It was three in the morning when the ghost returned to visit Steven.
At first, shortly after his family moved into the house, there was only the sound of heavy, careful footsteps in the night. Alarmed, Steven would leave the imagined safety of his bed and venture down the hall, terrified of finding an intruder. But it was always the same; the kids fast asleep and unaware, the doors bolted, the windows locked.
In the morning he and his wife found it amusing, a curiosity to liven up the anecdotes they told about their new home. Neither, of course, believed in ghosts.
That was how it started.
What followed was a lull, two weeks of undisturbed and blissful sleep. And then, an escalation: the footsteps again, this time breaching Steven's room and stopping just beside his bed. After that the mornings brought no peace. The restless nights made tempers flare, and he grew angry each time his wife dismissed his claims, blaming it all on the shifting frame of a century old house.
Steven, for his part, was no longer sure what he believed.
Soon his wife let the news 'slip' to his mother. "I don't understand why you would worry," his Mom said, over his protest that the whole thing was blown out of proportion. "Our family has owned that house since it was built. The only people to pass away there are your great-grandparents, and even if they could come back, you know they would never harm you."
They were words meant to comfort, but did the opposite. He felt no kinship with a couple dead and gone twenty years before his birth. Nor could he fathom caring about his own descendants, at least those he wouldn't live to see. If there were angry spirits in the house, why would they be obliged to tolerate him? For the sake of a relationship four generations removed?
That was the night the figure appeared. There were footsteps of course, loud enough to wake him but no one else (although, to be fair, he never really slept well at night anymore, surviving on catnaps scattered throughout the day). They came forward slowly but confidently, as if the spirit no longer cared to mask its presence, and again, they paused by the bed. Ignoring his fear Steven opened his eyes.
Before him stood a shadow, a man-but-not-a-man. While there was no physical form, the shifting darkness that was its whole worked to craft an illusion of strength and bulk. Through the pressing, psychical weight of his fear Steven sensed a strange familiarity in the figure. Remarkably, he found himself begin to get out of bed.
Not yet, a voice said, and he had no doubt it could be heard only in his mind. Not yet.
That was the beginning of the end.
In the weeks to come Steven would spend his nighttime hours awake, fighting off sleep with a ferocity fueled by fear. His work began to suffer; his children, sensing something wrong, grew distant, and his wife, concerned, begged him to see a doctor. When he refused all pleas for help he found himself banished to the living room couch. For Steven it seemed a hidden blessing. The shadow man seemed contained to the upstairs level, and his few nights on the couch gave him his first true rest in months.
On the night of the final visit there was no sound, only an icy shiver that wrenched Steven awake with a stunning abruptness. The figure stood at the head of the couch, leaning over and staring - if it had eyes at all - directly into Steven's face.
Now, it said.
The figure began to walk away, heading for the kitchen. Steven's body, his mind, his very soul screamed caution, and he resolved to stay where he lay. It was a surprise to him, then, that he found himself on his feet and following the form. They entered the room together, and in front of his eyes the figure disappeared.
Here again Steven's body reacted against his wishes. His head screamed retreat, and yet he looked frantically for the figure, as if instead of vanishing he'd simply lost sight of him in a crowd. Through the pantry lay the door to the basement stairs, and the sound of the familiar footsteps. He opened the door(retreat!) and began to descend. His eyes had grown accustomed to picking out form and figures in the dark of night, and they came quickly to rest on a figure below.
On his way down his foot stubbed against an item on the stairs, and hearing it begin to fall he instictively reached out. His hand came to rest around a taped handle, and instantly registered it as his son's little league bat.
At the same moment he noticed the cellar door hanging off its hinges, and the glint in the shadow's hand as it rushed up the stairs. Before these thoughts were complete the intruder slammed into Steven, slashing at him in a frenzy. The first blow struck harmlessly against the bat.
A second later the man was on him again, grabbing the bat and tossing it aside before raising the knife for a final blow. Steven's eyes went from the knife, to the eyes of his assailant - and then to the familiar figure emerging from the dark.
Pitch dark arms ignored the blade and encircled the intruder's neck from behind, leveraging him up and off of Steven. It was then, only for a moment, that he saw the face of his visitor. There was no face as we know it, simply the impression of one, but in its imagined features was not one face but many; his great-grandfather and his father before him, his sons and his future grandchildren.
Even in the surreal chaos of that moment he knew in the end the fight would be his own. The intruder continued to struggle and the shadow grew paler, and in the dark Steven's hands found the bat once again.
Now, the shadow said, and Steven knocked the intruder to the ground.
He would see the shadow only once more in his lifetime. Years later, he and his wife would babysit their firstborn grandchild. In the middle of the night Steven stirred and wandered into the baby's room, and sat in the rocker alongside the crib. From the corner of the eye he noticed a shadow distinct from the darkness, but did not turn to meet it.
Together, they were content to stare into the face of the future.
- Me, 2009