I would like to have… The simple conditional verb paired with the present perfect one. I would like to have gone skydiving; I would like to have seen a tornado. I was having a glass of wine with my neighbors Erin and Huc (rhymes with “luck”) and explaining the complexity of my wishes. See, I don’t wish I could go to the moon—too dangerous—but I want the experience of having been there, of remembering the trip. English grammar has a way of making that clear: for example, I told them, I would like to have seen a ghost.
“I always wanted to, until I saw one,” Erin said. “It was something totally different than what I expected.” I looked at her. We were sitting around the antique dining table that had belonged to her great-grandmother. She and Huc are about forty years old, both graphic designers. Erin was sitting to my right, wearing a pale blue tank top with spaghetti straps. Her light brown hair was pulled to a butterfly clip in the back. She looked serious. “First of all, I thought, if I ever did see a ghost, or if I thought a place was haunted, I’d move. But it wasn’t like that. My brain made everything make sense.”
Erin told me she always thought that if she saw a ghost it would be in some spooky place and the ghost would be of the wispy-bedsheet variety, or that she would have been hunting for it in some kind of Scooby-Doo adventure. She didn’t expect to encounter the paranormal in a banal apartment on a ho-hum weekday evening. I decided to record their story for you readers. The following is an account in their own words.
Huc: I never really believed in ghost stories. [Using his fingers to put quotations around “ghost stories”] He wears a t-shirt that says “Plaid Nation” and a Gecko ball cap.
Erin: I thought I believed in ghosts until I really saw a ghost. And then I thought, “That’s not possible.”
We sort of mused about the irony, noting that when faced with evidence, we become skeptical and deny what we’re looking at. But it began to make sense.
Erin: It would be like seeing God. You know, you’re supposed to believe in ghosts on faith.
Me: On faith alone.
Me: So, like I said, whenever people say to me, “Have you ever seen a ghost, or have you ever seen a UFO?” I always tell them, “No, of course not.” So now, when people say to you, “You ever seen a ghost…”
Erin: I say no, of course not.
Me: Do you really?
Erin: Oh, yeah.
Erin: (to Huc) I don’t think we ever talked about it really.
Me: Why not?
Erin: It sounds kind of crazy.
We were looking for a place to live and all the rents were so expensive. Finally she found a place that was priced very reasonably, about $300 below the going rate for apartments in that area. It was a one bedroom built above a three car garage, nice size. Huc was working at Central Coast Sport, a local magazine publisher. As a graphic designer, he worked late hours during production, which is when they moved in. When we moved in it’s like the people [who had been there before] had picked up and left. There were clothes in the drawers, their own curtains, and random stuff like they just took off. And it was mid-month. I don’t think they gave notice or anything.
Huc: At the time, without anything else, we were thinking, “it’s a little weird. It looks like it was vacated in a hurry.”
Erin: I was moving stuff in and Huc was at work and the first night I was there, about ten o’clock at night, I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. (The staircase was built on an exterior wall of the building. Above, a high window looked from the front room onto the stairs.) And I thought it was Huc. I waited for him to come in and he never did. They lasted about two minutes…footsteps going up and down the stairs. Being new to the area, and being at home alone, she didn’t want to look outside, to let a stranger know that she was there. Since the staircase only led to their front door, it was also Erin’s only exit. Before she did anything, she called Huc’s office at the magazine to see if he would answer. He did. I said, “Someone is coming up our stairs,” and told him to come home. He was on a deadline, he reminded her and assured her that it might be the pipes making that noise, or the wind batting the screen door. By the time we got off the phone it had stopped. No big deal. Nothing else happened.
Around the same time the next night, Erin heard the footsteps again. She called Huc at work and he told her the same thing: probably a breeze bumping the screen door. On the third night, when the sounds returned around ten o’clock, Erin gathered her nerve and peeked out the big window above the staircase. Although she could still hear the steps plainly, there was no one outside. She insisted that Huc come home. In twenty minutes, by the time he arrived, the stairs were silent again. The fourth evening in the new apartment, Huc was finished with his work deadline at the magazine and he and Erin were home together.
Erin: We were hanging out in the living room and the footsteps started around ten o’clock at night, and Huc said “Oh, are your parents coming over?” I told him, “No,” and he said, “It sounds just like footsteps!” [They both laugh.]
Huc: “Nice and creaky.”
Erin was relieved that Huc was there to hear what she’d been hearing, which sounded nothing like pipes or a screen door. No less creepy were the properties of the wall heater. The metal access door at the bottom was tight and it latched with a tension clip. They had to pull hard to open it and push hard to close it. Even so, it sometimes surprised Erin and Huc.
Erin: I went to the kitchen once and when I came back the door was open. And I shut it. And then I was doing something else and I came back out to the living room and it was open again.” It was really hard to open, but we’d be sitting there in the living room and we’d watch it. It would all of a sudden just open up.
Erin: There were the footsteps, and then the heater door. I always felt like someone was watching me, and I’ve never had that feeling since or before that. Have you ever had a balloon right next to your ear? It was like that. Not like a person, more like a pressure…like right there. [She holds the flat of her hand an inch or two from her ear.] I get goose bumps talking about it. I’d be doing dishes and all of a sudden I’d feel it next to me. Something was there. Usually I’d leave [the room] and then come back and it’d be gone. That happened probably five times in the first two weeks. This can all be explained away, in my mind. But there was one night, probably a week and a half after we moved in, and all the lights were off. There was this huge window in our living room…”
Huc: Maybe ten feet by five feet.
Erin: I think you were going to turn the lights off.
Huc: I think I was just going to the kitchen for something. See this was back in the era when we actually did turn off the lights.
Erin: [What happened that night] is why I sleep with the lights on now.
Huc: This house is never dark.
Huc: Yeah. We don’t turn off lights at night.
Erin (to Huc): I’m working on it.
Huc: Because you were so freaked out about so many different things, I don’t think I even told you about this until later.
Erin: Huc started going through the house and looking around and he came back in and I said, “What’s wrong?” and he said, “Nothing.”
Huc: I was just going from the bedroom to the kitchen, which was across the living room with that big window. And it was dark, but even then there’s some light that comes in through the window when you have no curtains. And so out of the corner of my eye on the big wall that was opposite the window I saw a shadow. The way I can describe it is when you’re going for a walk at night on the sidewalk and cars are driving past and your own shadow is elongated and moving out of sync with your motion so it looks like [your shadow] is kind of moon walking. And so I looked and it was gone. I definitely saw it, but when I looked it was already past. I was trying to figure out what could have caused that. The window had light coming in from the streetlights, but we were on the second floor, so there’s no way a car’s headlights could project [the shadow of] a person on the sidewalk or even a telephone pole. I could not figure out where that shadow came from.
Me: It wasn’t your shadow because when you looked at the wall again…you were still there, but there was no shadow of you on the wall.
Me: So when you saw the shadow there was no car passing by; no different lighting?
Huc: Well, yes, and …the light kind of changed as cars went by. It got brighter or dimmer [in the room], but no there were no distinct shadows that were cast.
Me: Because you were above any headlights.
Huc: Yeah. So I couldn’t figure out what it was. I definitely saw something. It was a darkness that crawled along the wall. It makes the hair stand up when I talk about it. Your brain tries to make sense of things you see. So even though my brain thinks that what I saw was a shadow caused by light being [blocked by] something being in the way, it was more like an entity that was dark and was moving past me along the wall.”
Me: It was not a shadow.
Huc: It was not a shadow.
(We pause to take that in.) Huc: So I didn’t tell Erin about it. I went over to the window and looked; there was nothing going on. I looked at the wall; it was a solid wall. So I got my drink of water, and to keep the peace, I didn’t mention it. I didn’t bring it up…until…
Erin: About half a week later…So the footsteps were always at ten o’clock at night, and the door swinging open, that was happening the whole time, since the time we moved in.
Huc: Any of these single things you’d write off. They could be explained away.
Erin: A few nights after the ‘shadow’ we were talking in bed.
Me: How long had you lived there by now?
Erin: Almost two weeks.
Huc: This is the part of the movie where people say, “Why didn’t you move out?”
Erin: Actually, I was looking through newspapers for a new place to live…
She wears a small diamond earring and she rubs it with her fingers while she watches Huc refill our wine glasses.
Erin: You’re really pretty dumb when there’s stuff going on that you can’t explain. You think if you see a ghost you’re going to scream and run away, but it’s not like that. At first you think, “What is that?” And then the next night you go, “Huh, what is that?” And two weeks later, you’re like, “Oh I know what it is!” [She and Huc look at each other, laughing.]
The strange events in their apartment on Johnson Avenue were not over, and neither of them was laughing about what happened next.
Erin [Her voice a notch quieter now]: So we’re in bed, talking. And I looked past Huc’s shoulder and there was a man standing in the doorway, like leaning against the door [frame], staring at us. I’m totally getting chills.
Me: A man?
Erin: Yeah, a pretty tall man standing there and he was wearing…it wasn’t a ‘ghost figure’, it wasn’t see-through, it wasn’t a sheet: It was like a man standing there. So I’m thinking, some creepy guy….
Me: Dressed how?
Erin: He was wearing some kind of uniform. I couldn’t really tell. And really it was about a split second before I started screaming. Didn’t even know I was screaming…
Huc: I knew she was screaming. [we laugh] Well if you can picture it, our bedroom was dark, the doorway to the living room with the [uncovered] big window had ambient light from the street and the moon and stuff like that, so it was the perfect scenario for a silhouette.
Erin: A perfect silhouette. And it wasn’t from the corner of my eye. I looked. Right. At it.
Huc: She looked past me and screamed bloody murder. I couldn’t turn around fast enough.
Erin stands up to show me the figure’s posture: upright but relaxed, his right shoulder against the door jamb, arms hanging at his side.
Erin: Probably six feet tall, a big guy, and he was wearing a uniform. I must have closed my eyes. And then he was gone.
Me: So you screamed, you [Huc] turned around. Did you see anything?
Erin (to Huc): I probably ducked behind you…and then, then he was gone.
Huc: And I grabbed an iron. You couldn’t find an iron in our house now, but I was walking through the house with an iron.
Erin: And we went through the entire house.
Huc: We checked in all the cupboards, we checked in the fridge, we turned on all the lights—never let go of that iron—the door was locked, the windows were all closed. It’s not like somebody had been there and gotten out. And it’s not that we were looking to solve that, anyway.
Me: You were looking for a real person.
Me: And you never heard anything, a door closing, no footsteps going out?
That’s when Huc told Erin about the dark figure he’d seen three nights before in the living room.
Erin: And that’s when we were like, okay…
Me [interrupting]: “We need to get some sleep.”
Erin: Yeah. No, we were like okay, what’s really going on here?
Me: What did you do then?
Erin had a friend at the time who noticed that Erin seemed stressed and hadn’t been sleeping well. She told her friend the story.
Erin: I said this is going to sound crazy, but I think I live in a haunted house. She was an older woman, a very cool lady who used to be a banker, but she said, “I had a friend who lived in a haunted house and she told [the ghost] not to scare her anymore.” So I went home and said, “Okay, we know that you’re here. We don’t know why. You’re welcome to stay. But we live here now and you have to stop scaring us.” That’s all I said. And the footsteps didn’t happen every night, only once in awhile, and the heater door would always open, but everything else stopped.
Me: So how long did you live there after the first two weeks of all this craziness?
Both: About a year.
Me: So I started by saying I would like to have seen a ghost and you said no…I wish…do you wish you never had, or are you glad now that you have some idea of what a real ghost is like? You’ve talked to a ghost.
Erin: I guess so. I don’t know, I guess I still don’t believe that I’ve seen a ghost.
Me [laughing]: Well, I do.
Erin: No, I do. No, I wish I would never have seen a ghost because when the kids are scared about certain things I always tell them, “There are no ghosts”… and we haven’t slept with the lights off since I saw that thing in our bedroom. I’ve never slept with the lights off since that night.
Huc: I’ve gotten used to it. (To Erin) On those rare occasions when you guys are gone and I’m here I turn the lights off and ah, it’s so nice, so dark…”
Me: How long ago did that happen? 1997?
Me: So, for the last…seventeen years you’ve never slept with the lights off.
Erin: Has it really been that long?
Erin: Wow. That’s scary.