By: A.E. Santana
Names of people have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
My hometown of Brawley, nestled at the bottom corner of Southern California, was a desert forced into an agricultural community by canals, plows, and the stubborn will of humans. In my youth, Brawley was the kind of small town where high school football reigned supreme, the drive-in movie theatre played double features, and the fields of hay and alfalfa eventually transformed back into the desert, which thrived without human contact—a place of burrowing owls, snakes, coyotes, and ghosts.
In high school, I had a friend named Bethany, who floated in and out of our friend group. There was a large group of us, and within that gathering, there was a subgroup of friends, which included Bethany, another girl named Audrey, and me. Most of us came from dysfunctional families, so we created our own family. We called each other cousin or sister, a close-knit group of teenage girls who loved each other fiercely and discussed and researched the paranormal. We had all had supernatural experiences and were relieved to have each other’s understanding—it bonded us together.
In eleventh grade, Bethany seemed to withdraw from our group. Audrey and I were disturbed by this. Watching one of our sisters remove herself from us was a red flag. We wondered if it was because of her home life; Bethany’s father and older brothers often caused havoc in her home. But there also was Sammy—the ghost that haunted Bethany.
Bethany first told us about Sammy when we were sophomores. Drama geeks, we were hanging out behind the high school auditorium, waiting for our drama teacher to open the door so we could start building sets and creating costumes for the upcoming play—The Odd Couple.
It was spring, but it was Brawley, so it was hot. Standing in the shade of the massive, old building, sweat gathering at our brows, underarms, and other crevices, Bethany told Audrey and me that there was a spirit of a boy who followed her around.
“He’s been around for as long as I can remember,” Bethany said.
“What does he do?” Audrey asked. She was good at asking questions.
“He’s just with me. Watches me.” Bethany paused. “Says he loves me.”
“So, he’s a good ghost?” Audrey asked.
“What does he look like?” I asked. Although I believed in the supernatural, I also believed in liars, and that anyone—parents, teachers, friends—would lie. I wondered if she’d be ready with an answer.
Bethany smiled. But she didn’t look at us when she smiled. It was a smile for herself, and my stomach turned because I believed that smile. “He’s really cute,” she said. “His eyes are so green.”
Our drama teacher opened the back door to the auditorium. We filed inside, leaving the discussion of ghosts momentarily behind.
After initially trusting us with Sammy that sweaty afternoon, Bethany began to share more about him. This continued into our junior year of high school. Times stolen during lunch hour, drama class, sometimes after school, but mostly during tutorial, or study hour, which the three of us shared, were used by Bethany to tell Audrey and me more about Sammy. Our tutorial class was held in the school library and was headed by our drama teacher. There, we were able to steal away into the rows of books and quietly talk amongst ourselves.
Bethany would tell us where Sammy was standing in that moment, what he thought about our teachers, and once mentioned that he thought Audrey was cute. Sammy never talked about me, and while he answered Audrey’s questions, he never answered mine. Bethany described Sammy as a bit older than us, tall, and good looking. He told her they had known each other in their past lives and that they belonged together. He would follow her around, like an older brother, glaring at boys who came too close.
I wondered if Bethany was making Sammy up as a way to ask for attention. I knew her home life was becoming more volatile, but also knew she would never seek help directly—maybe that’s where Sammy came in?
One day, I walked with Bethany to our morning classes. Our high school was designed as an outdoor campus, and although it was early, the sun blared down on us. Bethany told me that Sammy was upset with her because she had been getting close to one of our male classmates.
While Audrey was good at asking questions, I was good at being a direct asshole. “Sammy doesn’t sound very caring,” I said. “He sounds possessive.” We stood a little way off from my English class; other students walked by us, ignoring us. My backpack was heavy on my shoulders. I gripped the straps to help shift the weight.
Bethany stared at me with hurt eyes and said, “He doesn’t like you.”
I stared back, unflinching, and said, “He doesn’t have to like me, you do.”
“He loves me,” she said.
The sun burned my scalp through my dark hair, but our eyes were locked so I didn’t move. “I love you.” My voice was heated, urgent, and sincere.
Her blue eyes softened. “Not like Sammy.”
“No,” I said. “Not like a ghost. Like a living friend who is here with you.”
Bethany hesitated, then took a step closer to me. Intimate. Still, no one paid any attention to us. “I know,” she said, her voice lowered. Was she trying to hide her words from Sammy? “That’s why he doesn’t like you.” Then she was gone, disappeared behind the corner of the building to her own class. The sun streamed into my eyes, blinding me.
After school, Audrey and I sat in her bedroom, and I told her about my confrontation with Bethany. We each had a bowl of Top Ramen and sat on the ground near her bed, using the mattress as a tabletop for our soup. The TV was on in the background, masking our conversation from any close-by adults.
“I don’t like how controlling Sammy is,” Audrey said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Manipulative.”
Believing in Sammy’s existence was still up in the air for me, but I did believe that Bethany needed help. So, I talked about Sammy as if I truly believed, because whatever he symbolized was real enough to my friend.
Audrey gazed at her soup as she swirled the noodles around in her bowl with a spoon.
I watched her, recognizing her pensive stare. “What?” I asked.
“She told me,” Audrey started, cautious in sharing someone else’s information, “that sometimes he takes control of her body.”
My head spun. What? My stomach twisted. Another part of me, young and selfish, felt hurt. Why hadn’t she told me?
“She said you wouldn’t understand,” Audrey said, still staring at her soup. She had a knack for pulling thoughts right out of my head. “She said Sammy didn’t want you to know. He doesn’t like you.”
“He likes you,” I said, not defensive, just understanding the situation.
“But you don’t like him?” I asked.
She tore her eyes from the Ramen and looked at me. “No,” she said. “I don’t know if he’s a ghost…”
I gulped. “Demonic?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “He doesn’t feel demonic.” Audrey was the most “sensitive” in our subgroup. Some people called it psychic or mediumship. To us, who all had different ranges of it, it was just called an annoyance, especially for Audrey. Still, I always deferred to her when it came to feeling out a situation.
“He could be,” I said, “just a possessive ghost. Humans can get crazy jealous and be assholes. That doesn’t stop when they’re dead. Just because something’s evil doesn’t mean it’s a demon.”
“Whatever it is, he’s changing her.”
I put my fork down and sat up. “What do you mean?”
“I saw him,” Audrey said. “I talked to him.”
“As a ghost?”
She shook her head. “As Bethany.”
The next day, Bethany showed up to tutorial all smiles and with a bounce in her step. When I first met Bethany, I thought she was one of the happiest people in the world, but quickly discovered that the more cheerful her demeanor, the more hurt she was harboring. After roll call, the three of us snuck away into the rows of books.
“Can we ask you something?” I asked, barely giving us time to find a comfortable place on the floor.
“Sure,” Bethany said.
“Is Sammy here?” I asked.
“Always,” Bethany said. We were silent for a while; then she said, “He knows.”
“Knows what?” I asked.
She looked at me, her blue eyes concerned. “That you know.”
“What do I know?” I said measurably, evenly.
Bethany hesitated. “That he can…get inside me.”
Audrey stared at us. Her cool fingers gingerly laid across my elbow, support. My heart filled with courage. “Why is that a problem…that I know?” I asked.
The tension in the air weighed down on us, but we didn’t squirm, didn’t flinch away, or shudder. We all held our ground. “He’s afraid of you,” Bethany said.
I wanted to laugh. If all of this was bullshit, it was a good flattery job. But Bethany’s eyes were serious, so I kept my face stoic. “I love you,” I said. “If he loves you, then he shouldn’t be scared. I’m here to take care of you, too.”
“He doesn’t want you to!” Bethany’s voice lifted and sounded strained, unlike her, masculine. The change in her voice sent sick shudders through my body. I wanted to lick my dry lips to moisten them, but I didn’t want to show any signs that I had been affected.
Audrey shushed us. She was our lookout, our acting sentinel.
“You don’t belong to him,” I said, my voice low. “You’re our friend, too.”
I heard Audrey’s voice echo an agreement, but I was distracted with the way the color drained from Bethany’s face, the twitch in her eyelids, and wicked curve of her mouth. She blinked, and her bright, pale blue eyes turned unmistakably green.
Oh my God. I heard the blood rush in my head as my heart pounded. My body hair stood up so violently, it hurt my skin as the goosebumps pulled it taut. I involuntarily clenched my jaw. This was real. Not a fantasy game that poor, abused, or neglected children played to call out for attention. Not a silly story to impress or frighten friends.
I saw the change come over my friend. She was Bethany and she wasn’t Bethany. It was her face, her features, but not her vibrant, proud looks or sad, pale eyes. Those were not her eyes.
I shifted my jaw and it popped painfully. “Sammy?” I asked.
Bethany’s face smirked and her head gave a short nod. I slowly turned to look at Audrey for confirmation. She nodded.
I turned back to Bethany. The rows of books that originally seemed like protective towers were now only flimsy shelves. “Hey, Sammy,” I said. “Can Bethany come back?”
“You don’t want to talk to me?” The voice was far away, but clear and masculine. Strong and heavy, not like Bethany at all.
“You don’t even like me,” I said, confused and nervous. I tried to stay calm. Audrey’s cooling presence at my side kept me grounded.
“I don’t have to. Remember?” the strange voice from Bethany’s mouth said.
“Tutorial is going to end soon,” I said, switching tactics. “Bethany is going to have to go to class.” I was surprised how strong my own voice was, because inside I felt as if I was falling apart. Was this a joke? No, those weren’t her eyes. Green, they were green then, not blue.
“She doesn’t want to go to class,” the voice, his voice, Sammy’s voice said.
Banter. Okay. I was good at that. My nerves quieted as I let my attitude take over. “Who does?” I asked, flippant.
Audrey looked at her watch. What would happen when the bell rang?
“Are you going to go to class for her?” I asked Sammy. My mouth was moving, egging him on. I felt Audrey’s anxiety rise, a quivering heat to my right, as I goaded on this entity.
“I’m not leaving,” he said. “She’s mine now.”
“You need to leave,” Audrey said. “The bell is going to ring.”
Sammy moved Bethany’s head so he could look at Audrey. He reached out and gently caressed Audrey’s fair cheek with the back of Bethany’s fingers. Audrey’s eyes went wide. But she stood her ground. Bethany had said that Sammy thought Audrey was cute. I watched them for a moment, uncertain of what was happening or what to do. Sammy moved Bethany’s fingers down Audrey’s face and wrapped them around her neck. Audrey, cool as ever, didn’t react, but I did.
I shot to my feet, anger propelling me upward. Bethany’s hand fell away from Audrey. My movement made Audrey jump and Sammy slid Bethany’s body slightly away from us. “Bethany,” I said, fury seething in my voice. Green eyes focused on me. “Don’t let Sammy hurt Audrey.”
The eyelids twitched again, and I saw her shoulders jerk.
“Bethany,” I said again. “I want to talk to Bethany.”
A shudder went over Bethany’s body. She turned in and hugged her sides as if she had a stomachache. Audrey stood up next to me. Bethany looked up at us, eyes bloodshot but blue again. She said, in a voice weak and strained, but hers, “Take me home.”
Standing in the library, the bell about to ring, Audrey and I reached down and lifted Bethany to her feet. We stabilized her, then grabbed our things. Intuitively, Audrey and I positioned Bethany between us. We didn’t talk. Didn’t need to. Audrey and I seemed to operate on the same wavelength. I felt powerful and solid, rooted to my friends and urged on by my eagerness to protect them.
The three of us, a row of teenage girls, silent with stone-set faces, walked through the library with a mission. The bell rang. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw our instructor and other students stare at us, but no one said a word.
We were the invisible students. Drama geeks, literature nerds. We didn’t wear expensive clothes, and we still carried around Lisa Frank stickers. We didn’t get bullied, but we also didn’t get invited to parties. Usually, nobody in high school—students, teachers, or staff—saw us. But that day they did. They saw us and they felt us.
As we moved through the masses of students rushing out of class, the crowd opened for us. It was a strange sensation, as if the entire student body knew, on some level, that something important or serious or powerful was taking place. It reminded me of the Red Sea parting for Moses. People seemed to reverently move out of our way. They didn’t jump or scatter; they saw—or sensed—us coming. They moved aside from us and watched us pass like a parade. Down the hallway, out into campus, past instructors, administrative staff, and security, we calmly made our way out of the school.
Leaving the school campus, I felt the energy break around us and knew that whatever glamour or force that was around us at school was gone. We now had to get Bethany home by stealth. Audrey suggested alleyways and back routes to steer clear of cops.
We darted into the first alley, snaking our way behind houses. As the school disappeared from behind us, I felt a presence, as if something was following us. I moved to look behind me, and Audrey spoke up.
“Don’t” was all she said.
I snapped my head forward. The alley was littered with trash and leaves. Birds chirped, crickets sang, and we flinched at the sound of cars passing on the main road, but all those normal things seemed distant. Closer to us was a dark feeling.
I kept my face forward, my quick stride matching Audrey and Bethany’s. We stepped together…step…step…step…and in noticing our rhythm, I noticed other footsteps behind us, heavier, slower…step… …step… …step…
Maybe the steps were paranormal; maybe there was a strange man following us. I didn’t know which was worse. Ignoring Audrey, I turned and looked behind my shoulder. I turned back around.
“What did you see?” Audrey asked, her voice breathy and low.
Ahead of us, a dirt devilsnatched up trash and leaves. We paused for a moment, unsure of where that slip of wind came from, and watched dirty, discarded Styrofoam cups and deep purple bougainvillea petals dance in the wind. It was a hot day with no breeze. The dust devil was a little thing, but something about it seem wrong and off.
The steps started again…step… …step… …step…
“It’s behind us,” I said.
“Are you all right, Bethany?” Audrey asked.
She grunted, and Audrey took that as a “yes.”
Audrey sped up. Bethany and I followed her lead. If I felt the dark heaviness behind us, I could only imagine what Audrey and Bethany were feeling. The disembodied footsteps picked up speed…step, step…step, step… I prayed to God that we would make it to Bethany’s house in time. I prayed that when we did, it would matter.
We raced across a street to get to another alley. We zipped through the quiet back ways of houses, running behind bushes and gates. We did our best to ignore the footsteps following us, but they were gaining. My pulse pounded in my head, and I felt parched. We slipped into another alleyway, and it opened to Bethany’s street.
We let out a collective sigh before sprinting up to Bethany’s door. Bethany yanked her house keys out of her backpack and, with shaky hands, unlocked the door and got us inside. She slammed the door behind her and locked it.
Inside, Bethany seemed to be herself again. We tossed our backpacks onto the couch, and I looked around Bethany’s living room. The placed seemed ransacked, and I wondered if that had anything to do with her brothers. Bethany looked at us, tears in her eyes, and opened her mouth to speak when the windows rattled.
All of them. Every single window in the house rattled at once. It wasn’t an earthquake. Growing up in Southern California, I knew earthquakes. The ground hadn’t trembled, the ceiling hadn’t shaken, the doorways didn’t sway. Just the windows.
“Hurry,” Bethany said, and I realized she was familiar with this. Had Sammy tormented her before? A sick predator masquerading as a benign protector. “The dining room doesn’t have any windows,” she said.
We followed Bethany into the dining room, which did have windows. They were just blocked by enormous, heavy bookcases and shelves. The three of us stood for a moment, silence washing over the room before a large bang sounded, and the windows behind the shelves shook. But the bookcases didn’t move. The windows banged again. We jumped. Again. We all grabbed hold of each other. The bravado and strength I had at school had ebbed away on our journey over, and in Bethany’s dimly lit dining room, I felt my fear full force.
“Do you have candles?” I asked.
“White,” Audrey added.
Bethany nodded. She gave us a tight squeeze before exiting to the kitchen. She hurried back, holding a box of candles. As the windows continued to rattle around us, we picked the white candles out of the box and placed them around the room.
I volunteered to place two candles on the shelves protecting us from the windows. As I approached the windows, they rattled again, and I saw the heavy, wood shelves move. My body went cold. This was happening, not a parlor trick, not a lie—something had followed us home. And whatever was outside was getting angrier. I placed my candles and lit them before hurrying back to my friends.
The windows banged again, so hard I thought they would shatter. The bookshelves noticeably shifted. I shuddered, and Audrey put her arms around me. We grabbed Bethany and pulled her into our hug.
“What do we do now?” Audrey asked.
“Pray,” I said.
“I don’t pray,” Bethany said. “Haven’t since my mom died.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll pray for you.”
I started the Lord’s Prayer and Audrey joined in.
The windows were shaking continuously, no respite between bangs and rattles.
“You’re making him angry,” Bethany said.
Audrey and I finished the prayer, and I felt my own anger rise. “Then he’s an asshole,” I said. “What kind of fuck attacks girls and gets mad at prayers?”
Audrey shushed me, and Bethany looked at me with pleading eyes. I wanted to scream at Sammy, wanted to scream at Bethany’s brothers and her father. I wanted to scream at all those people who just watched three teenage girls walk out of school. But instead, I prayed.
Audrey picked up the prayer, and after a beat, I was surprised to hear Bethany join us.
Together, the three of us said the Lord’s Prayer. The dim lights in the dining room flickered, the windows shook, and the books on the shelves shifted. But, again, I knew it wasn’t an earthquake; the ground wasn’t moving and nothing else in the house was swaying. I believed that Sammy was outside and that he wanted to hurt us, but I didn’t know why he couldn’t get in.
Suddenly, it all stopped, as if Sammy had gotten fed up, his temper tantrum depleted, and left us. Audrey, Bethany, and I slowly pulled away from each other.
“How come he didn’t just come in?” I asked.
Bethany took a deep breath. “I don’t know.”
“Has he done this before?” Audrey asked—has he hurt you before?
Bethany stayed quiet, declining to answer.
I grabbed Audrey’s hand. “Bethany,” I said. “Come here, we’re going to bless you.” My grandmother and Audrey’s grandmother often blessed us, respectively.
At first, Bethany didn’t move. She seemed uncertain, cautious. Later, as I reflected on the moment, my heart would break thinking about how Bethany eagerly took shelter from a raging, abusive entity, but hesitated from a blessing from her close friends. After a moment of consideration, Bethany stepped up to us. Audrey and I did the Sign of the Cross, just as our grandmothers had taught us, and blessed our friend.
Sammy made one more major appearance, that I can remember, but after that, he seemed to take the route of a ghost and disappeared. Part of me attributes this to Bethany seriously dating someone, and after high school, moving out of her father’s house, away from the turmoil. Part of me wonders if she had put her foot down. When Bethany became pregnant with her first child, I asked her about Sammy’s presence.
“He’s here,” she said. “But he just sits in the corner…like he doesn’t want me anymore.”
I heard the sadness in her voice, but I said nothing. I was glad he was leaving her alone and hoped that when the baby was born, Sammy would be gone for good.
After reading this story, people may say that Sammy was not real. That he was made up by a teenage girl who was acting out for attention and attempting to ask for help in surviving an abusive home. Some people may say that Sammy was only a poltergeist, energy created by a teenage girl who had no other outlet for the pain and anguish she felt.
Poltergeists are energy: they move things around and break things. So, while this could be attributed to the attack in the dining room, it does not account for Bethany’s voice change and eye color change. And for Sammy not being real at all…I heard his voice, I saw his eyes, I heard his footsteps following us, and witnessed his attack on the house.
Either way, another person’s belief does not change or affect my story. It’s up to them: They can believe that I’m a liar or they can believe in the supernatural.
Letter from the Editor: A.E. Santana
Believing in ghosts is not science. The paranormal does not follow the natural order of the earth; it’s supernatural. Skeptics may use this as a way to debunk the paranormal. “It wasn’t a ghost, it was the wind.” My response to that is: “Prove it was the wind.”
If we need to prove our paranormal experiences, we will waste our time and energy attempting to force the supernatural to correspond with the scientific method, instead of using our energy and time to understand ghosts and the paranormal as a sociology. We cannot quantify the human experience—natural or supernatural—but we can try to qualify it.
I have had many paranormal experiences. Some deal with ghosts; some, dreams; some, witchcraft; and some, demonic, and it would be a disservice to all my experiences to try to lump them into one category to define and dissect them. It would be easier to understand the different aspects of the paranormal if we looked at them like an anthropologist studying the different cultures of the world. In reading true horror and paranormal stories, I encourage readers to be open and to temporarily set aside the scientific mind when listening to the stories of the paranormal.