by Leslie Gonzalez
Eleven o’clock glared at me from the stove top, threatening me like the edge of a knife, and every minute after made me increasingly anxious about the obviously procrastinated project before me.
Sixteen, for me, was on track for becoming a hot mental-and-hormonal mess and hustling to finish a project worth a whole letter grade provided a first-class ticket on the angsty-teen express train.
A needling chill crawled up my spine, an invisible paranoia I’d been feeling for months now, but I quickly blamed it on the end-of-the-year school jitters. Marry the feeling with the fact my project was due in eight hours, and I had a formula for the perfect anxiety-induced disaster.
This was what I got for prioritizing fan fiction over homework.
“Are you almost done?” Dad said. He appeared from the L-shaped hall connecting the kitchen to my parents’ bedroom. Dad was freshly showered, and I could smell the Dove soap and the laundry detergent waft from his clothes as he walked to the fridge.
“Almost,” I said, hiding the lie in the surety of my tone. The glue stick and printed paper felt heavy in my sweaty, teenage palms.
He took an orphaned cup from the counter and poured himself a cup of water from the fridge. “Want me to stay up with you until you’re done?” Dad said. The words rushed out after he chugged down his glass.
I shook my head. “Nah, I should be done in an hour.” Another lie. Cold panic surged through me. There was no way I was going to let Dad watch me flounder, so I downplayed it enough to convince him.
Or Dad was just happy to crawl into bed.
“Don’t stay up too late and turn off the lights when you’re done.”
“’Kay,” I said, and glued a cartoon bubble to my white board. I heard my dad’s footsteps disappear down the hall, and his bedroom door sighed against the carpet before tapping the door frame, leaving it slightly ajar.
The relief was overwhelming, but brief. My project board was still mostly naked on the kitchen island counter. Construction paper shavings, markers, and abused kitchen scissors littered the surface like an arts and crafts massacre.
I had a lot of work to do.
The silence following my dad’s disappearance made me uneasy. It was too quiet. So quiet that I couldn’t hear my parents snoring or the passing of cars from the freeway two miles down the road.
The only noise I heard was the sound of my own breathing and the droning of the AC. The up- and downside of buying a newly developed house in the middle of nowhere was the unnerving silence.
A slight pressure pressed against my shoulders and ran down my back like an uninvited hand on a woman’s hip.
There was that needling chill again.
I rubbed the back of my neck; a thin weight rested there. The weight of a stare that I couldn’t shake or couldn’t quite place. It was the same gaze I would feel when I showered or lounged alone on my bed—leering and unsettling.
The sensation lingered and trailed over my arms like the whispering touch of fingers. Although my body was sweating from stress, goose bumps rose and lifted the hair on my arms.
It’s just your imagination, I thought with closed eyes. It’s like Mom said, we’re the only ones in this house, there is nothing here. You’re fine, no one is watching you.
The house was nothing more than snaking pipes and ruinous concrete over leveled sand before we moved in. We made trips down the freeway, following eastbound traffic on the I-10 until we saw the Spotlight 29 Casino tower, which stood on the boundary line between Indio and Coachella just to see the construction site where our new home would stand. The housing development behind the casino was the foundation of a new city conjured by a vision as attractive as a mirage. However, our new home was isolated. The city’s only connection to the rest of the world was tethered by a single overpass.
The house is new, I thought. Mom was right. I was just imagining things. Things like haunted houses are for Gothic manors and decrepit castles, or the East Coast. Scooby-Doo, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys—horror movie stuff. Like Mom said, I’d just end up going crazy. And I am not crazy.
Mom’s words became a repeated mantra, and I forced myself to work on my project. Eventually, I was hyperfocused enough to stay on task. The eerie silence returned, but I hummed a song to myself since I couldn’t play music while everyone was asleep.
My eyes flicked to the stove clock again. Twelve forty. I bit my lip, peeling the skin until it bled. My tongue tasted salt and iron. I resisted the urge to go after my fingernails next, but failed.
I took a seat on the island stool. The creak of wood groaned under my weight as I hunched over my work. That feeling of being watched was invasive.
Somewhere down the dark hall, I heard someone shift in my parents’ bedroom. It was paired with the faintest rise and fall of footsteps against their beige carpet, followed by the opening sigh of their bedroom door. Their steps were audible against the tile floors, a noted transition that signaled the end of my parents’ bedroom and the start of the hallway.
It’s probably Dad, I thought.
I relaxed a fraction. I was relieved that, for a moment, the silence would be broken, and the tension would be lifted with just seeing another human being, seeing my dad.
I turned toward the hall, anticipating his body to appear around the corner. I was so sure. I believed it so strongly that when I saw someone who was not my dad standing at the end of the hall, my shock was amplified and instantly turned into primal fear.
That’s not Dad! I thought with panic.
It was taller than Dad.
The figure was broad shouldered and heavier in presence. I saw it for only a rubber band snap of a moment, but in that fragment of time, I saw a fractured image of a man with a denim jacket, dirty jeans, and tattered work boots. Its face was a melted shadow of pocked indentations that mimicked human features. Its body fluctuated between person and a transparent black-and-purple shadow.
It was looking straight at me with that familiar leery gaze.
The shout I had prepared was severed at the back of my throat, guillotined by razor sharp fear. I leapt from the stool, tearing my eyes away from the shadow. The wood legs teetered and echoed in the kitchen.
I opened my mouth to shout for Dad, for anyone, but when I looked back at the hallway, the “man” was gone.
My mouth went bone dry, and I was petrified. I shook so hard that I couldn’t stand, and my hands were clumped in tight fists. I stared at the hall for one…two…three breaths.
“D-dad…?” My voice was a hoarse whisper. The air snapped from the tension like the springs to a triggered mousetrap. I was terrified. I was afraid that my speaking would attract the shadow.
A hundred questions came to mind, but the most startling one was What if it’s still here and I’m alone with it?
Oh God, that’s it, I thought. I’m crazy. I’ve gone completely psycho. Oh my god!
I stood in place until I thought my feet sank into the floor. The tile warmed to my body temperature, or was it me who cooled to the floor?
I approached the hallway. Where else would I go? The only people who could possibly help me were down the hall where that thing was.
The hall was dark. The corner even darker with uncertainty.
The fear of being alone in the kitchen with that lingering presence was greater than the fantasy my fear played for me. I rushed forward and flipped the switch, and I quickly beelined down the hall. The door to my parents’ room was opened, and I walked through.
“Dad?” I said with a harsh whisper.
He was awake in an instant. “What?” he said with a deep intake of breath. “What’s the matter?”
Mom, who was sleeping beside him, rose with matched panic. I swallowed hard, and I stopped myself for a moment.
What do I tell them? I thought after a moment of hesitation. “Guys, I think I saw…” What? A ghost? “I saw a ghost and now I’m scared”? “Can you guys do something about it? Can you make it go away?” This wasn’t a cockroach, and no one was in obvious danger. So, what was I going to say?
I glanced at my mom. I already knew her reaction. I anticipated the growl of irritation and the blooming anger of her impatience for waking her up in a panic. I knew she’d just tell me that I was imagining things and to go to bed.
I licked my lips, and I tasted salt and iron. “Nothing, uh…” I forced my voice to be calm, tried to level it out. I looked to my dad and said, “Could you stay with me in the living room until I’m done with my project? I’m almost done.”
Just as I had anticipated, Mom let out that familiar scowl, but it was mixed with relief. “Aye, Ellie,” she said, and flopped back to her pillow and curled to her side.
“Why, what happened?” Dad said. He didn’t wait for an explanation when he asked the question. Instead, he spoke as he rolled out of the covers and grabbed a pillow.
“I just got scared,” I said, thinking quickly. “I started hearing things, and I didn’t want to be alone.” This was as close as I could get to explaining what really happened. It wasn’t a flat-out lie, but it wasn’t the complete truth either. It was an acceptable truth, a believable truth that didn’t betray how I really felt. Because I told myself deep down, if my parents really knew the truth, they wouldn’t believe me. They wouldn’t take my side. I would feel more alone than I did standing stupidly in the kitchen not a few seconds ago, more alone than when I first told Mom about feeling like I was being watched only for her to tell me that I would go crazy, that it was all in my head.
I locked up the truth right then and there, and I convinced myself that I wasn’t just protecting myself, but I was protecting my family, protecting them from believing something was wrong with their daughter and their new home. That thought helped mask that raw terror and replaced it with the fears of a silly, teenage girl’s imagination gone wild, and I was okay with the misunderstanding as long as it meant having Dad standing guard in the living room.
“What did you hear?” Dad said, and dragged his feet over the carpet. The contrast between his feet and its feet was so different it was jarring. It made me feel guilty that I couldn’t differentiate my dad from whatever I saw earlier.
“I just scared myself,” I said quickly, following him down the hall and into the kitchen. The ice dispenser in the freezer groaned until it dropped ice cubes into its tray. “I started thinking of something scary, and I thought I heard something. It freaked me out. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Dad said, and tossed the pillow to the end of our couch. “We all imagine things that aren’t really there.”
I forced a smile. “You’re right,” I said, and straightened the stool back in place. The clock in the stove top turned one. The numbers, like the space around me, were cold, quiet, and empty.
Dad nestled into the couch, and his soft snores came quick. My heart was still banging in my chest, and my mouth was still dry. I picked up my glue stick and a piece of paper with an unstable hand.
I shivered, and I felt the weight of someone’s gaze on my body. It made my skin rise to a slow, familiar crawl along my neck and arms.
I’m not crazy. We’re the only ones here, I thought to myself.
With everyone’s eyes shut in the house, I looked at the hall again. The lights were off, but my eyes were wide open and waiting.
Leslie Gonzalez is a freelance writer and editor from San Diego, California. Her works of fiction are published in Mythos and Indie IT Press, and her editorial work is published on LOCALE, OK Whatever, and Flaunt. Her writing primarily focuses on entertainment, fiction, and commercial content creation. She earned her BA in Creative Writing from California State University, Northridge and her MFA in Fiction from University of California, Riverside at Palm Desert.