On Friday they went to a house that a kid in English class had said was haunted. They stood before the dark property, armed only with scuffed-up flashlights powered by batteries scavenged from the backs of a couple of Kate’s less-essential remote controls. Kate crumpled a long-abandoned Mountain Dew under her heel intentionally, throwing some noise onto the too-quiet scene. Ryan, on the other hand, was totally still, giving the house room to impress him. He swung the glowing beam around to the path before them before looking over to Kate. They both knew that he wouldn’t take a step until she did, though they would disagree on the motives for this deference.
The house was supposedly the site of the grisly suicide of a teenage girl from generations before, though, of course, every one of those details was the requisite amount of vagueness for an urban legend. The English class kid had offered this information unprompted in the bustling mayhem that always preceded the teacher’s entrance. The boy, one of the more excitable theatre kids with a flair for the dramatic that a role as Ensemble Cowboy in the school production of Crazy For You hadn’t quite satiated, had risen to a frenzied falsetto in an attempt to command the attention of his classmates.
“She was the ugliest girl in school,” he was practically screaming. “She was sad because she never got any dates.”
At this point he was interrupted by a bored girl with heavy eyelids who was trying to appear as though she were almost fully preoccupied with the volume of Dracula in her hand: “Oh, yeah, and that’s totally enough reason for someone to be suicidal.”
“Yeah, she was ugly as hell,” continued the boy, not one to pick up on tones.
“So, anyway. It was prom night, and the quarterback of the football team asked her to prom. It was her dream come true. She got all dressed up-“
“He asked her the night of, and she still had time to get a dress? That’s incredible.”
“You’re ruining the story,” he snapped at her. She somehow managed to roll her eyes without looking up from her book, a feat of derision that impressed Ryan to his core.
“Yeah, so, anyway, it was a prank, and the quarterback stood her up. And she was so distraught-”
“She was, shut up, so she was so distraught that she ran up to her attic, still all dressed up in her prom clothes, and she hung herself.”
“Where is this place?” Ryan asked. The drama kid seemed genuinely thankful for Ryan’s interest, and turned his full attention to him.
“It’s over on Maple. I’ve been there myself.”
Ryan tapped his fingers on the desk, rattling off the percussionary rhythm of the theme from Ghostbusters, which no one either noticed or appreciated.
“Did you see anything?”
This was obviously the question the kid had always hoped someone would ask. His eyes widened and his posture became intentionally bent toward Ryan, like a spring coiling specifically to release this piece of information.
“We saw… her.”
The reverent act came clattering down as the boy resumed his natural snippiness, annoyed at Ryan for treading on his portentous line.
“The ugly dead girl, who do you think,” he turned back to face the front of the room as the teacher entered, cutting off any opportunities for additional questions. Ryan wondered whether the kid had called her ugly to her face.
The ghost house was something Ryan had known Kate had to know about. Kate was the one who was always spending spare change on secondhand books about Big Foot and researched local hauntings anytime she went anywhere. It’s not that she believed the stuff; she just loved a good ghost story. Except for the past few months, when she had become kind of a ghost herself. Kate was determined, it seemed, to get into every good college in the continental US, and everything else, Ryan included, had been put on the back burner. Even if the sad ghost girl materialized before them in all her ghostly glory, Ryan would still say that Kate’s decision to leave her dungeon of essays and transcripts for the night the most shocking part of the evening.
As they neared their destination, Ryan had halted their conversation to point out a stop sign standing on the corner across from the house.
“That sign is supposed to bleed,” he whispered to Kate, “Every night, because of the ghost girl. They’ve replaced the sign three times, but the blood always comes back.”
Kate shook the bangs out of her face with a sharp left-right of her head and squinted in the direction of the sign in question.
“You said she hanged herself, didn’t you?”
She would use the right past tense, he thought, not saying hung like their classmates would have. Kate was a stickler for that kind of thing. Ryan nodded.
“Then why all the blood? That’s a particularly bloodless way to go. It’s not like the splatter or whatever from her grisly death is still hanging around.”
“I think it’s more of a general ghostly thing to do.” He liked that she was being playful in her skepticisms, that she had come here at all with him. He could tell that her obstinacy was playful; if it weren’t, he would still be having this conversation with the outside of her front door. “Like an abstraction. I don’t think it’s supposed to be a direct result of the actual grisly death. Call it creative ghostly license.”
“But why the stop sign? How is that even remotely related to her or her death? Did she have a particular passion for stopping?” She slapped a mosquito that had perched on her arm.
“You know, if you’re too much of a dick about it she probably won’t come out at all,” Ryan hazarded. This was met with a silence that was both sardonic and sincere. Ryan smiled, knowing that there was a part of Kate that kept her lips shut firm against any retort; that was one of the parts of Kate that he loved the most. The part that, after the day came to an end, despite any logic or reason, wanted to truly see a ghost. They stopped at the driveway of the property for a second, Ryan’s eyes resting on Kate’s. She intentionally looked at him while taking the first step over the pavement crack.
Ryan was the one to try the door and find it unlocked but Kate was the one who, once she realized the door was open, kicked it in “to show the ghosts they meant business.” She seemed to be joking more about taking the ghost thing seriously, or else becoming more serious about joking about it. Ryan couldn’t tell which.
He hadn’t known what he was expecting when he showed up on her doorstep earlier that night with two empty flashlights. She’d been locked in her room working on applications for weeks, breaking only for food, sleep, or to maintain her GPA. He knew better than to ever try and get between Kate and Kate’s academic goals, but weeks without seeing more of her than a messy ponytail in a green scrunchie three desks ahead of him had driven him to desperation. Though he had spent the walk over to her house debating pitches, by the time he had reached her door all he had composed was “I hear there’s a ghost in a house up by Maple.”
Though he had hoped for it, what he had never expected was for her to quietly close the extensive Vassar application she was still clutching with a tidy snap, throw on the hoodie draped over her work-chair, and join him without further debate.
Inside the house was tidier than Ryan would have expected. It was definitely abandoned, but not unloved. A peek into the master bedroom revealed that the bed was still made, sheets folded crisply and decorative pillows abounding. Smiling faces were held to the refrigerator in the kitchen with red and yellow flower magnets and forks and spoons still sat in the drying rack. Kate tapped at a thankfully empty fishbowl sitting on the counter.
“What happens now?” She asked.
Ryan slid open a counter drawer at random, finding within it a stack of receipts, bundled together with an oversized paperclip.
“Apparently she appears if you make fun of her.”
He busied himself flipping through the records of grocery transactions long past in the disgusted silence that followed.
“People make fun of her?” When Ryan looked over at her Kate had straightened up and her eyebrows were pressing themselves together on her forehead in the clearest picture of disapproval.
“In what universe is that okay? She killed herself because she was bullied for being ugly and unpopular, and the response of our peers is to continue the abuse?”
She huffed, which Ryan, of course, also loved.
“That’s not fair at all,” she continued.
“We don’t have to,” Ryan replied, attempting to placate her.
“Good,” the response came. “Is there anything else?”
Ryan gestured down the hall.
“The attic where she hung herself–”
“–hanged,” Kate interjected.
“Hanged herself,” Ryan amended, “is supposed to be that way.”
The two of them came to stand in front of a set of collapsible wooden stairs leading up to a darkened hole in the ceiling. Without speaking they both came to the conclusion that the attic, interesting though it might have been, would not be included in the night’s itinerary. They continued back down the hall towards the front door. When they stood on the small, faded Persian rug laid out on the landing, Ryan turned to Kate.
“Was there anything else you wanted to do?” He asked her.
She nodded before turning back to the empty, dark house and raising her voice.
“I’m sorry people make fun of you so much, “ she called out down the hall, towards the presence that may or may not have still resided in it. “And that people in high school are such asshats. If it makes any difference, I think you would have done way better in college. Have a good night.”
Somewhere in the walk from the front door to the driveway, Kate’s right hand found its way into Ryan’s left. Before turning for home, Kate paused in front of the old stop sign, squinting at it once more.
“You know, I think I do see a little bit of blood.”
Ryan grinned at the sign, not daring to look at Kate lest something in the air shift and make this moment cease to be happening exactly as it was, the October air swirling around them and the leaves rustling in the street.
“Oh, definitely,” he replied, and the two of them turned their flashlights toward home.