The House Down by the Creek

Just before Christmas when I was ten years old, we moved into a new house. Not just new-to-us new, but new new. There was still plastic on the carpeting the day we moved in, and instead of a lawn or garden in the backyard, we just had plain, soft dirt.

In my mind, it was the best Christmas present ever. Having grown up in the tightly-packed suburbs of southern California, living on a street with only three other houses on it was pretty awesome. One of those houses wasn’t even completely built yet, and instead of across the street neighbors? There was an honest to god creek, with rushing water and everything. The house itself was pretty cool, too. My baby brother and I each got our own rooms (with locking doors, even!), the living room had more windows than it did plain walls, and in the bottom of my parents’ closet was this little trap door that led to a crawl space beneath the house. Plus, our new next door neighbors had a girl just a year older than me. I’d been friends with all of the kids on our old street, so I knew we were going to get along great.

But the very best thing about our new house was that I finally got my dad back. When my mom got accepted into grad school, my dad immediately began looking for a job in the area, but by the time it came for Mom to start school, he still hadn’t found one. So, my mom took me and my one-year-old brother with her to live in a tiny, cockroach-infested, one-bedroom student housing apartment while Dad stayed behind at our old house 400 miles away while he continued to look for a new job. It took three months before he could join us, which to me seemed like a lifetime.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the shine to wear off. My parents didn’t have enough money  put in a lawn, and my dad kept finding raccoon holes dug up against the house in the backyard. I was forbidden from playing in the awesome creek after me and my parents found a bunch of empty beer bottles, a sleeping bag, and some drug paraphernalia on the bank one weekend. I wasn’t allowed to play in the crawl space under the house since my mom saw a black widow down there. I did play with the girl next door some, but she was the kind of “friend” who spent just as much time being mean to me as actually friendly, and she absolutely hated my friends from school. Worst of all, I hardly ever saw my dad, since his new job had him working most days from before I got up for school until just before or sometimes even after my bedtime. He also worked a lot of weekends. I spent a lot of time in my room reading books, mostly of the creepy thriller variety.

About a year after we moved in, my parents decided I was old enough stay home alone after dark, and even to babysit my brother for a couple hours every Friday night so they could have “date night.” It was around that time that things started getting weird.

I started hearing noises when I was home alone. At first, it was just pots and dishes clanking together in the kitchen. The first time it happened, I was convinced there was someone in the house. This was before cell phones, and our only telephone was in the kitchen, so I locked my bedroom door and hid in my closet until my mom got home. When I told her what happened, she just laughed and told me I had an overactive imagination. She’d locked all of the doors and windows before leaving, so it had to just be dishes settling after they were stacked haphazardly. I took her word for it and tried not to let the little kitchen noises bother me, although I did wonder why the dishes only “settled” when I was home alone.

Then came The Muffin Incident.

My dad was working late one Saturday, so my mom made plans for us all to meet him at a restaurant near his office for dinner, so we could at least see him for an hour or two. My mom, never the greatest when it came to punctuality, got home from her weekly grocery shopping only five minutes before we were supposed to meet my dad. She tossed the perishables in the refrigerator still in their bags and left everything else, including a plastic container of sugar-topped blueberry muffins, just sitting out on the counter while she hustled me and my brother out the door.

A couple hours later, we returned home, bellies full of delicious Mexican food. My dad had finished his project early and actually got to come home with us, so we were all in high spirits. While my mom took my brother off to change his diaper, Dad and I went into the kitchen to put away the groceries. Everything was exactly like we’d left it except for one tiny detail: the muffin container was open, and the tops of each and every muffin was gone.

My parents blamed our portly old cat, who was much more fond of human food than most cats. I came to a different conclusion. Clearly, we had a kitchen ghost.

After that, I put any weird noises I heard in the house down to the kitchen ghost. There was a lot more clanking and clattering, and sometimes I even heard footsteps in the hallway. Just the ghost, I’d tell myself, and go back to reading.

It wasn’t until a few months later that I started to suspect that maybe the kitchen ghost wasn’t exactly friendly.

I started getting pelted with rocks when I was playing in front of my house. At first, I thought it must be my “friend” from next door hiding in the trees, since it was exactly the kind of nasty thing she’d do. Ever since I’d mentioned the ghost to her, she’d been prank calling my house to talk in creepy voices when she knew I was home alone, but she wasn’t very good at disguising her voice, so I always knew it was her. 

But then one day we were both out front playing together, and the rocks started flying at us. She gave me a frightened look, and ran back to her house. That was when I realized it must have been the ghost throwing those rocks.

I went to the library and read up on methods of protecting myself from ghosts and evil spirits. I made a little pouch out of fabric from my mom’s craft leftovers and stuffed it with salt and sage to take with me, I drew pentagrams in salt water on the walls, door, and window, and hung cinnamon sticks above the door to my bedroom. When my mom asked what I was doing, I told her about the ghost. She told me I needed to stop reading so many creepy stories.

The next time I was outside and got pelted with stones, I reached into my pocket and held the little amulet I’d created tight in my fist. I turned in the direction that the stones seemed to be coming from and stared straight into the dense trees that lined the creek.

“I know you’re there!” I called out to the ghost. “I know you’re there and you can’t hurt me!”

I stood perfectly still, waiting. Nothing happened. I walked back to my house, secure in the protection offered to me by my tiny amulet.

For a few weeks, everything was quiet. There were no more footsteps, no more clattering in the kitchen. I had beaten the ghost.

Or so I thought.

It was a Friday night when it happened. My parents were out on their weekly date, and I was reading in the living room while my brother played with his wooden train set on the floor.

Suddenly, my brother let out a wild peal of laughter in that way that small children do when they get really excited about something. I glanced up from my book, and saw that he was staring in my direction, giving me a wide baby smile. I smiled back at him and then turned my attention back to my book.

A few minutes later, he started laughing again, and clapping his hands together. I set down my book and crawled over to him. “What’s so funny, little goose?” I asked him.

My brother raised his chubby, two-year-old arm and pointed over my shoulder. “Window man!” he said excitedly.

My head snapped around. Just outside our living room window was the face of a man I’d never seen before. He grinned at me.

I didn’t even hesitate. I grabbed my brother around his middle, dashed to the kitchen to grab our cordless phone, and locked us both in my bedroom. By this time, my brother was as freaked out as I was, and it took me a few minutes to get the 911 operator to understand what I was saying over my brother’s wailing and the lump in my own throat. She assured me that a police car was on their way, and they’d knock on our front door and identify themselves when they arrived.

Fifteen minutes later, the cops arrived. They told me they were going to search around the outside of the house. They didn’t find anything, not even footprints in the soft dirt where my parents still hadn’t put in a lawn.

After that night, my parents didn’t leave me home alone or just with my brother and night anymore. Due to the lack of footprints, I knew the face in the window was our ghost, but my parents were worried that someone might have been intending to break in, even if the police didn’t find any evidence of it. I was still alone most afternoons, though, while Dad was at work and Mom was in class. The footsteps and other noises came back, and sometimes I heard faint whispers calling my name outside my door. The ghost hadn’t gone away; he’d just gotten pissed off. I started locking the door to my bedroom whenever I was home alone. 

About two months after this incident, my parents told me that we’d be moving at the end of the school year. With Mom’s tuition and textbook costs, we just couldn’t afford to keep the house. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved in my life. I didn’t care that I’d be switching schools and moving away from all of my friends, or that we were moving back into one of those crummy student housing apartments. I was just glad to be getting out of the house.

Because we were moving only 25 minutes away, we moved our boxes in stages. My mom started taking boxes over to the apartment when she was over that way for classes, and we’d all go over on the weekends to unpack.

A week before we were due to move, I got sick. I’m not taking a little sick, either. I was full-on unable to breathe through my nose, feverish, and barely able to get out of bed. I went to the doctor and got antibiotics, but I was still pretty weak and muddled by the time the weekend rolled around and wasn’t up for helping my parents move things.

Both my parents worried about leaving me home alone while I was so sick, but they only had the moving truck for two days, so they needed to get the big furniture moved immediately. I told them I’d be fine and then curled up in a sleeping bag in my now empty bedroom to nap.

I didn’t know at first what had woken me up. It was dark in my bedroom except for the tiny night-light I wouldn’t let my parents move until I did, which meant it must be night already. My parents said they’d bring me back dinner, so maybe it was them getting home?

Then I heard it: a tap-tap-tapping on my bedroom window. At first, I thought I must be imagining it, or I was hearing something else and I just thought it was at my window. I was pretty sick, after all.

It happened again. Definitely my window. I huddled down deeper into my sleeping bag and told myself it was nothing.

Another tap, only one this time, and then a soft voice called my name. I was fighting tears by this point. Between my fear and being sick, I couldn’t even think. I just curled myself into a ball and tried not to make any noise. All of the protections in my room had been taken down in preparation for the move, but I still had my little amulet tucked inside my nightgown. Maybe if I pretended not to hear, the ghost would go away.

It seemed like forever to my hazy mind, but eventually the tapping and calling stopped. I breathed a sigh of relief and let myself relax.

I was almost asleep again when I heard the footsteps in the hallway. These weren’t the faint, slow footsteps I’d heard in the past. These were heavy and quick, and they stopped just outside my bedroom door. A voice in the hallway said my name. It wasn’t soft or sing-song anymore, but low and gruff. I clutched my amulet and prayed for the ghost to go away.

There was a long silence, and then came a different, even more disturbing sound. Something was trying to turn my locked door knob. It was just a soft rattle at first, then more vigorous. I thought about trying to pull myself out of my sleeping bag, to go hide in the closet, but I couldn’t take my eyes off that rattling door knob.

And then something hit my door, hard. It sounded almost like someone was throwing their weight against it. It happened again. I was full on crying at this point, unable to keep quiet. I should have gone with my parents, even though I was sick. I should have gotten up and called them at the new house as soon as I heard the tapping at the window.

There was another huge bang against the door, and I heard the wood start to splinter. I was sure I was about to die.

And then I heard something else: the unmistakable sound of a moving van pulling into my driveway.

The banging stopped, as did the rattling of my door knob. I heard the moving van door slam, and then the fainter sound of the door to my mother’s car shutting. Heavy footsteps retreated down the hallway.

I waited until I heard my parents inside calling me before I got up to unlock my door. Of course, they were all sorts of worried when they saw my tear-stained face, but once I told them what had happened, they assumed I’d been having a fever-nightmare. I was distraught enough, though, that they agreed we could go sleep in the new apartment that night. I didn’t even want to stay long enough to eat the pizza they’d brought me, and insisted on eating it in the car. I never went back to the house down by the creek.

When I was eleven years old, I was terrified because I thought I was sharing my house with a ghost. Looking back as an adult, I remember that trapdoor in my parents room that lead beneath the house. I remember the “raccoon holes” in the backyard and the tattered sleeping bag and drug paraphernalia we found by the creek. I keep my blinds pulled at night, double-check the locks on my doors whenever I’m alone, and I try very hard not to think about what could have happened if my parents hadn’t come home when they did.