My mother grew up in a coal-mining town. That sounds like a bad opening line to a country song but it’s true. She’s one of the reasons I love to tell stories; I grew up listening to hers. My mother has a lot of stories. I hope I tell this one right.
Did you know in some mining towns, they build houses over the mines? Then they strip the mine clean, dig out everything of any value, and move on. Years go by and the mines collapse. The houses on top of the mines, they crumble like sandcastles into the gaping hole in the earth.
Anyway. Just trying to set the stage.
My mother lived at the bottom of a big hill in this coal-mining town. She had a nice house and a large grassy yard to play in. Her father worked at the steel mill and her mother was a homemaker. She had three sisters and two brothers.
Summers were the best, she says. She’d spend all day out in the yard, playing with her sisters, making up stories and games until the light got low and the fireflies came out. Then her mother would call them in, they’d have dinner, and she’d go to bed.
She liked to keep her window open because it got so hot at night. Not all the way, just enough to let the summer breeze float through and keep her cool.
In this story, my mother was 6 years old, and one night when she woke up, there was a face in the window.
It was one of those things, she says, where you’re not awake and then suddenly you are, your eyes wide open and staring. Maybe it’s some leftover bit of instinct from our days as cavemen, something to protect early man from predators. Whatever it is, it hit her hard that night, and for good reason.
A man stood at her window, his eyes huge and glassy in his pale, gaunt head. He was wearing what she said looked like loose white pajamas. He stared at her, and she stared back.
My mother was too afraid to scream. She said her throat just closed up and she couldn’t move, couldn’t run. Her sister, asleep in the bed beside her, went on sleeping.
After a few long, horrible minutes, the man simply turned and walked away.
She began crying then and her sister woke up. When she asked what was wrong, my mother told her she’d seen a ghostie. Her sister told her she was being stupid and went back to sleep.
The next morning, in the light of day, my mother thought maybe she was being stupid. Ghosties weren’t real. Maybe it was just a bad dream.
But the next night, there was another one.
This time it was a lady. My mother heard tapping and when she looked, a lady in a baggy white dress was staring at her, drumming her fingers lightly against the glass of the window. There were tears running down her face.
“Hello, darling,” the lady said, and my mother began to cry.
She said the lady looked sad, but she didn’t leave and she kept tapping.
“Poor darling,” the lady murmured. “Would you like to come with me, little darling?”
My mother shook her head. She began crying and hoped the sound would wake her sister, but it didn’t.
Still too scared to jump out of bed like she should have, my mother instead pulled the blankets up over her eyes. It was better not to see the lady. She was fairly sure ghosties couldn’t come inside, couldn’t get her under the blanket, but a child’s logic is rarely sound.
The tapping went on for what seemed like forever but finally it stopped, and when my mother looked again, the lady was gone.
The next morning, she tried to tell her older brother. She said there were ghosties outside her window, two nights in a row now. He said she should probably shut the window because ghosties ate little girls. Her brother wasn’t a very nice boy, and he’s not a very nice man either.
The week went on like that, the longest week of summer my mother can remember. Every night, a new ghostie outside her window. Sometimes they looked, sometimes they tapped, sometimes they passed by without even giving her a second glance. She began to think that perhaps their house at the bottom of the hill was on the way to heaven; the ghosties of people who’d died were just following their path home.
Her siblings didn’t believe her. She was fairly certain her parents wouldn’t, either, so she didn’t even try. Instead, she decided to be nice to the ghosties, because they were probably scared after dying and she wanted them to know they’d be okay soon, they’d be in heaven. One night when she saw an old man in a white coat with funny arms, she waved. He waved back and smiled, and that made her feel good.
They weren’t ghosties. I’m sure you know that by now.
My mother learned this when she and her sisters were playing in the yard on a fiercely hot day in July. The sun was up, and ghosties couldn’t come out in the sun, so my mother was surprised when she saw one walking down the hill towards their house.
He was a younger man, pale with dark circles under his eyes – it seemed all the ghosties had dark circles under their eyes – wearing those funny white pajamas. He walked with a slow staggering gait like a sleepwalker.
The girls stopped jumping rope and watched as the man came closer. He walked right up to them, his eyes glassy and dazed, and when he spoke his voice was cracked at the edges.
“Which way to Peoria?” he asked weakly.
Peoria was the nearest big city, the best place to get a job if you weren’t a coal miner, and my mother knew where it was. She pointed to the road that headed out of town just past their little house on the hill.
“Thanks,” he said, and continued on, his bare feet shuffling through the sunbaked grass.
As soon as the man was gone her sisters ran inside, screaming for their mother.
Her mother called their father, and their father called the police. The house was filled with hushed whispers for the next few days, and no matter how hard she tried my own mother wouldn’t be told what was happening. The adults simply told her it was nothing, everything was fine, and her sisters said they didn’t want to scare her.
But her brother did. I told you, he’s not a very nice man.
Her brother told her that at the top of the hill, the one above their house, was an insane asylum. The biggest one in the state. Over the past week or so, there’d been a breach in security. One of the many tunnels that ran from the asylum to the nearby buildings, the ones they used in winter when the snow piled up, someone left a door unlocked. Just went outside to smoke a cigarette, probably, and forgot all about it.
Word spread fast.
Some of the patients, the ones lucid enough to tongue their meds into their cheek and avoid electroshock therapy, they waited until the time was right. At night, when the nurses weren’t watching. They left their cells, snuck into the tunnels, and escaped.
The quickest way out, the best place not to be found, was Peoria. At the bottom of the hill.
My mother has a lot of stories. This is just the one she can only tell in the daylight.