May 27, 2006

Home Alone: Confessions of a Phasmophobic

There was a perfectly reasonable and scientific explanation for most of what happened to me last night. I'll accept it for now.

I returned from my business trip to an empty house. Nobody was waiting anxiously for my plane to land. Most of my friends were already far from town, enjoying their Memorial Day adventures. Sam was at Lake Tahoe, shepherding a group of Episcopalian teenagers through a weekend of (hopefully) spiritually satisfying activities.

The house was both welcoming and lonely, a reminder that I had two more days as a single woman before my life returned to normal.

I know plenty of people who appreciate time apart from their significant others. I'm not one of them.

Maybe it's because Sam is so accepting of my quirks. I don't wait for his absence to read gossipy magazines, sing along to the stereo, or walk around the house naked with Biore strips on my nose.

Or maybe I'm codependent and fundamentally defective. I'm willing to accept this as a possibility.

So, about last night.

The air in the bedroom felt stale, so I opened the sliding glass door, letting air blow in from the screen door facing the back patio. It was windy outside.

In our absence, the recyclables had occupied the kitchen. Empty cans of Diet Dr Pepper stood poised on the counters like strategically positioned snipers. Wine and liquor bottles were huddled on the dining room table like an inebriated army waiting for orders.

I scooped them all up and took them downstairs to the garage to await recycling pickup day.


The door to the basement shut loudly behind me. My cat Oedipa, who had followed me downstairs, was terrified, but I didn't think much of it. With the screen door open, the wind tends to play such tricks. I hate to use Oedipa as my barometer for alarm, since this is a cat who soils herself in terror every time we try to take her out of the house.

I was almost to the garage door when I heard it.

Thump... Thump... Thump... Squeak... Thump.

I stood perfectly still, not daring to move the loud and jangly bag of cans and bottles clenched in my hands.

I heard footsteps directly above me. It sounded like two distinct pairs of feet, boldly manuevering through the upstairs of my house. The floorboards in the kitchen creaked, as they tend to do. I heard activity in the pipes, like someone was running the sink in the upstairs guest bathroom.

Oedipa let out a whimper like I had never heard before.

I stood there for what felt like an hour, but was probably a few minutes.

What could I do?

Burglars don't generally break into houses when they expect someone to be home. Perhaps if I made enough noise, they would flee and search for a less occupied house with an open back door.
On the other hand, what if they were armed?

I thought about grabbing one of the wine bottles and bringing it upstairs as a weapon, but I didn't trust myself. If somebody wanted to hurt me, they would probably succeed.

And then there was the other, even scarier thought...

What if none of this was real?

What if the footsteps, the creaking, the sound in the pipes, all existed only in my imagination?

Thump... thump... thump thump thump

It sounded as real as anything I had heard in my life.


I'm both fascinated and terrified of ghosts. I believe and yet I don't want to see. I grew up surrounded by Polish superstitions and eerie first-person narratives of hauntings. If a painting fell off the wall in our house, my mother called Poland to find out which relative had just died.

I remembered my tried-and-true remedy for dispelling ghosts. Other people.

With the exception of some terrifying Ouija-board incidents in high school, I've found that the truly scary stuff tends to happen when I'm the only one around to observe it.

I stealthily stepped forward into the garage and clicked the button on the wall. The garage door opened, spilling evening light and revealing a cul-de-sac of people behaving normally. Little kids on skateboards. A guy mowing his lawn. I immediately felt better.

Still trembling a little, I walked around the house. I climbed the stairs to the back porch, grabbing a shovel from the garden, just in case.

I slid the screen door open and shouted "Hi Sweetie!" as if I expected my husband to be sitting in the living room. My voice came out shaky but louder than I expected.

I walked from room to room, feeling bolder with each step.

I noticed that the door to the basement, the door that had slammed shut just a few minutes earlier, was now wide open. It was unusual, but the wind did strange things. Oedipa was munching placidly at her food dish, reassuring me that, as far as she was concerned, all was back to normal.

I crept downstairs, still holding the shovel, and saw nothing out of the ordinary. I went to close the garage door, but found it was already closed.

I had conquered the ghosts, or burglars, or whatever they were, for the time being. But I still had to struggle with getting through the rest of the night.

I turned to the only real solution, human contact.

I invited some friends over for a hastily prepared yet intruder-free dinner. They helped distract me and reassure me that my craziness was of the tolerably quirky variety, not the state mental hospital variety. But they grew tired long before I did, and I was left with the very real challenge of falling asleep alone.

My friends had scarcely driven away when I heard it. It sounded like footsteps above me, bold feet clomping over my head. Only, this time, I was upstairs. Were there people on my roof?

I looked out the window.

Tree branches.

The flowering locust trees have taken over my yard, their branches heavy with purple blossoms. A few thick limbs had collapsed onto the house, and the strong wind was slamming them against the roof with the irregular paired rhythm of footsteps.

Friggin' tree branches.

The sound of water turning on? Probably just the ice maker in my fridge refilling.

And the garage door? Well, this remains a mystery. It's been known to open itself from time to time, due to a touchy sensor. It seems possible that it might have closed itself, just to mix things up.

A few years ago, I had left the garage open and someone had come in, trashed my unlocked car, stole my school backpack out of the back seat, and absconded with the change in the ashtray (except for the pennies).

Perhaps a friendly ghost wanted to make sure that didn't happen to me again, so he or she closed the door for me.

I don't have all the answers, but thanks to a novel, some NyQuil, and a reassuring phone conversation with Sam, I was able to sleep. I even turned the lights off.

I only have one more night of soltitude to endure before Sam returns from his last weekend as a youth minister. I've already got plans lined up for this evening, so by the time I reach my bed, I will be hopefully full of good cheer, merriment, and chocolate martinis.

And if those tree branches dare to act up again, I've got a ladder and a pair of hedge clippers at the ready. Now, that's scary.

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