By Janine DeBlaise
The night I saw the ghost, I was standing up, with a toothbrush in my hand. I wasn’t asleep. I wasn’t dreaming. I wasn’t even in bed yet.
It was fall in the Adirondack Mountains, and I was staying with women friends at a beautiful old mansion on Lake George, my annual escape from a noisy household of teenage children. We’d driven for a couple of hours on winding mountain roads, past camps boarded up for the winter and roadside stands selling pumpkins, to this place owned by my friend Charlotte’s family, who were most generous about letting us have it for a long weekend every October.
The first evening, my friends prepared a feast while I built a fire in the old stone fireplace. We ate at the big wooden table, but then as the tall pine trees cast shadows on the house, we moved closer to the fire. My friend Sharon brought out her sewing and Trish set up her loom, and we talked for hours — the way a group of women who have known each other for decades can. It was midnight before women began leaving the group, one at a time, to go upstairs to bed.
Soon there were just three of us left, sitting in a room lit only by the flames.
“I’m going to get ready for bed,” Jeannie said, yawning.
Charlotte said to me, “You’ll take care of the fire, right?”
I nodded. I was planning to sleep on the couch by the dying fire.
When I went upstairs to brush my teeth, Charlotte was already in the bathroom, brushing hers.
The second bathroom was at the very back of the house. I walked — slowly and quietly, so as not to wake any of my friends — into the dark hall, through a sitting room, and then into an empty bedroom, where I clicked on the light. I liked this bedroom, with its green gingham curtains that matched the green quilt on the bed. I stepped into the little bathroom and began brushing my teeth.
The bathroom mirror reflected the window behind me, which led to a fire escape. I turned to look into the darkness, at that little balcony covered with pine needles. I felt a creepy sensation, as if someone was watching me. If I’d been in a movie, that’s when the spooky music would have started. I spit the toothpaste out quickly. I turned fast and stepped into the bedroom.
Standing just a few feet away was a teenage boy.
He looked maybe seventeen – the same age as my son Devin. My sons always wear black shirts and jeans, but this kid was wearing light-colored clothing. He wasn’t scary-looking: he looked like a kid patiently waiting for someone to get out of the bathroom. But I was so startled that I screamed, waving my toothbrush in the air as if it was some kind of badass weapon that would protect me.
The boy vanished.
I stared at the spot where he’d been, right next to the bed with its green quilt.
From down the hall, Charlotte’s voice called, “Are you okay?”
I ran towards her voice. I wasn’t scared, really. Just startled.
“Something weird just happened,” I said to Charlotte, “I saw this kid standing in the bedroom — and then he wasn’t.”
We stared at each other. She took the toothbrush out of her mouth.
“I know,” I said. “It doesn’t make sense to me either.”
Charlotte came with me back into the bedroom. It was empty, of course. I even pressed my face against the bathroom window, to look at the fire escape. The pine needles hadn’t been disturbed.
I tried standing in the same spot to see if maybe it had been a trick of light.
“Maybe it was a reflection off the window panes?” Charlotte said. Yes, that would have been logical. But the windows were to my right, and the kid had been to my left.
We couldn’t figure it out. But Charlotte’s matter-of-fact presence calmed me down. She’d been coming here all her life. Nothing here would hurt us. We went downstairs, and I got into my sleeping bag. I could hear her moving through the kitchen, checking that the back door was locked and the stove off, before she went back up to bed.
Alone in the downstairs of that big old house, I watched shadows flicker across the walls as the last coals of the fire sizzled. I kept telling myself that Charlotte’s ancestors were nice people, and that any ghosts who appeared wouldn’t do me any harm. I burrowed into my sleeping bag and tried to imagine spirits dancing in the room, dressed in ballroom dresses, peaceful and happy, with no intentions of hurting the human on the couch.
“Don’t mind me,” I muttered inside my head. “I’m just sleeping here. Go ahead and dance.” I told myself that if I could sleep through a boy band in my living room every weekend, a few silent ghosts shouldn’t keep me awake.
I woke up to sunlight and no spirits in sight. I didn’t mention the ghost to my friends as we ate breakfast. In the broad daylight, the kitchen filled with women making toast and drinking coffee, the incident seemed like a dream. I felt kind of foolish, actually. Maybe I’d just imagined the whole thing.
Two more friends arrived, bringing coolers of food with them, of course. By the time we sat down for lunch, the wooden table was groaning under the weight of all we’d brought: a big green salad, chickpea salad, hummus and veggies, roasted root vegetables, a pasta salad, homemade bread, three pots of hot soup, and a big pan of apple crisp fresh from the oven.
Charlotte invited an elderly neighbor to join us for lunch. Diane arrived at noon, her face pink from a brisk walk through the chilly air, and she yanked off her boots at the door. Diane, who had lived in the area for years, always knew interesting tidbits about the landscape as well as the neighbors. She slid into a seat at the table.
Trish was the last to the lunch table, because she’d been taking a nap. “Three kinds of soup,” I said to her as she sat down. “Squash, black bean, and beet.”
Trish nodded sleepily.
“I had the weirdest dream,” she said. “I was dozing off and on, and this boy appeared. He said his name was Jonathon, and he was killed in a farming accident.”
Diane said, “A teenage boy? In an upstairs bedroom?”
Diane shrugged. “That’s just the ghost.”
We all stared at her. She bent her silver head over her bowl of soup and took a spoonful.
“A ghost?” Charlotte asked. “This house has a ghost?”
“He’s harmless,” she said, as if that explained everything.
Charlotte and I exchanged glances. Diane took another sip. “Mmm … beet soup. I haven’t had this in ages.”
Diane’s matter-of-fact reaction made me feel bad for the way I’d screamed at the ghost. He hadn’t tried to hurt me. He was just standing there, a harmless kid. A harmless ghost.
While my friends were cleaning the kitchen, I walked upstairs into the green bedroom. “Sorry for screaming,” I said into the air. Sunlight came in through the windows, making patterns on the green quilt. My apology felt foolish.
I didn’t think about the ghost again until Monday, when we were packing up to leave. I cleaned the fireplace and then took a moment to sit on the front porch bench. Two of my friends were in the driveway, shoving pillows and duffle bags into the trunk of their car. At the lakefront Charlotte was talking to her cousin, an older man who had been staying in another building.
I felt a presence next to me on the bench. I didn’t turn. I know from experience that teenage boys are more likely to listen if you don’t stare right at them. I have the best conversations with my son Devin in the car when we’re both looking straight ahead.
“It’s okay,” I said to the ghost. “You can hang out here if you want. Charlotte’s family – they’re good people.”
Down at the waterfront, Charlotte and her cousin hugged each other, both laughing as they said goodbye. I thought about Charlotte’s family — what lovely, gracious people they were. I wouldn’t mind spending the afterlife with them.
I stood up and turned to look at the bench. It was empty.
When I got home, my son Devin was sitting at the piano. I told him the whole story, and he listened with delight.
“That’s sooooo creepy,” he said. He started playing some spooky music. “After I die, I’m going to go into people’s houses and play their pianos.”
I guess it’s good to have a plan.
“He wasn’t trying to hurt me,” I said. “I feel bad for screaming.”
Devin shrugged. “I bet he gets that a lot.
I called my daughter Shannon, who lives with three other college students in an old house. She said, “That’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard. Now I’m going to be afraid to sleep alone.”
My son Sean, an undergraduate physics major, grinned at the story. “It was just your mind playing tricks on you,” he said. “I believe your story, but I think there’s a logical explanation for what you saw. You were tired, it was late at night, the lights were dim, you were in a strange place, and you had been having a creepy feeling. It’s not a surprise that your mind conjured up the image of a teenage boy since teenage boys usually are standing outside any bathroom you use.”
Sean’s friends, the gang of young men who gathered at our house every weekend to play drums and guitar in our living room, the type of guys who competed to see how fast they could solve a Rubik’s cube, agreed with his explanation
My husband Bill and my youngest son Bryan listened to the story — and said nothing. Nothing at all.
I still don’t know, really, what happened that night in the Adirondacks. I do know that the human mind is a complex and tricky thing. In the light of day, I can see how the boy could have been a figment of my imagination. But then when I tell the story around the campfire, with flames flickering, mysterious night noises, and shadows that make even the most innocent child look creepy, well, then, the idea of a spirit appearing to me seems quite plausible.
Everyone, it seems, loves a good ghost story. It’s the same impulse that convinces us to hurtle ourselves into the summer sky on a roller coaster. It’s something completely ridiculous and deeply human, the way we love to put ourselves in situations that send shivers down the spine. A scary story wedges into your brain and makes you look at your familiar world in a different way. Is there a face pressed to that window pane? What made that creaking noise? A ghost story reaches to some primitive part of the brain beyond logic and reason and our normal daily rituals. It triggers something deep and responsive, reminding us that we are, after all, animals with instincts we can’t control.
I have a second story. This isn’t a story I tell around the campfire. It’s too sad and too tragic and too incomprehensible. I don’t want to analyze it. I don’t know whether it was a spirit or a presence or a something that happened only inside my mind, and I’m not sure it matters which of those things it was.
Because that, too, is why we love a ghost story. It confronts us with something we don’t — and can’t possibly — understand. It’s a way to encounter mystery, to grapple with things beyond our control, and to accept something larger than ourselves. A ghost story is a reminder of our place in the universe. It’s a reminder that our presence may exist beyond this life, and no amount of logic will help us figure out what’s next after our puny human lives are over.
This story took place a few years after the first one, after my kids had grown into adults.
Sean’s friend Greg was one of the teenagers who practically lived at our house on weekends. We’d known him since seventh grade. He was smart like Sean. He ran his first marathon at the age of 17, and he was the class president, and he was the youngest child in a loving family. We saw him all the time during high school, but then Sean’s whole gang grew up and went off to college. Greg graduated from MIT and moved to Washington DC. His mind was razor sharp, too sharp perhaps. He was smart enough to hide mental health issues from the people closest to him.
He died by suicide at the age of 25.
Greg’s death shocked us all, Sean more than any of us. This was a death that my physicist son couldn’t understand, a problem he couldn’t solve, something for which he had no explanation.
I kept thinking about Greg’s mother, who had carried him, raised him, loved him, and done everything she could to protect him from the world.
For weeks afterwards, whenever I was in the kitchen, especially, I could feel Greg’s presence. I could just picture Greg standing there, in a t-shirt and shorts, his hair sweaty because he’d just gone running, reaching to the cupboard above the stove where I kept chocolate chip cookies. He was always running, and always hungry. I could feel his presence so strongly that it’s like he was there, and all I could feel was anger. I kept talking to him inside my head. I’d say things like, “GREG. Why would you do that? Why?”
His memorial service was on Labor Day weekend. Sean and his friends from high school stood at a microphone and told stories about Greg. His mother listened, but didn’t talk. She couldn’t. I don’t think a mother can ever come to terms with that kind of tragic loss. I know I wouldn’t be able to.
When I went off to the mountains with my friends that fall, I was still thinking about Greg. He was Sean’s age, and so much like Sean, that I just couldn’t accept that he was really dead. He had been one of us, and we loved him, and he died. It just didn’t make sense.
My friend Coleen joined us that weekend. She’s older than me, and she grew up in a large Irish family. Her husband worked as a plumber while she stayed home to raise children. They’re both wonderful, down-to-earth people. They are also both mystics. Coleen talks to spirits as if they were kids in the neighborhood. So of course, I confided in her.
“It’s weird,” I told her, “But it’s like I can feel Greg’s presence in my house. Although it might be just my mind playing tricks on me.”
Coleen said, without hesitation: “Tell him to give you something specific so you know it’s him.”
I mulled her advice over as we were packing up to go home. I love Coleen dearly, but I don’t always understand her.
Coleen and I helped Charlotte carry life jackets into the old boathouse, a small building right on the water edge. I was surprised to see bunkbeds in the back of the building. “Oh, yeah,” Charlotte said. “When I was a kid, we put all the teenage boys out here.”
Coleen laughed. “That was probably a good idea.”
As I looked around, I could just picture my sons and their friends hanging out here as teenagers — sleeping on the bunks, sitting on the floor to play cards, and staying up all night in that little boathouse. Through the open door, I could hear Lake George lapping against the shore.
Thinking about the gang of teenagers who used to hang out at my house made me think, of course, of Greg, and that’s when Coleen said, “I’m seeing a little bear for some reason.” She looked right at me, like it was supposed to mean something.
I said, “You mean like a teddy bear?”
Charlotte said, puzzled. “But the boys who stayed here weren’t little kids. They were teenagers, too old for teddy bears.”
Coleen didn’t say anything else.
Charlotte and I rode together on the way home. We didn’t talk about Greg. We talked about husbands and kids and the long hike we’d taken the day before. When she dropped me off, the house was empty. My husband Bill and my son Bryan were out somewhere.
I was still thinking about what Coleen had said, so I dropped my duffle bag on the living room floor and addressed the empty house.
“Greg, if you’re there, give me something specific,” I said.
I felt silly standing there in my living room, talking aloud, and I didn’t know what to expect. Would I hear a big booming voice like in those religious movies? I also felt weird thinking about Greg giving me some kind of message. Would he send me on a mission, like in a movie, or give me a message to deliver to his parents? I had all kinds of conflicting feelings. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to get some kind of complicated message and have to figure out how to deliver it. It did not occur to me that the message might be for me.
Then I turned and saw an envelope lying on the table by the couch. The return address was Greg’s name and address. It was in his neat, careful printing. Startled, I picked it up. The postmark date was July of 2006. That was the summer when Greg, Sean, and their gang of friends graduated from high school. My husband must have found the envelope when he was cleaning out his desk over the weekend and left it out for me to see.
I opened the envelope. The front of the card had three little bears on it. An odd choice for a teenage guy. I’m guessing his mother bought him a package of thank-you notes to send out after his graduation party. I opened the card and read Greg’s handwritten message, a polite thank you for the gift we’d given him at graduation. Am I supposed to find a secret code in here? I thought to myself.
But then I flipped to the front of the card again. The message was written clearly, three times: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Janine DeBaise is author of the poetry book Body Language and the chapbook Of a Feather. Her essays have been published in numerous journals including Orion Magazine, the Southwest Review, and the Hopper. She won the Vinnie Ream Medal from the National League of American Pen Women for her essay The Space Between. She teaches writing and literature at SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry.