The Life We Left Behind by Craig Steven

When Frank’s family moved into the apartment downtown, his daughter swore it was haunted. Not with anything to back it up, of course – just with that certainty that, as a child of eight, she was always right.

His wife told Lucy she had it all wrong. “Apartment buildings in the big city aren’t haunted. You’re thinking of those depressing little cottages in the movies. Places with no neighbors for miles around, where serial killers spent their childhoods.” She took a quick glance around the living room, hidden from the sun by the derelict buildings outside their window and dreary gray curtains. “Then again, who’s to say a serial killer didn’t live here once?”

Frank agreed, if only silently. Not about the place being haunted; he just hated it here. The place served as a cruel reminder of his failures as a father, a husband, the home he’d bought when the money was constant. They lived well for a long while.

Then the layoffs at the firm started, but he had nothing to worry about. He was close to making partner. Why would they fire him?

So when they let him go, it came as a total shock, and for his ten hard years at Baarlaer, Davies, and McDaniel, they gave him 34 weeks severance. It wasn’t fair, but as an adult, fair was a fairytale.

“Daddy,” Lucy said. It was their third day at the apartment. He didn’t answer her immediately, because after a few days, he knew what was coming. It was the last thing he wanted to hear. She tugged at his shirt, persistent. He put his coffee down more aggressively than he intended.

“Yes, honey?” he said. He crouched and faked his best smile.

“Daddy, I hate this place.” She hiked up her nightgown and climbed onto the chair next to his. The handcrafted dining room set was out of place in this shoddy dwelling, its pallor fuzzy and gray no matter how persistent they scrubbed at the walls and changed the curtains.

“Why, babe?”

Lucy looked over at him, careful to avoid the mysterious stains on the countertop as she prepared breakfast. Her scowl was all the scolding he needed, but he shrugged it off. He didn’t want to be the father who didn’t listen, no matter how many times he needed to hear this tale retold.

“Well, it’s dirty. Very dirty. Gross. It stinks!” She smiled as if she’d made a joke. “And the man in my closet doesn’t like when I go to sleep. He kept talking to me and playing with my hair. I’m too tired to go to school, Daddy.”

“Now, now, none of that,” Lucy intervened. “You’re just nervous about starting at a new school. Trust me, Mare, a personality like yours, you’ll have no trouble making new friends.”

“Your mom’s right.” Frank ignored the hairs rising on the back of his neck. What kid didn’t see ghosts at that age, though? He remembered seeing things; something scraping slowly across his window, the closet door creaking open, a shadow running across the wall. Everything was a ghost before you hit puberty.

After breakfast, the girls got dressed; Mary to start her first day at school, Lucy to wait tables at Denny’s. They could no longer afford for her to be the dutiful housewife, yet another sign their American dream had been demolished.

“Did you make sure your phone was on?” Lucy asked. She finished getting ready, throwing cigarettes in her purse. She quit the habit a while ago, but a megaton worth of stress made you do the craziest things. “You never know when someone might call to set up an interview.”

He knew damn well his phone was turned on, due to his playing Clash Of Clans on the toilet for more than twenty minutes during his morning bathroom stay. Of course, he didn’t tell Lucy that. Every ounce of his free time should have gone toward finding a new, or at least a second, job, but he was sick of losing raids.

Just like that, Frank was alone in a stranger’s house. Every wall, window, door, even his own furniture, seemed out of place. Life had become abstract. The deafening silence warned him he shouldn’t be here.

Silence left, replaced by scratching from inside the wall.

He turned at the kitchen table, looking down the stretch of hallway (the only hallway) leading to the bathroom and both bedrooms.

Rats, he thought, both in terms of the animals and an expression of dismay. Why am I not surprised? He picked up Lucy’s umbrella and stalked toward the source of the noise. Usually these sounds disappeared as one grew closer. Now, however, they grew more ferocious. Frank pondered the size of these giants.

He crept down the hall, ears perked like a dog, trying to pinpoint the source. That bastard landlord had sold him on it (not that their options were vast) by telling Frank “this isn’t the best neighborhood, but you’ll never have to worry about critters.” Lying sack.

He opened the bathroom door and listened. Colder.

Frank peeked his head inside the larger bedroom, his and Lucy’s. Freezing cold, leaving only Mary’s room at the end of the hall. His blood boiled at the thought of the rodents nesting among her things, and so he jogged to cover the short distance.

The scratching came from her closet door. He crept closer, exaggerating his tiptoeing, feeling like a villain from Scooby Doo. From the sound of it, there were probably a dozen of them in there, tearing at the door and the walls. All he could do was open the door and beat as many of them to death with the umbrella as he could before they escaped to their burrow. Frank took a deep breath and pulled the knob.

As soon as he did so, their restlessness ceased. There wasn’t a trace of an echo to prove they’d been there at all. Boxes of Lucy’s clothes piled up inside, coats and shirts hung on the rack. He poked around everything, looking for any sign of them. There was no way he’d imagined them.

He bent down to inspect what looked like a tiny turd, but it was only a misplaced button. But, crouching just so, he saw a face hiding behind the clothes.

Frank leapt back, nearly tripping over his own feet, and did a double take. The closet was empty save for the scant sunlight coming through the curtains, highlighting his daughter’s belongings. He tried to control his breathing, clutching at his heart. It was this apartment, new and strange, that was getting to him. Telling himself the same things he had to tell his daughter.

Regardless, as he returned to the table to boot up the laptop, what Mary had said to him that morning tickled his brain – the man in my closet doesn’t like when I go to sleep.

A slight chill ran the length of his spine, but a few hours later, after applying to several more jobs, the incident was mostly forgotten.

*** *** ***

Frank pushed his glasses up his nose and leaned back against the headboard. He and Lucy had spent the last hour carefully going over their finances, deciding what bills they would pay late and what bills they wouldn’t pay at all, frivolous things like Netflix and their Dollar Shave Club subscription.

“We can’t stretch the severance any more than we already have,” he told her. “They fired me a year ago and only gave me eight months pay. We’re going to run out sooner or later. On top of that, I haven’t gotten a teaching gig in two weeks. Nobody’s calling, babe. Nobody.”

She put her hand on his thigh and squeezed. “We’re going to be fine, Frank. Just fine. I promise. Stop freaking out and relax. Panicking isn’t going to help. We need cool heads.”

He loved that his wife had always built him up, especially now, but she relied almost entirely, and blindly, on suffocating optimism. The facts were, no one was hiring right now. Not to his standards, anyway.

Mary laughed from the other room, alarming both of them. It was eleven o’clock, well past her bedtime, and up until now, she’d been completely silent. Maybe a compulsory thing? Not even a minute later, she laughed once more, this one similar to a shriek.

“I’ll take care of it,” Lucy said. She rolled out of bed.

“You sure, babe?” Checking on his daughter in the middle of the night was one of the only remaining tasks that made him feel useful.

“Yeah. You always check on her. Besides, I’m off tomorrow, so I’ll be sleeping in, anyway.” She smiled and blew Frank a kiss, setting off.

He pulled out his phone and opened Subway Surfers. As of today, he no longer held the high score among his list of Facebook friends. Henry had dethroned him, beating his score by a meager thousand points. He could beat that if he just concentrated. He opened the app and readied his thumbs for the chase.

A minute after leaving, Lucy returned, practically power walking. She held a smiling Mary in her arms, sitting on the bed and breathing as if she’d just run a marathon.

“Babe?” he said. “Lucy? What’s wrong?”

She rolled her eyes, shrugging. He shook her by the shoulder, urging her to speak. Mary looked around her parents’ bedroom, the smile on her face reminiscent of her laughter from moments earlier.

“I went in to check on Mary, see what was so funny. She’s sitting up in bed, laughing like she’s just heard the funniest joke in the world.” His wife smiled, genuinely. “She’s got that goofy laugh of yours, you know, how you snort a few times when something’s really funny.”

Frank chuckled. “You mean the only thing she got from me.”

“I asked her what was so funny. She said the man… the man in the closet had been showing her a few tricks. So I said, ‘Oh, yeah? Well, where is this closet man?’”

“And then, Frank, the door just opened. Like it was pushed from the inside. I grabbed her and got out of there. I’m jumping at shadows, aren’t I? There’s no such thing…”

As ghosts, he finished for her. Silently, of course.

He kissed them both on the cheek and stood, smoothing down his pajamas to stall for time. He’d already had one spooky encounter today. Another one wasn’t something he’d go to enthusiastically.

“I’ll check it out, all right? Put your mind at ease. There’s always a simple explanation. I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll come with you.” Lucy laid Mary on the bed, under the blankets. “Mare, you stay right here, okay? Mommy and Daddy will be right back.”

“Okay.” She smiled up at them. They walked out into the hallway. “Daddy?”

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“Don’t hurt him, okay?”

He walked down the hall without another word. Lucy followed slowly and stopped at the threshold, standing in the doorframe.

Frank didn’t blame her.

One glance told him everything. Both windows were open just the slightest, due to the broken heater they couldn’t turn off. The landlord claimed he’d get to it when he had the time. Even in the middle of autumn, they had to keep all the windows open if they didn’t want to bake.

“There’s your problem.” He walked to the window and stuck his hand into the screen. “I’ll buy a cheap lock to keep the closet from blowing open. Tonight I’ll just stick one of the boxes against it. That should help us all sleep a little better.”

“What would I do without you?” Lucy asked, relief filling her voice. With everything she had told her daughter, just like himself, she had let herself get spooked. Adults weren’t immune to imaginary ghosts, either, it seemed.

He swung open the closet door fully to grab one of Mary’s boxes. Inside, just in front of the hung coats and shirts, sat a white, sneering face, peering out as if looking into Frank’s very soul.

He shouted some curses he hadn’t used in years.

There was nothing there but unpacked clothes and boxes. There was one new edition,though, now grasped tightly in his shaking hand.

He remembered buying a halloween mask for a party at a friend’s house, before Mary was even a thought in her parents’ heads. It was a white, featureless face with holes for the eyes, nostrils and mouth, set in a grim, blank expression, with an elastic strap to keep it attached to your face. It was the only accessory he wore, and only because the e-vite said COSTUME REQUIRED in big, spooky letters at the bottom. He didn’t even remember having it at their old house. It wasn’t scary to look at, but at that moment, he found that nothing had ever frightened him so much in his life.

Mary laughed from the hallway, reinstating Frank’s near heart attack. Lucy had been utterly silent the entire time he stared down at the mask, but now she took their daughter into her arms as if there was a clear and present danger. Who knew – maybe there was.

“He said he would show you one of his tricks,” Mary said between giggles.

Frank forced a weak smile. He didn’t want either of them knowing of the sick feeling in his stomach.

“I thought you didn’t like this…” Lucy gulped and looked at Frank for support he couldn’t offer. “This man. I thought you said he bothered you.”

Lucy shrugged. “He’s nice. He likes me. And he’s so happy. You and Daddy are so sad all the time, and it makes me sad. But he’s happy.”

Frank laid a hand on Mary’s cheek.

“I know things are changing, hon. I don’t like it very much, either, and neither does Mommy. It’s not fun, and it’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be. Don’t argue about the cards you’re dealt in the game of life.”

“What does that even mean?”

“We can’t control everything that happens to us. We have to go with the flow. And this might suc-stink right now, but things will get better. I promise. In the meantime, maybe you shouldn’t make up ghosts to try to get Mommy and Daddy’s attention, okay?”

“I’m not making anything up, Dad! I swear!”

“Mary.” He gave her the sternest look he could muster, and the frightened look she returned broke his heart into a million pieces. “The man in the closet isn’t real. I don’t know how my old halloween mask got mixed in with your things, but that’s the only explanation for it. There’s nothing in your closet except for your clothes. Do you understand me?”

Before she could answer, the closet door slammed shut with a bang that echoed like a gunshot. Frank and Lucy flinched visibly, but their daughter remained perfectly still. “You made him mad,” she said, so low Frank didn’t think they were supposed to hear it.

His heart raced like a horse on derby day, but he spoke calmly. “The wind again. That’s all. This place is chock full of issues. I’ll give you that.” They bid their daughter goodnight for the second time and left the room, not before Frank propped the closet door closed.

Mary sat up the majority of the night, waiting for her friend to return.

*** *** ***

The circumstances of their situation, everything from the shitty apartment to Frank’s virtual unemployment to Mary’s obsession with an imagined poltergeist, had finally gotten to Lucy. She woke up on the wrong side of the bed one morning and Frank listened to her as she vented, happy she was finally getting it off her chest. Optimism had no choice but to submit to reality eventually.

Until he wound up in her crosshairs.

“Are you even looking for a job?” she asked. He’d been sitting at the kitchen table, dressed in his suit and tie in case a school called him last minute or someone called him for an interview. His wife paced around him.

He stood abruptly, his chair shooting out from behind him. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“Every time I look at you, you’re playing a game on your phone. When you’re on the laptop, apparently searching for jobs, you’re playing games on there, too, or watching videos.” She walked over and laid a hand on his arm. “I’m not attacking you, babe, I swear I’m not, I just-”

He slapped her hand away. She looked back at him, stunned. He had never laid a hand on his wife before. Look how far they’ve come. He shoved past her and turned when he was halfway out the front door.

“Don’t forget there were quite a few years when I was the one pulling twelve hour days six, even seven days a week. My job was a lot harder than the one you complain about having now, and you sat at home, doing god knows what with god knows who.”

“Frank, don’t leave me alone!” she yelled after him, but Frank had already slammed the door behind him, storming down the hallway.

He waited for the elevator at the end of the hall. For just a second, he debated on taking the stairs, but no way in hell. Junkies on the borderline of overdose crowded every landing, with dealers giving those few still lucid their next fix. Every light in the building flickered a moth’s wings, those that weren’t burnt out.

He knew saying so wouldn’t do him any good, especially so many times, but he really did hate the place.

Walking around the block a few times to clear his head was all he planned to do. Nothing Lucy said was untrue, and that was the hardest part to accept. He’d been turned down for dozens of jobs, all of them he was overqualified for. Each rejection pushed him closer to the brink, and Lucy throwing it in his face magnified his many failures.

You can’t hold a grudge against her forever, Frank. She’s your wife, and she has every reason to be upset. Especially with you, who lost your job in the first place and dipped way too far into the savings account two years ago for renovations on a house you had to sell way below market average, anyway. Look at you. Husband of the year. Father, too. Pathetic.

He walked around the block just once, and that was enough to drive him back inside. When they got back on their feet, and he promised himself every day they would, they would move far away from here and never look back.

Apologize to her. Tell her you would have bought her flowers if you’d had the money. Don’t let her think you hate her. You need to present a solidified front now more than ever. If not for you, then for Mary.

He rode the shoddy elevator to his floor and walked down the hall, practicing the speech he’d prepared on the way back. He took a deep breath and opened the door to the apartment.

The monologue died on his lips.

Lucy hung by the neck from the ceiling fan fixture, courtesy of Frank’s belt. She swayed back and forth with the rhythm of the rickety appliance. Her face, usually so pale and made up and just plain gorgeous, hung slack in shades of purple. On the kitchen table, looking up as if to enjoy the view, sat the halloween mask he never packed.

*** *** ***

He didn’t know if the tears would ever stop. Mary laid next to him in the bed he and his wife once shared, cuddling his arm. She had cried her own tears, but for her, her mother had simply vanished. Frank couldn’t bring himself to tell his daughter the truth. She would hear it from him one day. It didn’t have to be now.

“Daddy,” she said into his shirt. She hadn’t looked him in the eye since he had pulled her out of school. What child wants to see a parent, their only remaining parent at that, torn to shreds from the ground up? “Daddy, please stop being sad. You said last night, we would be okay. We’ll be happy. You be happy, I be happy, and when Mommy comes back, she can be happy, too.”

He didn’t have the heart to tell her that barring a miracle (or an abomination, depending on who you asked), Lucy would never come back. She was dead, killed by her own hand, and all because… because of what? She was the most positive person he’d ever known. One little spat, no matter how harsh, would change that. She wouldn’t force him to live like this without her, or Mary, so why-

An idea flashed, one he so quickly pushed away he barely had time to grasp at it and recognize it.

Did Lucy kill herself, or had she fallen victim to the poltergeist his daughter promised actually existed? Though he paid it little mind at the time, especially in comparison to his wife’s corpse, why had the mask been right there? Did this malicious spirit dig its claws into her at her most vulnerable? He simply couldn’t accept it as the truth, though a sinister presence being the cause was a bit more relieving than his loving wife truly resorting to suicide.

He wiped the tears from his face. Time to put on a strong front. “Come on, Mare, let’s get some sleep. We have to be up early.” The police would likely confirm Lucy had killed herself, so he would have trouble claiming her life insurance policy. Some world. There was no sending Mary to school. So they were stuck here, in a place he hated so much more than he did now than when Lucy was around.

Mary got comfortable, wrapping her tiny arms around him and holding on tightly. “Do you think Mommy will come back while we’re sleeping?”

Frank sniffed and felt his throat tighten as he muttered the lie. “Maybe, baby. Maybe she will.”

“I hope so, Daddy. I don’t want to be sad any more.”

*** *** ***

Frank was sleeping, albeit lightly, when Mary got out of bed a couple hours later. “You,” she said.

He barely registered her feet padding quickly across the hardwood floor, but he woke up the instant he heard her bedroom door creak open. He threw off the blankets and walked after her, disoriented. For a sweet second he allowed himself to believe Lucy’s suicide was a dream he’d woken from.

He walked into Mary’s bedroom. She stood in front of the closet, wide open and pitch black. Her arms hung at her sides and she stared at the darkness like she would a television playing The Backyardigans.

“Mary, baby, what are you doing?” He yawned and held out his hand. “Let’s go back to bed.”

She turned around, all smiles. “I can’t, Daddy. He wants to take me with him. He said Mommy-” A pair of bone white, long-fingered hands wrapped themselves around both of her shoulders. Her eyes grew wide as she was pulled back into the closet amidst the junk.

“No!” Frank screamed and ran after her, exhaustion erased. He ripped clothes from their hangers and threw them down, emptying the closet in less than a minute.

“Give her back to me!” he screamed. “Not her, too! Not her, goddamn you! Give her back to me! Please!

Neither his daughter nor the demon who had taken her were here any more. He punched and kicked holes in the wall, screaming Mary’s name until his throat went raw and long after that, too. Neighbors on every side joined in, which meant “Shut the hell up” in apartment complex morse cord, but they would never quiet him. Not until he had her back.

He was a man possessed, one who’d had the only two people who mattered ripped from his grasp. As he commenced ripping down the drywall, sobbing and cursing furiously, something hit him in the small of the back. He turned quickly, thinking Mary and perhaps Lucy had been returned to him.

At his feet sat his downfall.

*** *** ***

“Mr. Straub,” the officer said, knocking on the door. He hated this. Having to come to the same place twice in one day, first for a suicide, now for a noise complaint. The neighbors who’d called said he was screaming and crying, and why shouldn’t he? Inconsiderate assholes, the lot of them. Let the person they loved most die suddenly and see how they took it.

“Mr. Straub, could you please open up?” He knocked more vigorously, louder this time. A few tenants poked their heads out, but seeing no excitement, ducked back inside until there was something to gossip about.

He knocked one last time and phoned the number Straub had given him earlier. No answer. Not even from the daughter. Burrows backed up against the wall and, fearing the unthinkable, kicked down the front door. It swung open on rusty hinges, and the hallway swarmed with tenants once again, for good this time.

He had a hand on his holster as he walked through the house, not that he thought he would need it. It was past midnight and the house was pitch black. There were no lamps on. Let them be asleep, Burrows thought. Please, for the love of god, let them be asleep.

The living room and kitchen showed no signs of life. Neither did the hallway, the bathroom, or the master bedroom. Only when he reached Mary Straub’s bedroom did Officer Burrows meet that which he feared the most.

Frank Straub lied on the floor, his wrists slashed wide open, blood pooling around him. In his hand was a shard of a mirror, apparently smashed during an outrage; the room had been torn to smithereens. The small bed, frame and all, had been thrown against the wall. Every dresser was void of its drawers. The contents of the closet lied scattered around his corpse. Once he realized there was absolutely no sign of Lucy Straub, Officer Burrows radioed for backup.

The room was the epitome of chaos. Burrows didn’t think much of the cheap halloween mask straddling Straub’s chest, had barely even noted it. The smile on its face creeped him out, but other than that, he thought nothing of it.

Nothing at all.

The End

 

 

About the Author: Craig writes horror because he’s always enjoyed having the bejesus scared out of him. Now he wants to do the same thing to other people, and he likes to think he’s pretty good at it. He reads books, mostly horror and psychological thrillers, watches movies in the same vein, and sometimes you’ll catch him watching rap battles. He smokes menthol cigarettes and wears fancy aftershave. He lives right by Cincinnati. Check him out at craigwrites.com.

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