couldn’t find it.
I didn’t know what Gloria would do if she was angry. I couldn’t think of anything worse than her hanging around doing more of the ghost shit she’d done already. I went back to the bathroom to lie down. I figured Gloria couldn’t scare me if I was asleep.
I woke to the sound of hissing and the smell of smoke. I followed the smoke out into the hallway. I shut the basement door again as I walked past and the smoke swirled around it. It was coming from the living room. I flicked the light on.
Gloria was up against the roof opposite the painting. The roof above the painting was burnt and bubbling, completing the top half of the head with a blackened visage. Its eyes made me want to throw up. I looked at the picture, had to look away a few times, and walked around the room a bit. I scratched the back of my head and looked up at Gloria.
“Yeah, fair enough.” I said.
Her head ticked.
The paint on the wall started bubbling and formed letters.
There was the screech of fingernails tearing a gash in the words and then more formed.
The house shuddered and a window cracked. I managed to force a word out of my mouth.
The house went quiet. Gloria’s head ticked and then she was gone.
In the morning I smelled myself before I opened my eyes. I thought ‘I need to have a shower and I need to do it now and not make a big deal out of it so we can both be more comfortable’. I rubbed my face and said “Alright”.
I stood and stripped quickly. I rolled the shower door open over rock hard lumps of dust and turned the hot water up to full.
The shower head started blasting needles of steaming water. I stepped in and then the shower door started rattling and thumps echoed from the roof. The water sprayed wide and spat a pattern of short bullets. Steam rose and the glass fogged. I heard a wrenching squeak and finger marks appeared in the fog.
THERE’S NO WAY OUT
The shower door slammed closed.
GOD WILL NOT ANSWER
I scratched my head because I knew that was a Redfang lyric.
My heart thumped painfully. I inhaled slow and then got pissed off.
I said, “Alright I get it, you’re spooking me in the shower. Shower time is not alone time here. It’s your house, I get it.”
The atmosphere relaxed a bit so I washed myself under the sharp spray of water. I had that song stuck in my head so I hummed it as I removed a surprising amount of black engine paint from my body.
When I got out of the shower I didn’t have anything to dry myself with. I wandered naked and shivering around the house looking for a laundry. I approached the door to the basement. It was open again, just slightly. Cold air blew out of the gap. I reached to my pocket again for the Valium but remembered I was naked. I looked back towards the bathroom and saw Gloria reflected in the shower door. I thought about all the horror movies I had seen where there was something in the basement, all the nightmares I’d had where rotting hands dragged me down through the floor.
I said “Normal people can go into a god damn basement you coward.”
I punched the wall and walked down the stairs.
There was no light switch up the top so I opened the door wide. Halfway down the stairs it swung back slightly and cut off the right half of my vision. There was a space under the stairs that I couldn’t see into at all.
At the bottom, a rectangle of pale light was cut out of the dark on the dirty concrete. In the corner I could see a pile of rotting boxes and rags. I picked something up and held it to the light.
It was a plush toy, bluish green from mould with a ragged knot where the head used to be. There was a name written on the tag in faded black pen. I tried to read it but the door blew shut and the light vanished.
Plastic skittered on the concrete around me. I tried to run but I tripped over. It felt like something wrapped tight around me as I fell. I was grabbed by my ankle and dragged along the concrete up towards the door. My head knocked on the stairs and I was thrown into the hallway.
I lay in a pile on the floor. There was a screech as fingernails tore a gash out of the wall and up into the skylight. I stayed still until my heart stopped hurting. The Redfang song came back into my head. It pumped me up a bit and I felt better.
In the afternoon I skipped a train back to the city, back to my apartment to collect a few things. When I left I made a point of leaving the door unlocked, not so I could get back in, but more in the hope that someone else would get in and steal my life. I opened the door, ignored the stack of mail behind it, and made my way to the bedroom.
The light was still on and the floor was all clothes. I grabbed my bottom-of-the-line record player, my desktop speakers, and my favourite metal records and stuffed them into a backpack. Then I grabbed my desk lamp and zipped the bag up around the dusty orange shade.
I hoisted my backpack and went to walk out, checking my phone on the way. It was out of battery. I grabbed a phone charger too.
On the train I sunk into the four person chair in the last carriage. My bulky backpack was on the seat next to me. I leaned back and squinted against the orange sun sinking behind black mountains in the distance. I watched the buildings wear away until they were ruins. When I got off I bummed a cigarette from a nice old lady who looked very tired.
When I got back to the house Gloria had collapsed the basement. Dust had settled around the door and a cool, earthy breeze fanned out in a steady stream. I walked down the stairs and there was no floor, just a big hole to the depths and the smell of untouched earth. Words were blackened onto the back of the basement door.
NO MORE BASEMENT COWARD
To be honest—I was very relieved.
I plugged in the speakers and the record player and the orange lamp. I turned off the lights, the lampshade leaving the room lit like my favourite kind of hell. The painting clung to the wall like a warped shadow. I found another socket and plugged my phone in to charge.
I put on the record with the lyrics Gloria had written in the shower. I was too shaky to put the needle on myself so I had to use the automatic function and wait twelve minutes for the first song to finish.
The song I wanted started playing and then I heard a noise like a circular saw in the attic. Gloria skidded out of the skylight, her fingernails tearing through the plaster. She slammed up into the corner of the roof, over the eyes of the painting. Gloria faced me, her fingernails stuck into the wall behind her. She looked like an album cover.
I sat down cross-legged on the tiled floor. I adjusted so I was leaning back slightly to try and appear more casual. Gloria’s cocked head ticked. She crawled down the wall, still facing me, and stepped out onto the tiles. She approached and sat down next to me. I looked at the bloody dreadlocks that covered the side of her face as she listened to the music. I tried to breathe, said “Fuck you” to myself in my head and spoke.
“Can I tell you something?”
She didn’t move.
Her voice sounded worn and comfortable.
I wanted to explain how I felt. That there seemed to be a her-shaped hole in my life, that it felt like we were the only two people of our species. I knew that there was no reason for me to feel like this, but that made me think it was important. I couldn’t find the right words but she interrupted me before I started anyway.
“… to the music.”
I stayed quiet. She put her hand on my leg and it sunk in a bit. I felt a chill that I recognised. The album moved on, the needle lifted. I switched the side and sat back down. Gloria readjusted so her head lay a thumb’s width above my lap.
Gloria fell asleep at the good bit of the album and her head rolled into my midsection. I stood up through her face. I tried to be careful about this but it was difficult.
I looked at Gloria and tried to imagine she looked peaceful sleeping on the floor, but she just looked dead because of her broken neck.
I walked down to the highway, past sleeping guard dogs and a group of teenagers drinking on the hill. I stole two-thirds of a pack of tailors and a lighter from the cab of a trucker taking a piss at the service station. I smoked one behind the gas tanks and looked at the city lights far away and heard the dull roar of the highway.
I climbed the hill on the way back and saw Gloria sitting on the roof. The moon reflected white from her dead skin and carved her out of the dark shapes of the made-broken houses around her. Her legs were drawn up against her chest and her matted hair hung over her face. I kept walking and when I looked next, she was gone.
I tried not to make a noise when I opened the front door. Gloria wasn’t around. I paced the living room and stared down the painting. I patted down my pocket for the Valium and couldn’t find it. I breathed out three short breaths and kicked the ground, then climbed up the kitchen skylight and into Gloria’s crawl-space.
I found Gloria scratching song lyrics into the eaves of the roof. I crawled over to her and we looked at each other and shared a moment that stretched into ghost sex. Ghost sex was intense and involved a bit too much psychokinesis but was generally alright because I had stolen those cigarettes.
Afterwards we sat on the roof and talked. I was naked again mostly from habit. Gloria couldn’t be naked because she had died in her clothes.
It was the first time she told me her name was Gloria and she said it in a scary voice so I would remember.
I asked her how old she was and she told me she was forty-seven but she had been a ghost a while so it didn’t translate too well. I asked her how she died and she told me she was fucking around on the roof and fell through the skylight. She swore a lot and her broken neck looked sort of beautiful in the moonlight.
She said, “I can’t remember much of what it was like before. I know I was happy enough, which is why I’m having trouble moving on. Now the years just keep piling on top of my memory, and though I’m going nowhere and nothing is happening, I can still feel a lot of shit going on behind the scenes.”
I said, “I know what you mean” and she said “no you don’t, this is ghost shit”. She smiled and I kissed her for the first time without my face going into her head a bit.
I couldn’t sleep in the roof because it freaked me out a lot and there wasn’t enough room for Gloria to sleep in the bath. I dressed and climbed down into the kitchen. In the living room, my phone was fully charged. I pressed the power button.
The loading screen came up, and then the home screen. The phone started buzzing and getting messages for missed calls in rapid succession. I got flashes of text and contacts. Debt collectors, worried family, angry friends, the police. I put the phone on the tiles and it rattled.
I went into the bathroom and washed my face with water. I saw the Valium in the bath, downed a handful and passed out in the tub.
The rattling on the tiles echoed through the house as the sun rose.
I woke very groggy in the late afternoon. I sat up in the tub and then slid back down when I heard my phone buzz again. I closed my eyes and thought of the things I had to do, which were many but not endless. I thought about all the people I knew, even though I didn’t feel like I knew them then. I thought it would only be a week or so before I got tired of hanging out in a shitty house with a ghost when I should be living and I sank down further in the tub.
Light glared in grey from the skylight. I strained and heard the highway and the gust from the basement. I climbed out of the bath and walked out to the kitchen. My stomach gurgled and I felt sad and dehydrated. The eyes of the painting stared down at me from the living room as I drank from the tap.
The tap sputtered, I turned and Gloria was pressed up against the corner of the kitchen ceiling, facing me. I tried to think of what to say. I left it too long and said “Gloria, I got to go”.
Gloria said yes she knew.
I said maybe she could come to the city, live in my apartment building. She said ghost rules say nope.
I thought about what I wanted to tell her and this time I actually did.
“I’m shit when I’m scared.”
She dropped from the roof and brushed a bloody dreadlock from her face. She spoke in a scary voice so I would remember.
“You should go. I cannot come. I can only haunt.”
I rubbed my face and said, “Alright”.
Sam Maguire is a professional scared person and Brisbane writer. He writes for some or no money and has lived in 13 haunted houses.