“That closet would be a good place to hang yourself,” I said. I was six years old.
“Okay,” my dad replied, leaning over the bed to tuck me in. He didn’t seem overly concerned, or even fearful; he just looked at me with a kind of puzzled love. Which I’d take, because there was something nice about puzzled love.
“She’s nice,” I said.
“Who is?” he asked.
“The woman who lives in the closet.”
Ever since we’d moved into the apartment a couple months before, I’d seen stuff moving in the closet. I think she was testing me to see how afraid I’d get. It should have been terrifying, but it wasn’t. Part of being able to see ghosts is the ability to cast aside some of the eeriness and abject fear. At six years old, I hadn’t yet learned I was supposed to be afraid. Maybe all closets had a visitor, I thought at the time. Which might have been incredibly naive, but maybe all people should be open like this, because there are a lot of dead people out there, waiting to talk.
She seemed as much a part of my bedroom as the color of the walls. Ghosts are like wild animals, and if that twig crunches in the forest, it’s not because they’re trying to freak you out: they’re just walking around. So I wasn’t fearful. The hangers moving about seemed no different than if they’d been blown by the wind, or a live hand. What did I know about death and the afterlife at 6? I didn’t even know what “hanging” was. I had never heard of suicide. I’d just heard a voice in my mind saying, “I hung myself,” and then I saw a woman suspended in my closet like clothing. She was only there for a split second, and I went back to getting ready for bed; sort of sad that she wasn’t there anymore. More concerned that she’d never come back than she had been there at all.
My dad looked over at the closet, partially to humor me, but also with a little fear that he might see something. I think he believed that little kids could see things that adults couldn’t.
“Which closet?” he asked, as if one closet was less creepy than the other.
“The one on the right,” I answered. There were two closets with my desk in between, littered with drawings. I wasn’t very good, but I enjoyed it.
“Then we’ll shut it,” he said, and promptly shut both doors. The room felt instantly quieter.
I couldn’t read what he was thinking (that skill would come later), but I could read his mood, and he was all right with me telling him about the dead lady hanging in my closet. He’s not completely sane either. A writer of horror and sci-fi and stuff I’m not allowed to read yet, even at 15. He just thought an imagination, even a dark imagination, was a sign of intelligence, so he was fine with it. Which is probably why I didn’t lose it completely throughout my childhood. Note to parents: accept your kids, especially the weird ones.
My dad gave me a hug, said, “Night, Gray,” and kissed me on the forehead: the ritual. Then he left the room, and I was alone in the dark.
The closet door slowly opened again.
“You can come out now,” I said.
The first time I talked to her was a Saturday night (Saturday nights are really strong, I’m not sure why, it’s like Saturday’s a weekly Halloween). I was tired of the ghostly games, all the shifting hangers. So I said out loud, feeling pretty dumb – because if talking to yourself seems deranged, talking to a ghost in the closet is deranged’s crazy uncle – “All right, who are you?”
“Agnes,” a voice said to me.
Let me explain this. There’s a not-so-subtle difference between hearing a voice in your head and just answering myself with the first name I thought of. I probably wouldn’t have thought, “Agnes” anyway, an old-timey name. But more importantly, she had a more womanly voice than mine. But – and here it gets confusing – it was sort of mixed with my own voice too, and mixed with my own thoughts. So I couldn’t exactly just ascribe every thought I’d had as belonging to her. I had to sift through it. Slightly easier than finding a needle in a haystack, but just as tiring.
Or else I really was crazy, and me saying, “Who are you?” was an invitation for my mind to go completely mad and release whatever dormant split personality might be lurking in there. That was a pretty terrifying thought – more terrifying than a ghost, to be honest.
But I didn’t believe I was crazy. And, really, belief isn’t the correct word. I felt her there like I feel my fingers, or a breeze: she was both separate and part of me.
Enough justifying for the skeptics. Agnes was talking.
“How are you?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” I replied. “How are you?”
“I’m dead. But it’s good to talk.”
“I hope she’s not cold,” I thought to myself. The closet got cold whenever she appeared. I was concerned about her, like she had to spend all her time in a freezer.
She answered right away. “I can’t feel the weather,” she said.
There was lesson one: I didn’t really need to say anything out loud at all, she could hear everything, which was pretty unsettling. Imagine every thought you had could be heard by other people. Well, let me put that another way – every thought you have can be heard by other people, dead people. So you’re having conversations like this all the time, you just don’t know it. Sorry, not a fun thing to ponder, but it’s true.
“But you can see if it’s raining or snowing or whatever,” I said/thought. I had never seen the snow myself: this was Los Angeles. One time the street outside flooded with a foot of water, that’s about it.
“Yes, of course, I have eyes,” she answered.
As if to show me, she came into better focus. She had looked like light reflecting off mist, but the more we talked, the stronger she got. I could see her whole face – dark eyes and white as a ghost (sorry), but I think she was actually pale way back when.
“So why are you living in my closet?” I inquired.
“I died here,” she said.
“You hung yourself.”
“Yes, by hanging.”
“I was at the time. I regret the decision.”
I think she was trying to be funny, but my six-year-old mind couldn’t quite understand the sarcasm. My head was starting to hurt now, skin feeling weird like it didn’t fit my body. I liked her and all, but this took a lot out of me. And her, I suspected. “I’m glad to be in touch,” she said by way of goodbye.
“Me too,” I said, and the air felt different, lighter, even nicer, after she was gone. And then I went to sleep, peacefully.
Since then, I’d gotten to know her whole story. She was trapped in the closet, a kind of punishment for wasting her life by ending it. Or so she thought. She could travel outside the apartment and cavort with other dead people, those who were also trapped (didn’t happen to everyone), but she’d always come back to my closet like it was a jail sentence – in large part because she had put so much bad energy into that closet while she was alive, it acted like a kind of ghost trap.
So she was very happy to see me; very happy to know a person like me existed. She’d been there since the Thirties, waiting. Fifteen or so tenants in that time.
My dad and I had moved into a small two-bedroom apartment after my mom left. She wasn’t dead; maybe then I could have talked to her. Just gone.
It was an oldish apartment on a street in Miracle Mile, such a great name, and the neighborhood had nice old architecture, unlike most of L.A. I looked up the apartment and the place was built in the Twenties, owned by a movie studio to house up and coming starlets. People think Hollywood is all glamour; at least people who haven’t been here. But there’s something extraordinarily haunted-seeming about the city. Like it’s a dream, a fantasy, both real and ethereal. So many people caught in the purgatory of not being famous – dreaming about being truly alive. In other words, like a ghost.
That was Agnes’s story. Coming to Hollywood to be an actress and ending up as a background performer, a secretary, a housekeeper, a nanny to belligerent parents of neglected kids, dancing with men “professionally,” and, finally, dangling from a wooden beam that’s not even in the closet anymore, as if to dissuade future tenants.
That first conversation was nine years ago. Now, Agnes and many others like her are part of the fabric. It’s a daily part of my routine, and I’m better at seeing them, so they’re everywhere. Imagine walking down the street and you see a dead pedestrian lying in the middle of an intersection, an old homeless man lying in a doorway, a couple dressed in regal clothes from the 1920s walking down Wilshire Boulevard. OK, that last one is kind of interesting, but they’re also not proper ghosts. Ghosts are in two categories: ghosts and footprints. So the aristocratic couple might not be dead at all. Scratch that: of course they’re dead, they’re from the Twenties. What I mean is, it’s not their ghosts walking around, doomed to walk Wilshire Boulevard for all eternity. They’re really just a footprint of who they were before, blending another time over the present.
So what stops me from seeing everyone who’s dead all the time, from every single time throughout history? I mean, it could become a real mess: every second of every generation overlapping on the next.
Short answer is: I don’t know.
I’m still learning about all this stuff. Agnes has helped fill in the blanks, but she can’t travel with me outside the apartment because that’s where she has her strongest connection. I’ve more or less had to figure this all out on my own. There’s no doctor I know who can deal with this particular malady (“Hey, doc, I see dead people virtually everywhere. . .no, I wouldn’t like to be medicated”) and I can’t really tell all of this to my mostly-understanding, but still-protective father. He’s worried enough about me going out on my own in big bad Los Angeles, and dealing with all the live people, let alone the dead ones. To be honest, living people scared me more too. Living people get violent, ghosts don’t. And I’m afraid of being institutionalized, or people will think my dad’s an unfit father because I’ve gone mad. All I know is that the footprints don’t engage with me, they don’t gaze back. They go on their merry way the same they did a century ago.
Ghosts, on the other hand, know I’m looking. I can see it in their eyes. Pain and pleading and sadness and boredom and many other emotions that aren’t so positive.
Not all of them engage with me, thankfully. In fact, most don’t, and so the conversations don’t always go so well. Take the pedestrian in the middle of the intersection, hit by a car. For one thing, no one can see anything so it looks like I’m staring intently at the ground for no reason. Secondly, there’s a lot of traffic and they’re not very happy about waiting for the conclusion of my schizophrenic-seeming conversation. But most importantly, she’s never answered.
One day, I worked up the courage and leaned right down next to her, getting a close-up look of her bleeding head and bones bent in a way that you don’t want to know about, and I said, “Hey, you’re dead, you need to move on from here.”
She looked at me plaintively, so I knew she wasn’t a footprint. But she didn’t say anything.
“Hello?” I said.
The tenth time this sort of thing happened, I stopped trying. Again, I don’t know why I can engage with some but not others. I think I just can’t tune in to every ghost frequency in the universe.
The frequency in my bedroom? Yes. In my grandparent’s house (old lady, former beauty queen). Yes. But I think it takes some familiarity with their circumstances, so I can only talk to a few.
That is, until I start having a conversation with a familiar ghost. Once I’ve opened the door with a person like Agnes and we’re having a conversation, then other ghosts join the fold. They’re really desperate to talk to the living. It’s fairly annoying actually, a bunch of voices chattering at once. A lot of nonsense talk much of the time. Just as every person can’t talk to the dead, every ghost isn’t so great at talking to the living, so I’ll get absurdist fragments, or old memories (“The desert is nice in spring”) or questions I can’t answer like, “Have you seen Lisa?” I answer back and get nothing in return. It’s like having every TV channel on at once.
So I can talk to others, but I can only make a direct connection with a handful. One of those rules of ghostly nature. A rule I’m grateful for, because it’s hard enough getting through a life, let alone an afterlife.
I’ve lived with this (talent, curse, impairment, illness?) for close to ten years. I’ve learned how to live with it. I see a new ghost and move on with my life. Because I have to. Do you think about every stranger you see? Yeah, some of them stick out more than others, but basically you just gawk and go on with your day. Still, my life is continuously strange, and it’s not like I have a lot of friends, what with me stopping mid-sentence when a new ghost crosses my path. And I can’t talk about half my personality with most people. So I’m guarded, to say the least.
I’m like a ghost. People can only see me who know how to see me.
Otherwise, my life hasn’t been dramatically altered in any way. I eat, sleep, go to school, take piano lessons, though recently I’ve become obsessed with the xylophone. My main trips are to the supermarket (huddled faceless ghost in the parking lot) or Walgreen’s (old lady in a nightgown in the cough syrup aisle) or LACMA (too many to mention; ghosts like art, I guess). Sometimes I get donuts at the stand in The Grove (this big outdoor mall nearby where celebrities are often spotted) and I get to peruse one of the last bookstores in L.A., or me and my dad will catch a movie at The Beverly, where nobody else takes their kids, and it’s a bit old and torn and we can see old movies on 35mm film instead of digital, which he says reminds him of being in NYC when he was young. I don’t tell him I always see a transparent man at the side of the curtains making faces at me.
Mostly, I read a lot, because it’s something I can do by myself. And there are more people who believe in the supernatural in books than in real life.
Which is partly why I’m telling you my story. If it’s in a whole book maybe people will take it seriously. The thing about being psychic is that you can’t really tell anyone about it. Many people just don’t want the supernatural to be really true. A name like Fable doesn’t help me too much either; another reason the universe seems to be playing with me, like I’m under observation. But I need to tell someone. And if you’re reading this somewhere out of my vision then I can’t really see the condemning look in your eyes – that familiar look of doubt and fear and condescension – when I say, too nonchalantly, that I can tell the future, that I can read thoughts, that I could see a hazy image of a young woman hanging in my closet at age six.
She was talking to me now. “I’ve got some bad news,” Agnes said.
I was lying in bed – same bed, same room as the six-year-old girl, drawings now replaced with sheet music – currently listening to Bach. I have a grandmother’s taste in music. Bach is so beautiful as to be otherworldly: like listening to an unhaunted version of the afterlife. Less comforting was Agnes standing next to the bed, looking fearful. A fearful ghost is a fear like no other.
“What is it?” I asked her expression. She never delivered bad news, she just listened to my bad news of the day. She’d become a surrogate mom and best friend, dispensing advice on how to navigate life, because she knew specifically how to do it wrong. For a ghost, she was mostly positive. So I was instantly worried.
“Something’s coming,” she said. “Something very dangerous.”
“What is it?” I asked again.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I have only a sense of the future, as you know, but I think something is going to happen at your school.”
“Like. . .like a school shooting?” I was terrified of school shootings (more on that later). Something about being so familiar with death made me feel like death was attracted to me. Because it was.
Agnes shut her eyes, looking for the answer. “Not that,” she said, and I felt immediate relief. She quelled that relief immediately: “Not exactly,” she added.
Not very heartening. “What then?”
She stared at me weirdly – the pride she sometimes showed when I did well on a test. But this was bigger, deeper: proud of something I was going to do, mixed with a kind of maternal fear. She looked into the distance as if trying to see further into the future. Then she looked back at me again: “I think you’re going to have to stop one.”
“Gray, there’s something I need to discuss with you,” my dad said (He’s always called me Gray, short for Grace).
We were eating dinner at the small light blue linoleum table in the kitchen. We still hadn’t moved out of the place we’d settled in after my mom left when I was four. Eleven years in a mostly crappy, centrally-located apartment. Two tiny rooms, a decent-sized living room with my dad’s desk in the corner, one sweaty bathroom, a perpetually dirty eat-in kitchen. Wood floors, at least.
I felt for my dad. It was a pretty terrible apartment for a man in his forties.
He wrote a lot, but I guess he’s what you’d call a failed writer. If a book falls in the forest and no one reads it, does it make a sound? Not to my dad, it didn’t. A constant source of stress and worry for him. From what I understood, he wrote books and screenplays that he wanted to get under people’s skin, and then got upset when he wasn’t popular. He worked really hard but always seemed to stay at the same level, getting a small advance on a book here and there, and scraping together freelance writing work on the web to pay the bills.
We were eating ravioli with pesto, a staple. Not really much of a chef either: both pre-made. Why am I ragging on my dad? I love him, I’m just setting the scene.
“We’re going to be moving,” he said.
Weird, I thought, just when I was thinking – again – how inferior this little place was for the two of us.
This was exciting news, a long time coming. “We are?” I cheered.
For some reason, he didn’t look too excited. “It’s not around here,” he said, wincing a bit.
“Where to, then?”
“Oh, I see,” I said.
My dad had been dating someone for about a year now. Her name was Jennifer, and she was as generic as her name (sorry Jennifers of the world). She was nice enough, but she was kind of too nice, as if she were afraid I’d break if she said something wrong, which was reading me exactly opposite, as it was off-putting that she never said anything off-putting. I didn’t resent her, I just wanted to have a better relationship with her, rather than a constant stream of pleasantries. I’d actually prefer to have a fight with her. She was perfectly nice.
I mean, I know I’m not easy to get along with or to understand. Maybe she was afraid of me, like so many other people. No, I don’t think it was that. She was just a fairly normal woman with no overwhelming passion or opinions. She liked most things, truly: books, movies, food, people. Decidedly unlike my dad, or myself. We could spend entire dinners dissecting how utterly dumb this or that movie or book – or person – was. It was our main pastime; we were very good at it. When, once, we asked Jennifer to chime in during a session at Starfish Sushi, she answered back, sort of defensively, “Am I not supposed to like things?” My dad and I glanced at each other, embarrassed.
He said, “No, I guess not,” and that part of the conversation was over.
Maybe I’d see a different side of her now, because moving to Northwood meant moving in with Jennifer. Which I understood completely: 1. The Miracle Mile apartment was a mess and had no parking space. 2. She had a pretty nice, though generic (of course), house. With a parking space. 3. It didn’t really make sense for my dad to have to commute to see his girlfriend. L.A. traffic sucked enough just getting one neighborhood over. It took him an hour and half to reach her some days. Another two hours to find a parking space when he got home. A car in L.A. was like a second apartment, and it didn’t help that our only car was an old beat up black Volvo that rattled when it got cold.
Jennifer and my dad had met at the beach and got to talking; she’d made the long drive herself to come to Zuma to relax. I was there with him – we’d been photographing the pterodactyl-like pelicans and playing with sand crabs at the shoreline, which I never got sick of, and it was nice to see him finally talking to someone; I wanted him to get a girlfriend, finally. My dad was in a permanent state of self-imposed exile, much like myself. Except I saw crazy things in real life, and he put crazy things down on paper.
She was pretty, I’d give her that. Blonde, thin. No kids of her own. She looked like the new wife they’d cast in a B-movie. My dad had only short-time relationships over the years – I mean, very short. It’s like if he didn’t want to get married immediately, he’d give up after a date, maybe within the first five minutes. Jennifer was the only one to last more than six months, so I had to respect that at least. I think he knew she was less interesting than him, but she was also more stable, more of an adult. She worked in real estate. Mostly, he couldn’t see the next ten years transpiring like the last ten: a single father struggling to make ends meet in the same ill-lit two-bedroom apartment. I couldn’t really either.
“Well, that’s not too bad,” I said, forking a single bow-tie pasta. “She lives in a nice neighborhood. And you know I like Jennifer fine.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” he replied, without seeming very glad.
“I’ll have to change schools though, of course,” I said.
“Yes, about that.” His voice dropped off and his eyes left mine. He looked old suddenly. “The school district up there is. . .”
He didn’t have to answer. I knew immediately, and wondered why I hadn’t connected it yet. I never thought I’d ever have to go to school there. This must have been what Agnes had been talking about. “Willowbrook,” I said.
“Yes, Willowbrook,” he conceded.
Five years earlier, a student named Collin Wallace shot and killed five kids, and then himself, in the library at Willowbrook High School. Why the library? Like all other school shootings, the reasons didn’t make a lot of sense. He didn’t know any of the kids he shot. He killed everyone who was in the small one-room library, and then turned the gun on himself, like they all do.
As a kid going to a school in L.A., this of course hit my school hard. I was only in Fifth Grade at the time, but the fear was palpable, especially for a kid like me, who could read people’s fear and insecurity just like I could see ghosts. Parents seemed more suspicious of each other, teachers seemed to look at kids with more regret than hope, doors were locked that weren’t before, there were somber assemblies assuring us we were safe, which just seemed to make me feel worse, not better. Maybe it’s my relationship with the dead, but the shooting seemed to affect me more than other kids in my class, who mostly said, defiantly, “What are we going to do? Be afraid every day?” I envied them.
I was terrified of Los Angeles for a very long time after Willowbrook. The whole city, not just my school. When a bad thing happens, it’s like the whole place turns darker. All those people, millions of people, whether they have kids or not, full of fear and sadness. It makes the ghosts come out. That, or the more sensitive to death I become, the more ghosts I see. And L.A.’s not the safest-seeming city to begin with, made all the more evident because it’s supposed to be the place of sun and palm trees. So many people who come here with fantastical dreams find those dreams dashed pretty hard. In other words, a lot of people like Agnes.
Add to that, the constant threat of The Big One: L.A. gets big and small earthquakes all the time and everyone has to have a survival pack at home and in the car “just in case” the city is under rubble and there’s no access to food or water – a constant reminder that the Apocalypse is just around the corner. It’s like the city is always on the edge of snapping, so when someone literally snaps, everyone’s that much more edgy. The fault line also has the wonderful side effect of making the dead just about as unstable as the living due to ever-changing shifts in the ground, where they were buried, jostling them from their rest. Yeah, L.A. is just about the most haunted place on Earth.
After Willowbrook, I spent many nights sleeping on the floor in my dad’s small bedroom. I couldn’t bear to be by myself. He let me, for as long as I needed. I don’t know what I was fearing exactly. I didn’t think I’d be killed, it just made me really despondent and scared about people in general. Not just the shootings, but the aftermath. There’d be all this angry political discussion, as if debate made more sense than mourning. It seemed like compassion was being replaced with anger. Sometimes, I didn’t even want to leave my room. It felt like the world was rapidly losing its mind. This went on for a couple of years. I couldn’t get Collin Wallace’s stupid picture out of my head: the same picture of him with an evil grimace splashed too many times all over the web, magazines, and TV. Eyes that seemed both dead and more weirdly alive than other people.
I also saw some of myself in Collin Wallace for some reason. An outsider, in pain, no one to talk to. Like maybe he saw the same things I did, and couldn’t deal with it. And then I started dreaming about him. He wouldn’t say anything, just enter a dream I was having and stand there watching, like he was a spectator of my dream along with me. I felt a horrible connection with him. I didn’t think I was crazy like him, but maybe we had a similar familiarity with darkness. I just didn’t let it become my entire life.
I hated him too, obviously. For entering my dreams. For ending lives. No matter how alienated I felt from my fellow students – and I’ve felt pretty shunned and hated and bullied all my life – I never for a second thought about hurting them. It seemed alien even as an idea.
That, however, didn’t stop people from fearing me as well. As I’ve explained, I came off as a bit of a weirdo. Kept to myself. Dressed in black because with a mind like mine, it doesn’t really feel right to be dressing in pinks and flowers. I’m not exactly pretty either. I wear glasses most of the time, but it’s not like if you take them off I’m suddenly Supergirl. Nope, same face – nose fairly wide and flat, not perky and pointed. I’m too chubby overall even though I don’t eat a lot (I do love donuts, sorry). Just naturally not that great looking – good looking people seem to be good looking all over: nice hands, nice hair, nice complexion. Not me. I’ve got wild black hair that’s like a cross between a tornado and a weed. Allergic to make-up. Literally. I feel like the human equivalent of an unkempt shrub. So I’m an outcast through and through. And though girls don’t generally go on shooting rampages, that didn’t stop people from voting me, “Most likely to go on a shooting rampage” three years running. There was a class poll passed around and I won for the seventh, eight, and ninth grades. The poll had no origin, so no one got in trouble, but there was an assembly telling everyone to cool it when it was first discovered. Which had the effect of letting kids know about the poll who might have never heard about it before then. You wonder why I’m alienated?
Some particularly ugly bullies (the baseball team) started calling me, “Shooter,” which caught on with people who weren’t nice.
It was a bad scene, and depressing. But I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of dropping out and moving schools. Even if that’s what I privately wanted. So going to Willowbrook was a weird kind of mixed blessing: getting out of my awful current high school so I could never find out if I won tenth grade’s “Most likely to go on a shooting rampage,” most likely me, and go to a school that was the epicenter of so much of my worry. If Agnes’s soothsaying was any measure, going to the new school wasn’t a better choice.
My dad knew all this about me. He knew I was tormented at school, thought I was facing it “bravely.” He offered to move me out, but I said no. I was adamant, partly because I didn’t sense it would be much better anywhere else. We’re talking high school – they wouldn’t stop being teenagers somewhere else. I think part of the reason for the move up north was just so I could start a new school without getting my permission. Even Willowbrook.
He also knew I saw things. Not so many things as I’ve told you (and he’ll know now that he’s read this), but he knew I had a secret window that other people didn’t have. I’d predicted future events before. Small things like the phone ringing, someone arriving at the apartment. An acceptance letter for a story he wrote. He also knew I had a strange relationship with my grandmother, his mother, now deceased. She was a painter, the most arty person in my family besides my dad, and I knew things about her that he never told me. He knew I talked to her, but he thought it was a way I comforted myself because school was so rough. This was not ignorance on his part, because since I was eight I kept my hidden world between me and myself.
He was mostly concerned that Willowbrook had caused me so much grief in the past.
“I know this is going to be hard for you,” he said. “I can’t really afford private school for you, Gray. I’m very sorry about that. It’s really one of my biggest regrets. Do you think you’re going to be okay?”
“That was five years ago, Dad,” I assured him. “I’m not so scared about that now.”
“That’s good to hear,” he said, relieved.
“I mean, what’s the likelihood of a school shooting happening twice at the same school?”
“That’s true,” he said, and managed a comforting smile.
But that’s not really what I was worried about. I wasn’t worried about coming face to face with a live shooter. I was worried about seeing a dead one.