It wasn’t until I broke down in front of my sister that it occurred to me to use the word ‘haunted.’ When I tried to explain what happened, finally articulating the weeks of dread and utter dislocation, I found that no other word would come.
Haunted. There’s still a part of me that scoffs and glowers at this, to use the language of folklore. It seems to compress what I’d experienced into a simple banality, a prisoner of crude language.
I paid cash for the house in West Toluca Lake. Something about the 1930’s Spanish architecture tucked behind the grove of weeping willows triggered a strong association with my childhood ideal of what it meant to be famous and successful in Los Angeles. It was far more than I needed, and I struggled to fill the extra rooms with bedroom sets and elaborate lounges, more out of an obligation to keep up appearances when guests were over than to satisfy myself.
Even so, I was happy there, for a short while.
My friends stop visiting a few months after I moved in. Increasingly elaborate excuses were spun, and I soon stopped asking. It only occurs to me now that I was doing the same, finding every reason to stay in the house, to isolate myself.
The descent into the insanity was so gentle, that I hardly felt it happening. The unusually stormy winter hit me hard, and long hours in front of the UV sun lamp seemed to do little to halt my growing feeling of melancholy and nameless unease. I started sleeping later and I abandoned even the pretense of writing, spending long hours in silence on the back porch, listening to the dry rasping of the dead leaves in the cold breeze.
It was the middle of the night when I first saw him.
I had been lying motionless in the dark, long hours that had stretched out into infinity, when at last I pulled myself from the Ambien fog at the sharp urging of my bladder, and shuffled towards the bathroom.
He was in the hall, standing perfectly still, his back to me. His head was cocked to one side as if he was listening, but he showed no signs of awareness. My heart leapt into a driving rhythm and my body locked as I tried to comprehend this intrusion. He stepped away from me, the soft tread of his feet on the carpet the only sound that punctuated the stillness. Less than three seconds passed from the moment I saw him, to when he turned a corner and was gone.
When I wrenched control from my frozen limbs, I found the house empty, and the doors still locked.
Sleep came slowly that night, and I tried to convince myself that what I had seen was a product of my medicated, sleep deprived mind.
He returned the next night, as I lay in bed. I awoke to the sound of the door opening. My eyes slid open, the lids rasping painful and dry, to behold complete darkness. I heard the soft shuffling of feet, and then, with a sickening feeling deep in my core, the sound of bedsprings softly creaking. He had sat on the foot of the bed. Terror held me in place like a vice. There was a sound from far away, a dusty crackle, a breath of wind from the specter’s lungs.
My mouth went dry and I croaked an involuntary rasp as I struggled to free myself from the sheets that suddenly clung to me, and when I moved, so did he, leaping upward. In that naked moment of animal terror, he vanished, leaving a palpable hole in the darkness.
After that night, I was never alone in that house. From the corner of my eyes, I saw his slow plodding movement, the lumbering gait of a shadow that evaporated as soon as I turned.
Soon, I would see him in full view, walking slowly from room to room, sitting motionless on the patio, standing solemnly and silently in odd corners of the house. He would be gone only moments after I registered his presence, simply ceasing to exist, taking with him the tiny muffled sounds of his movements and leaving me standing alone, head cocked to hear only silence.
I could not describe him now if I tried. He was not vague or indistinct, but utterly unremarkable in every appearance. I can no longer recall the details of him, only the shape of the memory. There was an indescribable quality around him, an aura, a lingering fog of unease and dread that slowly suffused the house and clouded my mind, smothering memory.
My friends and my family all swear that during the darkest weeks they called me often, sick with worry, and even came to the house to peer through the windows, expecting to see my corpse.
I remember none of it, just the crashing waves of dread and shock that weathered away at my reason.
The moment of clarity came on a clear February night. In a daze, I stumbled towards sleep, not wanting to stay awake, not wanting to wake up again in this house. I turned out the light, sat down gingerly on the edge of the bed, too scoured raw to even pull back the covers, when the miasma of his presence enveloped me.
He was behind me in the dark. Lying in my bed.
I pressed my eyes tightly together, and exhaled a slow wheeze, trying to calm my racing heart.
The bed behind me bucked with sudden movement and a raspy cough of air, and I leapt away, hands fumbling for the light switch. The bed, once immaculately made, was in shambles, the sheets strewn on the floor, and I was alone with only the oily aftertaste of his presence.
Something deep inside me bent and then snapped, and I grasped at a fragment of epiphany that slipped through my fingers into the gloom.
I felt suddenly and sharply awake, lucid like I hadn’t been in months. I held my momentary courage close as I moved with all haste to the front door.
Stepping over the threshold for the first time in weeks, I was struck with a wave of dizziness, and then I found myself in the car, the keys dangling from the ignition. As I pulled into the street, I turned to the house, the last time I would ever see it.
The house lights blazed in a mimicry of life. He stood at the window, hands clasped at his side, a momentary silhouette that vanished when we made eye contact, leaving only the soft sway of the parted curtains.
I was at a motel within an hour and at my sister’s Studio City apartment the next morning. My throat was raw from disuse, from not speaking for so many weeks and I croaked out my story to her, embarrassed at the absurdity, but swaddled in a profound relief.
Despite the necessity it serves to describe the events, the word ‘haunted’ turns sour in my mouth. It never occurred to me to call the intruder a ‘ghost’. He was… something else.
Something I can’t explain with the clubs and spears of language. The phantom impression of the right word, the perfect word, seems always at the tip of my tongue, but it never comes. It’s the house. It wasn’t the intruder, he was a prisoner, the same as me. There’s something wrong with the house itself.
The house is broken.