Compassion for the Dead

I had no business being in that house the first time I went in, except the business of investigation, which happily extends into the entire blessed world for a photojournalist. I’d passed by it a thousand times, and it intrigued me, for no other reason than its age and the poor conception of a one-time renovation. Once a stately Craftsman style home, it had been awkwardly turned into a triplex, with the front porch divided in half and a combination fire escape and rickety stairs leading up to the apartment on the second floor. It squatted on an wide lot between two enormous hulking mansions, all its contemporaries having been demolished and replaced with as much square footage as their lots would hold, leaving just enough room for a Japanese maple, a patch of grass and a row of boxwoods across the front of each house like a mustache. The little triplex, by comparison, looked like a mess the neighborhood hadn’t quite gotten around to replacing, with patches of grass giving way to weeds, tall crepe myrtles dropping flowers and seeds down its gutters, and orange ditch lilies determinedly expanding their territory from the beds into the yard.

I got in through the upper apartment. I wasn’t worried about trespassing; there was a fading for-sale-by-owner sign in the front, boards on some windows and cracks in others. No one was guarding this place. I went through the broken privacy fence gate and spent a moment pondering the large, dry fountain in the otherwise empty backyard, barren even of weeds thanks to the enormous pecan trees and their deep-cast shadows. I took a couple of pictures with the aperture thrown wide anyway, knowing they would probably not turn out. I climbed the shaky stairs and took a few pictures of the sparse squalor from what might turn out to be artistically interesting angles – an old mattress, a half demolished kitchenette, a few scrawls on the walls. It smelled like an animal lived in it. Somewhere in the attic rafters, most likely, I thought, looking up through a part of the ceiling that had rotted and collapsed, at the nail-spiked underside of the roof. The stairs connecting the two levels were, inexplicably, in a closet, and I had a stomach-clenched feeling of spiritual descent as I went down to the first level. The door had once been locked, but it had been kicked in, and now swung listlessly on its frame.

I had hoped there might be some interesting architectural details inside to photograph, but the place had been mostly gutted. It smelled like piss. I snapped pictures of both the best and worst. A picture rail ran along the top, where paintings would have hung suspended rather than damage the wall, and the windows were deep set with thick bullseye molding, details that rang true for an old home. I wondered what it had looked like in its prime. The hardwood floors creaked, but they were still in relatively good condition, water stains notwithstanding. As I looked around, I mentally tabulated what it would cost to fix it all, return it to its past glory, and whether that was more or less expensive than bulldozing it and starting over. My rough figures ran pretty close together.

The kitchen was gone except for the remnants of its plumbing orifices. It struck me as almost obscene, the poor kitchen with its dressings stripped away. The bathroom was the same, a mirror shattered on the floor. Everything of even a little worth had been taken from it. Off the kitchen, there was a floor opening, which had probably once had a door on it, and a short set of stairs leading down to what was less than a basement but more than a crawl space. Despite the bright afternoon light coming in through the west-facing bay windows, shadows clung to the space so that I could not see down into it. I turned on the flash, and took a picture, almost an afterthought.

I had set my bag down earlier; I picked it up now, slung it cross-wise over my body, and pulled on my hat and fingerless gloves in anticipation of heading back out into the brisk early spring afternoon. I fished my keys out of my jacket pocket, and started towards the door. I went to the storage on my camera for a cursory review of the last shots I’d taken of the derelict house.

In the last shot, the shallow dirt basement, something glared up at me.

I stopped. The whole world seemed to shift, pivoting around that moment. The thing in the photo was human, or something like it, gaunt and ragged and filthy. The harsh light of the flash reflected off its eyes like an animal’s. Its jaw hung open. Its teeth weren’t right. Sharp and in a disarray of angles.

I closed the distance to the door with measured steps that did not betray my panic. I pulled the door. It was locked. Of course it was. Stupid – I flipped the deadbolt, turned the knob deliberately, knowing a frenzied exit would actually take longer, but terror was crawling up inside my head like a swarm of fire ants. The door opened.

I was OUT.

I closed the door behind me, held it there, and waited. I could see in through a dust-fogged window. Nothing stirred. No shadowy shapes crawled out of the basement. I glanced back at my car. I got my keys ready. As I let go of the door, I was sure I felt the knob tug, but maybe I didn’t. I leaped the porch steps and made it to my car in four strides, threw open the door, dove in, slammed the door, locked it.

I looked back at the house. It seemed to glower down at me, like I was being awfully dramatic for an intruder. I started the car and drove until I reached a gas station parking lot. I stopped. I breathed for several long minutes. I pulled out my camera.

The picture was still there. It had not disappeared in the cheery sunlight like a burned-away nightmare. I could see the piers holding up the house through her partially-transparent body – definitely not a living thing. I looked more closely at the gaunt – no, the STARVED figure, with its malformed jaw, threadbare and dirty clothing, its strange eyes – no, glasses, that’s what those were. What kind of spectre had glasses? It leaned away from the flash. Away from me. She was afraid. Without the initial shock of terror, it was a very different picture.

The house was on a major road out of my neighborhood. I saw it all the time, and remembered how I had let the surprise of her presence panic me. I remembered how she had been existing in that place for so long. It didn’t seem fair, even for a ghost. I showed the picture around; no one believed me, except my fiancee. They called it a clever photoshop. I couldn’t even argue; I was really good at photoshop and had a penchant for goofing around in that manner. What was more likely, that I’d taken a real picture of a real ghost, or that I’d made it up? I kept the picture.

I kept coming back to the picture.

 

I purchased the house. My fiancee had become my wife; she spent the night there before we bought it, and in the morning proclaimed she wasn’t afraid, she felt quite protected, like a welcome guest. We could live there. Fortunately for all of us, she was also a dentist and made a lot of money. We were going to need it.

At first we just fixed up the roof and the upper apartment, because that was easy and cheap to make that much, at least, liveable. A little at a time, I fixed the downstairs. I was glad my work was flexible in that manner. The foundation was sound, at least, but it seemed like everything else needed to be fixed. Plumbing. Wiring. Insulation. Drywall. Painting. Windows. Ceilings. More painting. Floors. Bathroom fixtures. Tiling. Kitchen everythings. Doors. Light fixtures. Still more painting. I must have fixed or replaced everything in that house, including removing the exterior stairs, undoing the wall down the middle, and rebuilding the entire set of interior stairs, remaking it from an awkward triplex to a single family home again.

It took far longer than I had ever expected, and cost much more than I’d estimated.

 

My wife and I still live in our haunted house. We raised our children here, and they all have interesting stories – good stories – about the ghosts, especially the Matriarch, as we call her. When I see her – usually out of my peripheral vision at night, or if I use the flash on a dark space, she doesn’t cower away from me. She stands tall, stays out of the basement, and is not afraid. We are all convinced she protects us. There are others – another woman, a child, a pitter-pattering cat – but the Matriarch is the one I feel like I know.

I pass other broken down homes, and I wondered who might be living there. Who might live right in front of us, unseen, suffering and alone.

Which is why, for the past seventeen years, I have volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. I might be the only one to know when we fix a haunted house, cursed/blessed as I am with the sight to see them, but we’re not the only things existing inside our broken homes. Strange that it took caring about the dead to motivate me to make things better for the living.

 

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