It’s funny how the strangest traditions seem ordinary when you’ve grown up around them. One of my friends can’t get through Thanksgiving dinner without someone spanking the turkey, and another kid in my high school said they threw a tea party to celebrate every A. I’ve heard about another family who never wore clothes at home, the poor kid couldn’t figure out why everyone started laughing at him when he visited a friend’s house and promptly began to undress. It simply hadn’t occurred to him that nobody else lived quite the same way, and why should it? None of their traditions were more arbitrary than a cake on your birthday or an inside tree on Christmas.
My name is Elizabeth, and my family has their own tradition.
Every night after dinner, my dad would take a plate full of leftovers and bring it down to the basement. Every morning, it would be clean. My father said it was for the “spirit of the house”, and my mom would just roll her eyes and smile. My dad is a big man—6’4″ and over 250lbs—and it wouldn’t have surprised either of us if he just wanted to save a little extra for a midnight snack.
I guess I never gave it much thought until my history class watched a video on the Black Death in Europe. They talked about how the rats would infest granaries and spread disease, and how some people actually exacerbated the problem by leaving food out to appease the angry spirits. I mentioned how we always leave out a plate for our spirit, and my whole class seemed mortified by the thought. The teacher (Mr. Hallwart) spent the rest of the class blatantly circumventing my desk as though I was the one carrying the plague.
That night I had a terrible nightmare about rats swarming through the house and eating our leftover food. I woke in a cold sweat, lying half-awake for a long time as my sleepy brain tried to separate the quiet night from my encroaching dreams. I was about to drift back to sleep when the pitter-patter of light feet clearly distinguished itself in the still air.
I was fully awake now, lying very still with my ears straining against the oppressive dark. Scratch scratch scratch. Like fingernails dragging along a rough piece of wood. I pulled the blankets up over my head, more to block out the sound than to offer any real protection. Maybe this had been going on a long time, and I simply hadn’t distinguished the sound from the creaking house or the night air playing through the wind chimes.
Now that I was focusing on it though, I couldn’t hear anything else.
I thought about calling for mom, but I was 15 years old and trying to build a case to convince them I was mature enough to have my own car. Running around crying about a nightmare was as good as giving the murder jury my bloody axe. I crept out of bed in my underwear, using the flashlight on my phone to steal through the hallway and down the stairs.
The sound grew louder as I approached the basement door. If this was a rat, then it had to be the biggest rat in the history of the world. I froze at the sound of a chair being pushed across the concrete floor. Half of me wanted to turn on the light to scare it off, but the other half declared much more loudly that it was better not to risk being seen. I turned off my own flashlight and carefully opened the door…
Something snarled and I immediately shut it again. I pressed my back to the door and tried to catch my breath. I hadn’t realized how fast I was breathing, or how loud. I let the air out in a gasp and slowly inhaled through my nose, trying to be as quiet as I could. Scratch scratch scratch. Right on the other side of the door. I turned around and saw the doorknob beginning to turn. There’s no way it was a rat in there. I can’t explain how my curiosity overpowered my fear in that moment, but I put my hand on the doorknob too. I must have believed my dad when he said it was the spirit of the house. We had been taking care of it after-all, so why would it want to do me harm?
The door opened and I stood face to face with a pale girl a few years younger than me. Her sunken dark eyes vanished beneath her mangy bangs, and her lace nightgown failed to conceal the terrible thinness of her limbs. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that. I slammed the door as hard as I could and turned to run. I sprinted up the stairs, locking my room behind me and diving into bed. I held my breath until it felt like I would burst, until there – the pitter-patter of soft feet climbing the stairs and approaching my room.
The doorknob began to rattle. I couldn’t hold it any longer – all that breath I was holding in was released in one noisy rush and I screamed for all I was worth. The doorknob stopped and lights sprang to life around the house. In about a minute, there was a pounding on my door.
“Honey? Everything okay in there?” It was Dad. I ran to him and unlocked my room. He was standing there, looking dazed and confused, ready to collapse back into bed. Now that the lights were on and he was here, I felt like an idiot for being afraid. I’d feel even stupider telling him about the girl.
“Sorry,” I said. “I thought I heard something downstairs.”
“Damn, who needs an alarm when you can scream like that,” he said.
“It was probably just a bad dream. Sorry for waking you.”
Dad looked around behind him, making sure we were alone. Then he leaned in close and whispered “Was it coming from the basement?”
I nodded. His smile was nothing but relief, and I couldn’t help but feel it too. At least until he added:
“That’s just the spirit, honey. Don’t bother it, and don’t tell mom, okay? It’s not going to hurt you.”
I nodded. I didn’t know what else to do. He grinned and ruffled my hair before plodding back to his room. I gave the empty stairs a quick glance before locking myself in again and climbing back into bed. I don’t need to tell you that I didn’t sleep until the sun began to repaint my room.
I slept in late that day, but by nightfall I was ready for answers. I tried asking dad again, but he just told me every house had a spirit and not to worry about it. He must have been lying though, considering how my class reacted, and it was clear he didn’t want to talk about it. That’s why I waited until both my parents were in bed to creep down to the basement and wait.
The basement door was open when I got there. I turned the light on in the kitchen which connected to it, but didn’t dare go down the stairs. Three pieces of leftover pizza slices sat in their box on the table, and I poured a large glass of soda to go with it. I just sat there with my hands folded in front of me, waiting for her to come again. If she was a friend of the house, then I wanted to meet her. And if she wasn’t… well surely we’d know by now.
My mistake was to watch the door. She was corporal; she ate food, she turned doorknobs, so she must go through doors, right? Wrong. Despite my resolve, it was impossible to hear the scratching sound above my head without my entire body tensing up. I watched a ventilation grate in the roof slide out of place, and then the girl dropped through as lightly as a shadow. Her hair was hanging over her face, but I could imagine it all too clearly as the animal snarl began to rise in her throat.
She was as alien to me as death. I didn’t even know if she could speak or understand. Her movements were erratic and unpredictable, her eyes darted like a caged animal, but we did have one thing in common which has bridged greater differences than ours: we both liked pizza, and when I offered her some, she smiled. The girl swiftly choked all three pieces down with savage gulps, although I was able to make out a few of her muttered words which she slipped in-between.
“Kevin (my dad) won’t let me go.”
“It’s okay. I don’t want to leave. He takes care of me.”
“He said he loves me. He promised to marry me when I turned 13.”
“Stay here in the kitchen, okay?” I said. I hope she didn’t notice the revulsion in my voice. I couldn’t believe what she was saying. I couldn’t believe any of this, and I didn’t know how to handle it alone. I wanted dad to come and tell me it was all okay again, but if what she was saying was true…
I came back in five minutes with mom instead. It was pretty tricky shaking her so that dad didn’t wake too, but as soon as I mentioned the spirit she was out of bed in an instant. She said she never believed in that sort of thing, but the wild fear in her eyes made me think that was a lie. When we got back to the kitchen, the pale girl was still chugging through the soda which sprayed her face with foam.
“Who are you? What are you doing in my house?” my mother roughly pushed me behind her. I pushed back.
“It’s okay mom. She’s not going to hurt us. She needs our help.” I was beginning to regret telling mom what the girl told me.
“I’m Sandy,” the pale girl said. “Who are you?”
“I’m Kevin’s wife, that’s who. The one you’re making up lies about.”
Mom took an indignant step forward. I tried to hold her back, but she was livid.
“You better tell me how you broke in, or I’m going to call the police.”
“I didn’t break in,” the pale girl stood from the table and faced us belligerently. “Kevin brought me here. He loves me.”
Maybe my mom was angry because she thought the girl was lying, but I think it was because she was afraid Sandy was telling the truth. I should have tried harder to stop her, but I hadn’t expected my mom to snap like that and slap the girl across the face. Sandy’s head turned sharply from the blow, but then began turning back in small, jerky increments. I think my mom was too angry to even notice the bones rearranging themselves in Sandy’s neck as it turned.
“You come into my house, steal food from my family, and make up these disgusting lies about my husband?”
Mom was usually the sweetest thing in the world, but she had a temper that sometimes took hours to wind down.
“Mom you’ve got to stop…”
“I don’t care if you do got nowhere else to go, where I’m from you got to ask before you take something.”
“Mom just look at her! Can’t you tell she isn’t normal?”
“Now who else you been telling this perverted trash to? Sweet Jesus, I want you out. Out of my house right this instant.”
“What’s all this noise down there?”
My dad thundered into the room. He froze mid-step as he instantly appraised the situation.
“Dear God Kathy (my mom), have you lost your mind?”
“My mind?” mom screamed, turning to face dad. “Don’t tell me you’re going to defend that creature in our house.”
“I only hear one of you yelling, and don’t you dare call Sandy a creature.”
I’ve never seen either of them so worked up. I think I was the only one who heard Sandy whispering.
“Is it true?” It wasn’t just the girl’s voice that wavered. Her whole body seemed to somehow glitch and distort like a corrupted video. “He married her? He lied to me?”
She looked absolutely heart broken. I couldn’t even begin to formulate a response.
“Tell me the truth,” Sandy insisted. “Does Kevin still love me?”
How was I supposed to know? I looked helplessly between mom and dad as they yelled at each other, and I was just stressed and overwhelmed and scared. The idea of my dad being with this child almost made me sick. All I could tell is that she shouldn’t be here. I shook my head.
“No he doesn’t,” I said. “He loves my mom. You should just go.”
“Thanks for telling me,” Sandy replied. “I’m going to get even now. Please don’t watch.”
I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help it. Mom didn’t see it coming though. The air was distorted with a pale blur, and before I could even open my mouth I saw thin white fingers tearing out my mother’s throat. Most of her neck was still intact, but the trachea was pulled straight out through the skin. I don’t think she suffered much on account of how quick it was, but that was a very small comfort.
Dad wasn’t so lucky. I thought he would have a chance to fight her off because of his size, but he didn’t even put up his arms to defend himself. He just stood there until the white fingers punched through his chest and ripped out his heart. There was a horrible moment where the heart was entirely out of the chest but still tethered by a network of veins and arteries, and I could see the strain on his face while she held it in her hand.
“I never forgot you,” were the last words he ever said.
Sandy distorted again, and then she was gone – fleeing back down the basement stairs and wailing like a little girl. I rushed over to my dad, but it was already too late.
When the police swept the house later that night, they didn’t find anyone in the basement. They listened to my statement, but I didn’t see any of them writing it down and I don’t think they believed me. I was sobbing so incoherently, I wouldn’t have trusted my testimony either. I just know what I experienced and later, what I saw.
The police investigation did unearth a collection of photographs hidden in a shoebox in the basement. Sandy was in them, except that she glowed from happiness where she stood next to a young boy her own age. I recognized the boy as my father at once. The police didn’t investigate them or entertain it as a possibility, but I did some research of my own and found out that dad used to live next door to a girl named Sandy Withers when he was growing up.
They had been best friends, more than best friends apparently, but she had died in a diabetic coma when she was 12 years old. Written in my dad’s blocky lettering on the back of one of the photographs was:
“I’ll never forget you.”
I don’t know what happened to make her stay in the world, but it looks like my dad never was able to let her go. It’s been three years now, and even though everyone has pressured me to sell the house and move, I’m still living here. I guess I wasn’t any good at letting go either, because I still practice the same tradition I have all my life.
The only difference is that I now leave out three plates of food every night, and collect three clean dishes every morning.