by Chris Gavaler

I don’t know how Pet Cemetery ends. Jamie and I found the movie channeling through cable one uninspired evening, the way we killed most evenings before we had children. Now nightfall brings real horrors––dishes and late bills and the darks thumping in the dryer, both kids howling with nightmares.

Stephen King, I read somewhere, buried the first draft in his desk drawer, cursed by his wife for imagining their son tumbling into traffic. The father makes zero sense, the way he lowers his child into that ancient Indian burial ground knowing he’ll come back an evil zombie––and then, after killing him a second time, he plants his bloodied wife in the same pit? He goes home, sits with his back to the wall, waiting, staring at the open door, waiting.

That’s when Jamie clicked channels, just for a second, she squealed. When I wrestled the remote from her fist, the Ramones were strumming over the credits, the climax missed. Jamie can’t take suspense, unless it’s a form of foreplay, which this was. I caught her ankle as she rolled from the couch, but she kicked free and scampered for the dining room. We hadn’t bought the table yet, just the wool rug, which explained the red marks on our knees and elbows the next morning. Like I said, this was before kids. Now most nights we rent Scooby-Doo videos and try not to nod off before bedtime.

When Jamie asked me to buy a Ouija board on my way home from my high school, Ada, our oldest, was still a year away. “It’s for my new class in the fall,” she said, “Literature of the Supernatural.” She was sick of the Southern Lit syllabus she had inherited from a dead professor the year we moved down here.

Wal-Mart didn’t stock them, but the novelty shop in town did, on the back shelf between Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit: The 1980’s. The same time-killers perched in our coat closet, now blanketed in dust and mittens. I’d not ventured into a toy store that decade and flinched when a row of motion-activated skulls cackled at me. The girl at the register laughed, too. She looked twelve, only with green hair and breasts. She counted my change in an Appalachian drawl.

Jamie sliced the plastic with her fingernail, the way she helps Everett with presents now. Ada opens her own. We christened the board on our new dining table, a Shaker cherry wood now thoroughly gouged, but we were still pampering it then, gazing at our ghosts in the finish. The room also sported a diagonal crack running from the corner of the kitchen arch toward the ceiling. We dubbed it “the fissure.” The imperfection was not the metaphorical fruit of our overwrought psyches but an improperly shimmed support beam in the basement crawlspace. A blessing, since we couldn’t have afforded the house otherwise. The builder patched the wall three times, but there was no dispelling its presence. He marked its growth, tiny pencil dates like the ones we keep inside the pantry door now, pressing Ada’s spine flat as we level a dictionary on her head. “It’s just about dead,” the builder said, “barely a centimeter in months.” We painted over his chart in burnt orange.

After Jamie gave the planchette a friction test, I lowered my fingertips, my hands a mirror of hers, like the picture on the box lid. Packaging designers had doodled questions in thought balloons, the kind my sophomores might quiz a Magic Eight Ball, frivolous and flirty. Ouija is the same word twice, in French and German, the answer everyone wants. A pessimist would have christened it Non-nein.

Jamie raised her voice as though addressing someone in the kitchen, a foreigner in need of precise enunciation. “Are there any spirits here with us?”

I stared at the board, uncertain how to breathe, both nostrils clogged from a week-old cold. The chandelier hummed, casting multiple shadows, a grey spider for each or our arched palms. James Merrill, the poet on Jamie’s night table, used an inverted teacup and a hand drawn alphabet, the way Ada transcribes her homework sheets now, a new letter every week. Merrill and his lover made the teacup skip and leap.

Our planchette quivered, slightly, while our elbows hovered.

“I think I did that,” I whispered.

I’d tried this with a room of drunks freshman year, before I met Jamie, watching my roommate misspell sexual suggestions to his soon-to-be girlfriend. Two players was harder, more intimate, no room for accident or ignorance.

Jamie withdrew her hands and shook them the way she does when reaching for a dishcloth. “Maybe we should try it with our eyes closed.”

I thought that about sex sometimes. Jamie preferred the lights on, the blinds up, a breeze across our sweat. We didn’t have to worry about a landlord upstairs any more, just our neighbors through the trees and what they might mistake for a ghostly wail. Now we check the kids first, lock our bedroom door, our movements eerie in the red clock glow.

Jamie’s eyes were closed. She inched her pinky away when it grazed mine. “Are there any spirits with us?”

I tried to ignore my reflection in the French doors, the one birds routinely flew into, some recovering, some not. None had ever made it inside. A virgin tablet rested at her elbow, the first sheet bare but for the date penned on the top line. When the dead dictated to Merrill, he touched the cup with his left hand and scribbled with his right, laboring to keep pace. They revealed the exact month souls enter fetuses. Jamie’s and my hands eventually migrated a few centimeters southeast, toward the tell-tale “I,” following the same limp trajectory as our fissure.

She sighed her question a third time before dropping her arms. I watched her record and date the non-message on the second line of her tablet.

“We could try another night,” I said. Maybe it was the wrong time of month. Maybe the dead had a headache.

Jamie folded her board into its box, blew her nose, and said she wanted to finish the Washington Post crossword, so I went upstairs and poked at lesson plans in the study. I’ve since crammed my computer desk beside the guest bed, forfeiting the larger room to my daughter. When Jamie crept up early, pleading exhaustion and morning paper conferences, I brushed my teeth and turned out the bedside lamp. Call me psychic, but I didn’t make a pass. I had wanted to make contact with something too, prove the world was haunted by more than ourselves, peer into some inconceivable place, both past and future, both beyond and within, anything but the here and now. We’d decided several times that we weren’t ready for kids, that we weren’t mature enough, that we weren’t there yet.

When Jamie rolled away, I watched the moon glow like a nightlight through the open blinds. I said, “It wasn’t my fault.”

“I didn’t say it was.”

I listened to our silence for a few minutes, then fell asleep remembering stories Jamie used to tell at dinner parties, about her playing Ouija board in high school, a bedroom of pajamaed virgins, giggling and shrieking. Lightbulbs flickered, pictures fell, moist and vile perfumes thickened the air. They spoke with a little boy named Z, a slave child, dead from a push down the stairs. He still felt his mistress’s hand on his back, where children’s shoulder blades can almost but not quite touch.

* * *
Dawn of the Dead, George Romero’s zombie classic, was shot in a mall walking distance from the house I grew up in. The make-up artist was a Vietnam vet in charge of photographing enemy corpses. I first told Jamie about it over illegal beers purchased with my fake I.D. down the street from my first off-campus apartment. She was in love and didn’t mind hearing how my video arcade had been remodeled after zombies smashed through its walls.

After marrying, we commuted in opposite directions and lost one of our cars in mall parking lots every Saturday, a practice we abandoned after Ada was born. We still spend too much dead time on the road. Once, while sleep-deprived after Everett’s birth, I awoke in my Saturn, on Rt. 81, hands on the wheel, the world careening by. I had to check to see that I was dressed for work, apparently fed, too, on what I didn’t want to imagine.

We could have gotten pregnant during Jamie’s first leave, but we bought a house instead. Like Romero fortifying his set against zombies, I worked down a checklist of weekend projects. Ancient crayon marks vanished under double coats of taupe and wedgewood blue. We had only visited the house twice while the builder and his family lived there, but I could not exorcize the afterimage of torn upholstery and juice stained mats, the triage of dismembered dolls, plates of browning apple slices and sweaty cheese abandoned on side tables. I could still open a closet and flinch at the discovery of torn stickers and stick figures, their grinning heads like pumpkins speared onto ribless spines.

We planted flowerbeds and gardens, upturned no corpses in the Wal-Mart top soil. When I paused to wipe a trail of sweat and squint, I spied turkey vultures circling our hilltop, their paths crisscrossing in helixes, like strands of DNA. Once I counted three dozen after my eyes drifted up from a stack of essays on the dining room table one empty weekend morning. I scared Jamie in the shower trying to get her to look. A neighbor told me to hang deodorant soap on posts to keep deer from our herbs, so I did, startled to find the property fence mangled with rust, the gaps trodden by weeds. Anything could get in. I couldn’t stop the toddler-fingered squirrels and racoons from pillaging the bird feeder. I kept our garbage cans inside, after I found them bent like beer cans, the bags shredded across the yellowed lawn. I knelt in my English teacher khakis collecting metal cans like Ada’s stacking dolls, the way I gather toys scattered across the driveway and porch now, chalk monsters under my Docksiders.

Something mauled the cat that summer. She’d grown up in suburbia, like us, so had honed defenses against car wheels and pre-pubescent rock-throwers, not the un-neutered stuff of county life. Something else laid eggs in her underbelly, half-inch parasites the vet collected in a jar and tried to make me bring home. She survived that too.

When Bela, my childhood cat, died while we were at Nags Head, our next-door neighbor wrapped her in cellophane and crammed her in our freezer. According to the note on our kitchen table, my sister and I needed to mourn, to let in or out the proper emotions. My dad unwrapped her for us. Bela’s stomach had petrified at a right angle, fitted to the box of ice-pops. He held her along the edges where freezer ice crinkled from the cellophane like dandruff. “Don’t touch,” my mother said. I helped dig the hole in the backyard with a shovel twice my height.

I told Jamie that story the first time we drove to my parents’ house. They hadn’t met her yet. They would like her well enough, with the same love and horror a first born feels for its sibling. It’s a lot to expect of someone, the boundaries of the known world penetrated, some new living thing beside you at the dark center, panting unfamiliar moisture across your goosebumps. I took Jamie to my mall, tracing our path from the new food court three times before accepting that a Baby Gap had replaced my arcade.

* * *
The fissure broke through the skin of orange paint the week our one-year warranty expired. I found Jamie blowing her nose as she squinted at it, the French doors illuminating the white of her nightgown.

“What do you think it means?”

Ghosts were unlikely since the house was prepubescent. The subdivision had been cow pasture, the remains of some Virginian plantation. The ditch of bones I found on the lower hill looked like driftwood washed up in the leaves, some large and porous but intact, others tinier replicas, infants. I carried one up for Jamie, but she wouldn’t let it in the house. Stephen King would have to dig pretty deep in his drawers to unearth a thriller about bovine poltergeists.

When Jamie’s parents visited, we spent evenings in town, walking off dinner with the Ghost Tour advertised at the visitor’s center, mostly war widows and their homicidal pets. The guide made a matchstick stand erect in Jamie’s palm, a parlor trick Jamie’s father analyzed for the rest of the weekend, while Jamie’s mother quizzed us about grandchildren.

We’d had scares. It didn’t matter what protection we used, two days late and Jamie was convinced. She’s not clockwork any more, but we still have the occasional anxious week, even post-vasectomy. 99.9% is all the shadow of a doubt we need. If she told me a yarn about semen-injecting succubi now, I would choose to believe her. When Jamie finally told her parents about the miscarriage sophomore year, a crack into a world we turned away from, her mother paled. Her dad shrugged, announced, “I’m not afraid of dying,” a non-sequitur he used a lot. “I was dead before I was born, and it didn’t bother me then.” They drove off sick that Monday, wheezing with the cold Jamie and I had exchanged all winter.

We had dinner at university friends’ house the following weekend, the weekend Jamie got pregnant with Ada. They live in town, in a century-old renovation with a coal chute and servant quarters in the basement. Jamie quizzed them, research for her class, she said.

“Supernatural?” said Professor Huggins. “Not really.”

“Oh, come on, Art.” His wife Greer taught in the religion department then and now chairs it. “What about those fairies you saw when you were five?”

“Floaters,” he said, pushing his glasses back. “Crud on my pupils. I’m near-sighted as a bat. You can make things look like whatever you want.”

His wife sneered. “And you wanted them to look like fairies?”

“Beat listening to my parents scream all night.”

I’d seen them, too, fairies, swirls of them, at a beach house while Bela was congealing at home in the freezer. They moved with my blinks, like amebas on a microscope lens, most active in half-light. They dwindled during adolescence, and were since extinct, unless I took my contacts out after exceeding a designated driver’s limit. My focusing distance was myopic, so Art’s explanation made sense. I imagined him delivering it to a lecture hall, the chalk in his fingers screeching. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of the authors on Jamie’s syllabus, said fairies were the souls of children who never found conception.

“René sees ghosts,” said Greer. Art protested, indecipherably, through a mouthful of Jamie’s apple tart. I rubbed my contacts.

Jamie eyed the two-year-old fingering the hook of its half-latched jumper on the living room rug. We didn’t know at the time, but Greer was pregnant again, barely. We did the math afterwards. “How do you know?”

As Art stacked dishes, he tried to draw me into a manlier discussion of local politics, the Confederate flag adorning the county courthouse, but Jamie was gripping my hand. Greer said their daughter walked in her sleep while muttering German or maybe French syllables. They pounded an eyelet lock in her door frame after finding her curled in the pantry, in the tub, under the bathroom sink, once behind the sofa in the sun room where she dozed till noon, while Greer rooted through neighbor’s backyards and Art cursed a police dispatcher on the phone.

“After that,” said Greer, “she started asking things.”

Jamie blinked, hypnotized. “What things?”

“Who the little girls in the dresses were.”

Jamie’s breasts pressed against the table edge. “Well, who were they?”

“I don’t know, but she drew pictures, detailed ones, down to the Victorian lacing.”

“Oh my God.”

“All white, like communion dresses.”

“Their mother drowned them,” yelled Art from the kitchen. “In the old well out back.”

“You’re kidding,” I said, and he was, but it was enough to spoil the mood, rerouting conversation to the cost of connecting to city water and sewage. The project, necessitated by the summer’s drought, had ravaged their yard. They were replanting two flowerbeds and a row of bushes, but one of the birches would never recover from the backhoe. It was a pretty little thing. Its spidery branches grazed their front windows when it toppled.

We didn’t have sex when we got home. Jamie was off the pill, something her gynecologist recommended every few years, and we had yet to adapt to the perceived loss of spontaneity. I had driven, so she’d consumed her share of spirits and started snoring, lightly, femininely, in minutes.

I was sleepy, too, which I knew because I started thinking that when you die everything should come back to you, everything you ever lost or broke or forgot about, even those things you can’t list anymore, slivers of memories, nameless, literally infantile, and I started thinking about the color of the furniture in my parents’ bedroom, and some little piece of crap plastic whatnot I’d cherished, for no reason, from the heap in my orange toybox, the kind of junk found in the bottom of happy meals, what I regularly toss from the bins in Ada’s room when the clutter gets too much.

And then my head jerked from the pillow, suspended, listening for the noise again, something loud, something implausibly loud. I looked at Jamie, or where I sensed her in the dark. I had to find her hip to be sure, alarmed when I couldn’t hear her breathing, but then she twisted, strangled her pillow, and fell limp again.

I must have forgotten to close the cat in the laundry room, and she was running amuck downstairs, probably climbing potted plants and knocking knickknacks from shelves. This was before we baby-proofed. I flicked on lights as I descended, expecting an overturned CD tower or a shattered vase, but the floors were bare, the tables neat, every picture frame dangling evenly from its nail.

The laundry room door was shut, too. The cat blinked its mirrory eyes at me before I closed it again. Jamie must have remembered. The damned animal woke us with howls otherwise, a practice that increased after we had her fixed.

I knew I’d dreamt the noise, but I surveyed the downstairs anyway, righting a stack of coffee table magazines and stowing a stray glass in the dishwasher as I circulated. If René Huggins’ playmates had visited, they’d left no glowing trails of ectoplasm across the fresh paint. Every door, every window was locked, and soon relocked. Our neighbors said they didn’t bother. Bears could pass through walls, punch through beams and plaster to scoop a pawful of candies from an antique sideboard. I didn’t believe it. Our home was impenetrable. That’s what I tell Everett still. He can’t sleep unless his door is open and the lamp is on. “There no monsters in here,” he repeats over the baby monitor, “no monsters,” already forgetting the dark he came from.

In the morning I found a rot-hollowed oak across the driveway, almost but not quite blocking our cars in. It had aimed for but missed the porch. I tried out the chainsaw Jamie’s parents gave us for a house-warming present. Jamie read the manual aloud. I worked until my arms were numb from vibrations, but I couldn’t cut the pieces small enough to burn in the fireplace, so I just rolled them, round and rotted at their marrows, into the weeds and out of sight.

* * *
It was a dead mouse in the water softener infecting us. I tipped the drum and watched a palm-sized corpse tumble across the granite to the open crawlspace door, gallons of contaminated well water seeping around it. Our sore throats and sinus headaches stopped that same week, the one Jamie began teaching her new course. She placed the Ouija board on reserve at her library and urged her students to submit séance logs for extra credit.

Jamie was a hit at a faculty party the next evening, telling anecdotes about her favorite poet. “As in Merrill Lynch,” she said, “son of.” That had impressed her class of non-major jocks, until they reached the gay sex poem: James on the couch with his lover who, instead of a bout of teacup dictation, opts for possession by their spirit guide for a metaphysical ménage a trois––“unnatural,” according to one of her freshmen boys. The kid argued that, since non-procreative, all homosexual acts were immoral. Jamie had cut off the ensuing fellatio/cunnilingus discussion in her classroom, but the crowd of professors renewed it.

We got back late, me a lot more tipsy. Jamie looked especially bewitching that evening, wearing, among other things, a black lace choker, an accessory then experiencing a rebirth from fashion limbo. It conjured scenes of early adolescence, watching an obscure made-for-TV Frankenstein remake. The bride was bright, gorgeous, an aggressive mimic, like Ada. She was twirling around a ballroom of guests when hubby got home. Off came the choker. The spectators gasped at the scar, deep and stitched and all the way around, worse than Jamie’s c-section. Her head came off next.

I was recounting the scene to Jamie while trying to pull off her dress on the stairs. We made it as far as our bedroom rug, our knees on the hall runner. When she started clawing at her neck, I whispered, “Leave it on,” and she giggled and bit me.

Jamie sensed it first, a movement along the ceiling, just the shadow of the ceiling fan at first, until it broke away, swooping. It emitted a high-pitched squeal, rhythmically, pulsing like our alarm clock. Invisible concentric waves ricocheted against our goosebumps as we scrambled under sheets.

“How could anything get inside?”

The bat careened around the box of our ceiling, searching for an opening in the lid. It moved like no animal. It was a computer graphic, a UFO zigzagging across a B-movie sky, as we huddled like children in a tent. I would later check every screen and relatch all the windows against early autumn without discovering how it had penetrated the house.

Jamie was breathless, but laughing, delighted even, horrified too. “Now what?” She said the same thing, same expression, when she realized she was pregnant with Ada.

It perched on the back of the reading chair, the one Jamie would nurse in, its fabric souring. I slid out, naked but for one blue dress sock, the way my dad looked the last time I walked in on my parents having sex in our old TV room. The bat had stopped bleating, so I wondered if it sensed my approach, a ghostly blur stepping into the block of light from the hall. It panted as it flexed its claws into the upholstery, like Bela when petted.

Jamie kept under the covers. “What’s it doing?”

I tilted forward, as though before a cliff edge, the chair not quite in reach. “Breathing,” I said, as it raised the flesh of its mouth. It looked wrong, some dreamer’s amalgam, a mouse with a wolf’s head, only tiny, fetus-sized, pterodactyl skin stretched between the bones of its arms. I couldn’t imagine the egg or womb that could conceive it. It wasn’t malevolent exactly, just befuddled, feral, the way Everett gets when we let him stay up too late. He’s bitten more people than any animal.

I tossed one of Jamie’s work skirts over it, then emptied the wicker laundry basket on the rug and dropped the skirt in, beast and all. I held the lid down expecting resistance, a thrashing. “Don’t hurt it,” Jamie called as I carried the basket downstairs.

I tipped the skirt onto the porch step and nudged it with my foot when it didn’t move. I hoped it wasn’t dead. Wildlife is mysterious that way. I knew fish died even when you unlooped the hook without tearing the mouth. It had something to do with the slime on their bodies, the ectoplasm that enables them to navigate the dark.

I pinched a corner of wool and stepped back as the bat rolled onto the grass. It wiggled and righted itself and shuffled a few steps before remembering what it was. I watched the dark scribble it made in the air and then the wall of black where the tree line began. Anything could come out of that blackness, a past to be born from and then forgotten. Of course the dead return. We all want to be alien and guiltless again. When I noticed that I was standing on my porch naked, I grabbed the skirt and basket and retreated, not bothering to lock the door behind me.

A month later, Jamie and I squatted on the tub edge watching the second hand on my watch. Her period hadn’t come. We hadn’t discussed pregnancy in a while. We had it planned for her next sabbatical, a major research leave, still a tidy two years away.

She squinted at the EPT held almost to her nose, my focus range without contacts, trying to discern the number of invisible lines in the urine-soaked display, like the round plastic eye of a planchette. I’ve seen the ones they make now, huge block letters, YES or NO, no room for scholarly interpretation, no Try Again Later. I perched my chin on Jamie’s shoulder.

“Is that something?”

It wasn’t, not yet. We agreed to place the stick face-down on the sink counter, hands held, waiting for something not-yet-human to answer, something both ourselves and not ourselves.