This story was inspired by the linked tumblr post and my recent spate of going to real estate websites and mooning over homes I can’t possibly afford.
456 Battenburg Drive. A roomy four bedroom Craftsman home with working fireplace, hardwood floors, a new granite countertop. Haunted by authentic ghost, dead since 1978. 2,145 sq. ft on 1 acre lot. A steal at $84,000! Contact listing agent, Jack Connelly.
As always, the scent of hardwood floors and musty disuse washed over me when I unlocked the door. The shadows in the house were remarkably dark for 4 PM, but I walked in and waited, resigned dread sitting in the pit of my stomach.
A low moan began, just loud enough to make you wonder if you were imagining it. The hairs on my arms prickled as the cool breeze brushed over me. Shadows loomed, angles of impenetrable darkness stretching up, and up until they seemed like giant cold doorways yawning around me. Just like always, I nervously checked over my shoulder. The moan faded away. I inhaled, ready to speak.
There was a rush of wind, a disembodied scream that came from all around me, wailing, horrible—a grey figure, all tatters and holes flew out of the wall in front of me. A sonorous spectral voice boomed: “WHO ENTERS?”
“Gerald, it’s me.” I said. The scream stopped. The grey figure stopped rushing and hung limply midair. It pushed a pair of ghostly glasses up its nose. “Oh, hey Jack.”
Every time I saw Gerald I wondered how he managed to be so initially terrifying. He was a ragged but portly grey ghost, with a round, benign face, round, benign glasses, and cheerful eyes blinking behind the glasses. If it weren’t for the fact that his lower half faded into a wispy tangle of tatters below the pockets of his khakis, he would look like a normal person done in greyscale.
“How you doing?” He asked, stuffing his hands in ghostly grey pockets.
“Oh, alright.” I said.
“No word from Allie?”
“No.” I said, shortly. I should never have told him about my now ex-fiancee. If you think having distant relatives or well-meaning friends trying to give advice on your love life is irritating, you should try having a ghost offer similar comfort. He kept trying to give me girl’s numbers—who knew where or how he got them. “Listen,” I said, “I’m having a family come by today to check out the house.”
“Oh how nice,” he said, beaming all over his face, “Do they have children?”
“I hope not.” I said. “You’re always worse when there are kids involved. I told them I would meet them here. Is there any chance you could just accept my entrance as your obligatory scare and leave it at that? It was a very impressive show.”
Gerald frowned. “I could try, I suppose.”
“Well try harder,” I said. “I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve brought here and had them run away screaming. If you want a nice family, can’t you try just a little harder not to scream at them?”
“It’s my contract, you know,” Gerald said apologetically, producing a long scroll of paper from thin air.
“I know about your contract,” I said, waving it aside. “I’m just saying—maybe interpret it as a living document?”
He gave me a look of fatherly disapproval. “Jack. I’m a ghost. It’s my document. That makes it the most dead document that ever was. If you’d just read it for once—”
At that moment, there was a knock on the door that echoed around the house. I half turned to go to the door and looked back to see if Gerald might by any chance—no. He’d vanished back into the woodwork. It was going to happen all over again. There was nothing for it. With a sigh, I opened the door and ushered in a young couple.
“Oh, I love the molding!” The woman said.
“Gorgeous floors,” her husband added.
The door clicked shut behind them and we were enveloped in silence. A cold breeze ran through the house. The woman looked around and shivered, stepping closer to her husband. “Do you…hear something?”
Ten minutes later the couple ran out of the house, ashen faced. As they squealed their tires driving away I thumped down on the front porch and put my face in my hands. I could feel Gerald watching me, worried, from the windows, but I didn’t bother to look back at him. It wasn’t really his fault that my life was in shambles. After Allie had left last year, I’d decided to throw myself into my work, become the most successful real estate agent in the Tri-Cities area, make a boatload of money for myself, maybe speak at conferences about forging through heartbreak to find success.
And of course, I decided to start my career to success with 456 Battenburg Drive. The ghost house. The house that most of the agents at Housefinder Real Estate would actively dissuade people from looking at. I had taken a sleeping bag, my laptop, a boatload of snack food, the existential despair Allie had left in her wake, and gone to meet Gerald.
After he scared me witless, we had a good night. He told me his woes—he’d been a lawyer of some type, married to a lovely woman, but had chosen to invest in personal gain rather than his marriage. He’d used his rubicund features to swindle and cheat until he’d swindled and cheated the wrong man and had been murdered in the hallways of his own house. He had so neglected his wife that she remarried less than a year later and went on to live a long and happy life with her new husband—while Gerald’s ghost was locked into 456 Battenburg Drive, eternally alone and repentant.
As he sobbed into my chip bag, I told him all about Allie and how she’d dropped her copy of our house key in my lap three weeks before the wedding and walked out of my life without looking back. Then we watched the new Avengers movie and I left the next morning firm friends with a ghost.
Nobody had known the ghost’s name before, and most of my coworkers figured that my stories about my conversations with Gerald were a bizarre sales tactic. And unfortunately, he was still bound by his contract, no matter how friendly he might feel towards me, so the dramatic entrances never varied. I couldn’t get a straight answer out of him about the afterlife and where his contract had come from—he always went hazy around the edges and his voice broke up like a bad cell phone connection when he tried to talk about it.
But that had been almost a year ago. Now I was turning into the office joke. I’d been called into my boss’s office the other day and informed that if I brought any more clients to be terrified at my haunted house, I could find myself a different job. Gerald was eternally hopeful that I would find someone nice to live in his house, but he also wouldn’t let up about that stupid contract. I called my boss. “Diane,” I said, “Before they complain—”
“They already have complained, Jack.” I could see her over-permed hair shimmying in indignation as she spoke, could hear her fingernails tapping irritably on her desk. “I told you nobody else is to look at that house, did I not?”
“They were already scheduled when you said that,” I protested.
“You should have unscheduled them. I want you to come in and get your things out of your office on Monday. I’m sorry to let you go, Jack, but you need to get your life back on track and stop scaring people.” The call clicked off in my ear and I stared at the phone dumbly. No job. No fiancée.
I lifted my face out of my hands to look back at Gerald. Due to the terms of his contract, he couldn’t leave the house, but he peered at me and waved apologetically, “I really tried!” He shouted out the door, his voice thin and warbly through the glass
I stood up, feeling thirty years older, and shuffled to my car without responding.
I couldn’t bear to go back to the office so I drifted around downtown. My phone rang, a number I didn’t recognize, so I picked up. “Hello?”
“Hi, my name’s Audrey Driver, and I’m interested in a house you’re selling?”
I opened my mouth to tell her I was no longer employed with Housefinder Real Estate, but she continued, adding: “It’s, um 456 Battenburg Drive? I was nearby and wondered if I could have a look.”
One more chance. A fool’s chance. “Sure,” I said, “When do you want to meet?”
Less than a half hour after I’d left in despair, I went back into 456 Battenburg Drive with a flicker of hope. I endured Gerald’s spine-chilling welcome, and prepared to be very firm with him about how he welcomed guests, only to find him almost as flustered and excited as I was.
“I did it!” He yelped, poufing out of the wall like an ephemeral dust bunny. “I finally contacted my aunt’s cousin’s little sister! I’ve been trying for months!”
“That’s nice, I suppose,” I said, “Listen, I have this one chance left, so please for the love of anything at all, don’t make a racket!”
“Oh, but—” He said with shining eyes, and then, for the second time that day, someone knocked on the door. I glared at Gerald, mimed zipping lips, and went to the door.
I opened it and looked down into the biggest, brownest, most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen on a woman who looked like a walking kaleidoscope. She wore a skirt of all kinds of colors and patterns, buttons of all shapes and sizes sewn everywhere, a slouchy multicolored knit hat—I don’t really know what all else, my brain had sensory overload by that point and shut down. I tried to stammer out something professional.
“I’m um, Jack…”
“Are you the real estate agent?” She beamed up at me. “I’m so glad to meet you!” My hand was gripped in a firm handshake and then she had already bounced through the doorway before I could manage to say anything.
“Oh, it’s beautiful!” She said, already tripping through the rooms, ignoring the dark shadows and the cold breeze. The distant moaning had begun. She turned a look of mock seriousness on me. “Now be honest—why on earth is this house so cheap? Mold? Nasty neighbors?”
An icy blast hissed through the house, the moan became a screech.
“I’m sorry,” I croaked, completely at a loss. “How did you hear about this house?”
“Well it was interesting,” she said, peeking into the kitchen, “Oo, what lovely cabinets! –My aunt is a psychic. She heard a ghost—a ghost!—repeating this address over and over again, so she looked it up, and since I was looking for a house, and since the ghost was so insistent about it, she sent me the address!”
Gerald made his shrieking, terrifying entrance right over Audrey’s head. Without even glancing towards his ghostly, dusty luminescence shooting out of the wall she said, “So…bad plumbing maybe? You don’t have to worry, I’m pretty sold on this place even if I have to do some major renovations. I’ve been looking for so long—it’s got to be just the right place, you know.”
“No, no mold. Your aunt is a psychic?” I said, still staggered.
“Oh, yes,” she laughed, “I’m a terrible skeptic—in fact she tells me I’m completely psychically deaf—I have a feeling she just found an ad in the papers and told me a ghost said it to make me believe her. But either way, I’m so glad she did. I thought I’d never find a place. I love this house. I’d like to make an offer.”
I was about to sell 456 Battenburg Drive. I was about to do the impossible, the unattainable goal I’d set for myself a whole year ago. I’m afraid all I did was stare at her. Gerald, hanging, unnoticed between us, turned to me and gave me an outrageous wink.
Fortunately, Audrey Driver was a woman of decision even when her realtor displayed all the decisiveness and clarity of a rubber chicken. I put in a call to my boss fifteen minutes later as Audrey drove us to Los Tacos Del Muerte for a celebratory dinner. “Diane,” I said to my boss, “If I sold the Battenburg house, do I get my job back?”
We celebrated my restored job as well as Audrey’s new home that night. To be honest, I forgot I was out with a client instead of a friend. Audrey chatted with the waiter, apparently knew half the people in the restaurant (“Oh yeah, we shop at the same grocery store.” “Him? He was in my Tai Chi class at the gym.”). At least, I forgot she was my client until she fixed me with a serious look and said, “You never did tell me what was wrong with that house.”
I sighed. “You’re going to think I’m lying.”
She leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Try me.”
I told her about Gerald, about his contract and the endless stream of clients that went running out of that house. She didn’t believe me, but she didn’t stomp out calling me a liar, so I supposed that was a decent start. Also, after dinner, when I asked her out on a real date, she didn’t refuse, and that was even better.
Because Audrey wanted me to see the house after she’d put the finishing touches on it and moved in completely, I didn’t see Gerald for the next few months. Finally, I dropped by 456 Battenburg Drive to pick up Audrey for a date one night. Despite the brightly colored abstract art, patchwork quilts, piles of books and the scent of cinnamon buns coming from the kitchen, Gerald still did an admirable job of looming the shadows, chilling the bones and finally bursting from the wall in his glorious, decayed state. He stopped howling and threw incorporeal arms around my neck as I tried to catch my breath. His entrance was no less terrifying after you’d seen it multiple times.
“My dear boy! I knew you were suited to one another! Have you got the ring yet?”
I had, actually, been mooning around over a jewelry counter that very day, scolding myself for going too fast. Guilt made me snappy. “For heaven’s sake, no!” I said. “I don’t want to rush things!”
“Oh of course, of course,” Gerald said, rubbing his hands together nervously, “It’s just, my contract—”
Just then Audrey came down the staircase and my brain short circuited at the sight of her, as usual. Dimly I heard Gerald say to our retreating backs, “Have a nice night!”
A few months later I did propose and we did get married, not fast enough for Gerald, who pestered me about it on every occasion. He bade me goodbye the last night I visited Audrey before our wedding with a nervous, “Don’t get cold feet at the altar, Jack!”
I didn’t. She was beautiful, and full of heart and color and love of life. You couldn’t have moved me away from that altar before she was mine even if you threw a pack of ghostly hauntings at me. But after the honeymoon, as we walked up the pathway to the house, I’ll admit to having some misgivings about being greeted by sheer terror and howling every single time I walked through the door of my house. I asked Audrey,
“Do you believe me about Gerald yet? Have you felt anything at all?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “Even if the fact that every single one of my friends has to be coaxed into the house with earplugs and a blindfold didn’t do it, I did start to notice that there’s a nice little breeze every time I come home. I think it’s sweet, like a hello.”
“Well at least you can enjoy them.” I said, unlocking the door. “I like Gerald, but I don’t find his greetings sweet in the least!”
We stepped inside. I braced myself for the chill and the moans—but instead there were dust motes spiraling lazily through patches of afternoon sunlight, a clock ticking, the peaceful elements of a quiet house. Well, except for the ghost standing in the middle of the atrium. He was more ephemeral than usual, but even so I could see his round cheeks beaming at me. He held out his hands in welcome, and then—vanished. I heard just the barest whisper float past my ears, “Goodbye.”
Audrey of course hadn’t noticed anything but me standing stock still staring with my mouth open. Then she stepped forward and picked up a piece of paper that had fallen to the floor. It was yellowed and curled in on itself, and even though I’d only seen it in greyscale, I recognized it at once. Audrey unrolled it and read: “Gerald Morris Higgins. Henceforth required to haunt the house 456 Battenburg Drive, exhibiting signs of ghostly inhabitance and terror at each and every entrance through the doorway without exception. Said Higgins will be required to continue this haunting until eternity finishes with the exception only that Higgins brings two live human beings together for love and harmony, and in such way, atone for the destructive pattern of his life.”
We never saw Gerald again. I have my own real estate company now and Audrey is raising our three children with her customary verve and originality. I keep Gerald’s document framed over my desk at work, to remind me of my priorities. After all, if I screw up I may end up stuck in the woodwork of some house for centuries!