This post was originally published through Patreon on June 26, 2018.


The door opened and Janet walked inside. The house was dark and empty. She took two hesitant steps forward.

The door slammed shut.

Janet spun on her heel, lunged for the knob, and tried to pry it open. But the door wouldn’t budge.

“Jack? Brian? Greg? This isn’t funny!”

Chest fluttering, heart hammering, she pounded on the door. She listened for their obnoxious laughs, the sound she always dreaded but resigned herself to hear whenever she played along with one of their stupid dares. But she heard nothing, only the quiet stillness of the dark.

She whirled again, suddenly afraid of what might be looming over her shoulder.

In that moment, the air grew heavy with the weight of a thousand unseen eyes. When she returned to the safety of the porch outside, she’d pound those boys so hard.

Only, she wondered if this was actually their fault. They’d dared her to go inside, of course. That was a running challenge between the kids in their fifth grade class: to visit the abandoned house on San Mateo Street after sunset, confront the ghost that everyone swore lived there, and survive. But now that she was actually here, now that she was experiencing the house for herself, she suspected there might be other forces at play.

She could feel a gravity in the room with her, a presence that made her skin prickle. She’d felt it almost as soon as she walked inside.

There’s no such thing as ghosts.

She twisted and pulled the doorknob for a while longer before stopping to catch her breath.

The back door.

The idea struck her mind like lightning.

I’ll find the back door. Maybe it still opens.

But after a few steps forward, she stopped and realized she couldn’t see. The area by the front door, though dim, was bright enough that her eyes had been able to adjust. But the rest of the house was consumed by a thick, tangible black—like an impossibly deep hole, or the vacuum of empty space. No matter how long she stared forward with her eyes open, no matter how much time she spent trying to tease out some shadow, line, or shape that could help her orient herself in the dark, nothing came into focus.


She whispered the boy’s name, though she didn’t expect him to answer. He was the one she liked, although she pretended to hate him the most. She would have felt a lot better with him at her side.

An icy draft grazed her exposed shoulders and she shuddered, for a moment imagining that she was elsewhere—not in a house, but a cave beneath the earth, filled with dusty ancient secrets whispered not for the benefit of the living but the dead.

A sound—


—a low keening wail. Soft, distant. At first, Janet though it was just the wind outside. Then it came again.


And again.


Each time, the sound was closer, clearer than before.


The ghost of the San Mateo house was real.

Janet spun and pounded on the door again.

“Let me out! Jack! Brian! Greg! Let me out right now!”

But she knew they wouldn’t answer.


“No,” she cried. “Leave me alone!”


“Please, let me go.”


Janet spun to face the approaching spirit, possessed of the mad notion that somehow she might defend herself. That was when she saw it for the first time.

The ghost was human in shape but featureless and impossibly gray, a three-dimensional smudge about which the darkness of the house orbited like a planet around a star. Janet’s terror reached a startling, heart-stopping climax, and she backed into the wall without realizing what she was doing, edging further into the darkness in her attempt to get away.

The ghost followed.


“Leave me alone!”


Except now that she could hear it up close, she realized she’d misheard. Not Oooooh, but Noooo. Janet listened—really listened—and at the heart of this mournful spirit’s cry, she perceived an unexpected suffering, a terrible, aching need that shot an arrow of sorrow through her heart.

Noooo. And when it saw it had her attention, it went on. Don’t go. Don’t leave me alone in the dark.

She stared at this abstract nightmare, a creature right out of every horror flick she’d ever seen, and understood at last that it was lonely, that it was just as frightened of the dark and the quiet as she.

The ghost began to cry, and remarkably, Janet cried, too, unexpected tears welling in the corners of her eyes.

Don’t leave, it repeated. Don’t leave me alone in the dark like Mommy and Daddy.

The ghost slumped to the ground, and a moment later, Janet did the same.

The ghost was real, she thought, but it wasn’t at all what she’d expected.

“What’s your name?” she asked.


“Why did your Mommy and Daddy leave?”

They left after I died. They said the house made them sad. I tried to get their attention, tried to show them that I was still here, that we could still be a family. But they couldn’t hear me, and eventually they went away. Others come sometimes, but they always run away, too. You won’t run away, will you?

“I— no. But I can’t stay. I have my own Mommy and Daddy back home.”

Will you come back?

Moved by the ghost’s raw and desperate need, Janet found herself unable to say no.


The darkness dissipated like water turned to steam, and the features of the old house came into sharp and instant focus, along with those of the boy, who stared up at her now with the most heartfelt eyes Janet had ever seen.

“Tomorrow,” she said. “After sunset. We’ll play a game.”

* * *

“Did you see the ghost?” her friends asked when she stepped outside at last.

Janet huddled against the cold, wondering for just a moment what it would feel like for Greg to keep her warm, and said nothing.

“Come on,” Jack pressed. “Did you? What was it like?”

Lonely, she wanted to say, but she knew they wouldn’t understand.

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