My mother never turned the mattresses. That could have been just an odd housekeeping peccadillo if she weren’t the sole proprietor of a bed and breakfast.
When I was thirteen, a guest mentioned it on the way out, “Hey, you could let your mother know those mattresses could stand to be turned or replaced or something. That thing had a ditch so deep I might as well have been sleeping in a coffin!” He laughed loudly and shut the door behind him, but his death-related simile made me nervous. I went to my mother and told her what he’d said, but to my surprise, she just pursed her lips and said, “It is not good to disturb them.”
That was all. No explanation. She was like that. English was hard for her, so she stored it up, keeping it in reserve for an upset guest or a customer who wanted a discount they didn’t deserve. Though the rest of the house remained the charming, Victorian farmhouse it had always been, the mattresses slowly dipped, settling into firm body prints. And as the mattresses aged, our customers left us. First my mother let the groundskeeper go (“I can mow the lawn,” I said) and then the cleaning help (“We’ll split the rooms and do them ourselves,” we decided).
But by the time I turned sixteen, we both spent our entire lives keeping the place up and we had only one guest reserve a room for the entire month of June. My mother sent me upstairs to clean the room he’d reserved while she fretted and poured over our growing pile of bills.
Upstairs was silent, but for the creak of the polished wood floorboards under my feet and the tick-tick of the hallway clock downstairs. I opened the door to the Iris Room; a corner bedroom with a window seat, dark purple curtains and a tall, four poster bed. That bed. I threw open one of the curtains, letting in a streak of white sunlight and turned to glare at the mattress, the dips so obvious that I could see them even under the elaborate quilted comforter draped over the top and the several layers of blankets underneath. I peeked out the door; my mother was on the other side of the house. She wouldn’t hear anything.
As quickly as possible I stripped the bed and hauled the mattress off the frame, struggling to prop it up in the air. For a split second it stood there, upright and wobbling, almost like it was alive—then it dropped back onto the frame with a thump and a cloud of dust.
I gagged. Growing up cleaning used bedrooms gives a girl a very informed imagination about what kinds of residue gets left behind to turn into mattress dust. I imagined all the bits of people’s skin and excretions and dirt and dead mites being sucked into my lungs at every breath and I ran out of the room, retching. After a trip to the bathroom to wipe off my arms and face, I went back.
The dust motes were still thick in the air when I pushed the door open, and I was coughing and waving my arms, when I saw a figure standing in the shadows, the light from the window falling between us so I couldn’t see the face. My arms dropped to my sides. “Hello?” I said.
The figure moved forward, the edge of the light barely illuminating its face. It was a boy, my age, good looking, with high cheekbones and clear skin. He waved, half-abashed, and said, “Hey um, is this the Iris Room?”
“Yeah,” I said, my voice unnaturally high. “What are you doing in here?”
“I rented this room. But….” He laughed, “It’s kind of, well, girly. I hate to be one of those guests, but, do you think I could pick a different room? It’s okay if you can’t…”
I thought he was our guest. Maybe he’d arrived early. Maybe he’d rung the doorbell and then come on up when we didn’t hear him. Maybe he’d left his luggage in the car.
“Sure! I think maybe the Pine Room would be a little manlier.”
He walked through the beam of sunlight and if I had any superstitions about boys who appear in dust clouds and shadow, they vanished. Other than being more attractive than anybody had any right to be, he looked like a normal teenager. His haircut was funny—kind of a bowl shape. It made him look a little outdated, and a lot more approachable. Because this was no garden variety boy, no, this boy had a broad smile and deep brown eyes and if he hadn’t been humanized by a dorky haircut I would have been embarrassed about wearing my rattiest shorts and a t-shirt two sizes too big for me.
I threw open the door at the other end of the hallway and he peered in and grinned at me, “Much better. Thanks. That bed’s still pretty worn out, though.”
I sighed. The mattress was as visible and lumpy as a skeleton under a silk sheet. “My mom refuses to ‘disturb’ them.”
He looked at me and then at the bed, a mischievous glimmer in his eyes. “What if we turned them? Does she really come up here that often? Do you think she’d figure it out?”
I stared back at him and found an answering grin on my face. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission, right?”
It was the most fun I’d had in years. He would flip a mattress up, I would catch the bottom, we’d flip, it would slam onto the bedframe and we’d scuttle out to escape the dust cloud, trying to stifle giggles in our hands. We went through every room. The entire upstairs was coated with dust, there were bedspreads lying on the floors of every room, the mattresses were mostly crooked with the bedsheets on upside down, but he pulled me down to sit against the wall in the hallway, our shoulders almost touching, cheeks flushed, gasping from exertion and suppressed laughter.
When we regained our breath, the upstairs seemed unusually silent, like we’d thrown a blanket down and muffled everything in waiting quiet.
He turned to me, still grinning. “Now we see what happens when they’re disturbed.” His eyes lingered on my face, drifting to my lips. He his hand went up to cup the back of my head and I leaned forward, my eyes shutting as I waited for him to kiss me.
Nothing. I felt nothing—no lips on mine, no hand on my head. My eyes snapped open, face flushed. He was staring at me with wide, horrified eyes and I shrank backwards. Not many boys ever tried to kiss me—I must have done something wrong.
He stared down at his hands and then back up at me, the shock replaced with a rage like I had never seen before. It came so quickly, transforming his face. “It didn’t change anything! I’m not changed!”
“What do you mean?” I said, my voice trembling. “I don’t understand.”
He rose up, looming over me, and I saw his face contort, shifting before my eyes, a swirl of particles making his eyes too big and his mouth too wide. “Because I’m dead, you idiot, and you didn’t make me better! You woke me when you flipped the mattress, but now I’m still dead, and it’s your fault!”
I scrambled away from him, struggling to get to my feet but then I saw the rest of the hallway. They were pouring out of the rooms, normal, solid people at first glance, but then I saw how their faces blurred like shifting sands, their skin rippled, just dust moved by the wind. Their eyeless faces were turned to me. Their shifting hands were reaching for me. The boy screamed in my face, “I’m still dead! You didn’t fix me!”
I couldn’t get away. My feet slipped on dusty floor and they crowded closer, human shapes blurring before my eyes into a luridly colored cloud of grit and suffocating dirt. The boy was still screaming but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. My ears were clogged up, my eyes stung even squeezed shut, and still the dust encompassed me, blocking my nose, strangling me. There was no way out. They were going to kill me.
Then something cold hit me hard, knocking me forward and I lay, gasping in a puddle of cold water, more water splattering down on me as I stayed there. I hacked and coughed and spat out dusty snot, but I could breathe. Finally, I rolled over to see my mother, face grim, standing at the top of the stairs using a garden hose to douse the entire upper floor.
As soon as everything had been soaked, she dropped the hose, knelt down in the puddle and wrapped me in her arms. I cried nasty, dirty tears down her shirt.
It wasn’t until she’d pulled me downstairs, sent me to take a shower, and made a cup of hot cocoa before she said anything. “They collect,” she said, “Pieces of people and their memories, left behind in the mattresses, always wanting to go on and see the rest of their lives and always stuck.”
“Why don’t you throw them out?” I asked, wrapping my still shaking fingers around my mug. “Why not replace the mattresses every few years? Why the heck would you keep mattresses like that, Mom? Not only did they destroy your business, they almost killed me!”
She looked down. “I am sorry. But they don’t seem like ghosts when you meet them, do they? I thought—I did not want to murder them. I felt responsible.”
I thought about the boy, and his grin and the fun time we’d had throwing mattresses around. He’d been freeing the rest of them the whole. But he had seemed real, not at all like a ghost. I could barely believe it even now.
That evening my mother called the garbage men and offered them extra money to remove the mattresses themselves. We stood on the porch and watched them leave, one bare, stained mattress after another. They went off into the purpling dusk and my mother crossed her arms a firm set to her mouth. “No more ghosts. Tomorrow, we start fresh.”