By Lou Burrows
The following essay was submitted in response to our call for true ghost stories.
There’s a story my sister Kayla has been telling since I was little. I know it so well now, it’s almost as if I was there, watching it unfold. But, in fact, these events transpired a year before I was born.
It was the fall of 1984 and Kayla was 10 years old. Our mother, down on her luck, bounced them both from motel to motel. Eventually, she found a job at a bar within walking distance of the motel they were staying at and started slinging drinks to the townies. On those nights, Kayla would find company with the characters flashing on the tube TV and fall asleep before our mother’s shift ended.
One night after work, our mother came bursting through the motel door, manic and joyful. She used it not just to get good tips but also to lure in men she thought could get us to better places. This particular night, she landed a whale; a guy with a house in Chittenango, which is a small town outside Syracuse, best known for being the birthplace of L Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz. The man was in the middle of renovating this house but had run out of money, so it was just sitting there empty. He was thinking of renting it out so he could move forward with the renovations.
So there Kayla and my mother stood, with a couple of duffle bags full of clothes, at the front door of a gorgeous 19th century home that was a little rough around the edges. It had gothic woodwork and round turrets, drawing Kayla’s eyes up toward the widow’s peak at the top. Kayla learned about them from our grandmother, Dorothy. As an architectural feature, widow’s peaks got their name from the women who could be seen pacing back and forth in front of the window waiting for their husbands to return from war, not realizing they were already dead. Kayla remembers walking over the threshold for the first time, her eyes focused on the winding dark wood staircase. The hairs on her arms and neck pulled from her skin as she peered around the corners of the house. Our mother was giddy, dancing around the hardwoods, leaving footprints in the dust from room to room. Kayla made her way up the staircase and remembers thinking how small she felt in the space. The motel rooms were tiny; no corners to peek around, no goosebumps to contend with. She found her room, plastered in blue wallpaper with matching floor-to-ceiling curtains, at the end of a long hallway. And because blue was her favorite color, her hairs settled back onto her skin. Maybe this place wasn’t so bad, she thought.
On her first night in the house, Kayla explored, sliding her fingertips across the wallpaper that covered each room. The library to the left of the entryway was lined with beautiful built-in bookcases and a large fireplace our mother was quick to light. Its flames filled the room with warmth. Kayla would find herself in the library most days after school, staring at the empty shelves. Our mother’s voice jolted her from this fantasy one evening, yelling for her to go brush her teeth.
Besides the basement, the upstairs bathroom was her least favorite room in the house. The pipes were old and made loud noises, and the tile was cold underneath her feet. She wanted to leave as soon as she walked in, but if she brushed her teeth too fast, then our mother would know and make her repeat the process. So she was stuck there, brushing, spitting, rinsing, brushing, spitting, rinsing, and when she raised her head to examine her work in the mirror, she was startled to see a woman standing behind her who was not our mother. Kayla stood frozen in place.. The woman wore a long blue dress and a large blue-brimmed hat. A soft glow surrounded her. As Kayla studied this reflection, she started to feel warm. First, beneath her feet on the cold tile, then thawing out her startled body. She felt safe.
Kayla rinsed one more time and called down to our mother that she was finished. The woman followed her to her room and stayed at the end of her bed until our mother came to tuck Kayla in and wish her sweet dreams. The second floor was dark and Kayla yelled out to keep the hall light on, but our mother yelled back, “When you pay the bills, you can keep it on.” Kayla knew better than to argue, so she lay there, watching shadows fill the room, until the light flicked back on. She sat up and looked down the hall, but no one was there. Simply grateful for a nightlight, she laid back down. But before she could get comfortable, our mother reappeared, flipping the switch back off and telling Kayla to leave it off. Kayla tried to explain that it wasn’t her, but it was no use. Before our mother could make it down the stairs, the light flicked on again. This continued until she gave up and Kayla fell asleep with the hall light shining on her cheeks.
The blue lady is what Kayla started calling the ghost who kept her safe. She followed her around the house most nights, kept her company while she brushed, and always kept the hall light on for her. With the blue lady there, the house became a home Kayla enjoyed being in.
By the time Spring arrived, our mother was making good money and she loved the garage sales that popped up during spring cleaning. Kayla hated going because it was an all-day affair, but the promise of books to fill the empty shelves in the library enticed her. They bounced from yard to yard. A dresser here. A couch there. A dining room table and four chairs, but no books. Kayla was beginning to get discouraged but then, tucked underneath a table in the grass, she found three big boxes of children’s books. The owner was generous, seeing how excited Kayla was, and let them go for $2 a box. When they arrived home, Kayla and my mother slid the boxes into the library. My sister tried making her way through one box but didn’t get too far. Every time she pulled out a book, she flipped through the pages and read until the moon’s light replaced the sun. When she brushed her teeth that night, the blue lady wasn’t there. When she went to bed that night, the light in the hallway remained off. Weeks passed with no sign of the blue lady and the house grew cold and dark. Kayla felt the hairs pulling at her skin. The boxes of books went untouched.
Then the night terrors began. My sister’s screams woke our mother from her sleep. Kayla thrashed. This would go on for many nights. Our mother tried to hold her, rock her back to sleep, but nothing helped. Her doctor said she was healthy and that night terrors would come and go. Growing pains, he said. But our mother was desperate for sleep and Kayla’s eyes grew dark boats underneath. The blue lady was nowhere to be found, and even when Kayla tried to conjure her in a dream, she couldn’t.
Summer arrived, and the night terrors continued. Our mother ran on fumes and ran out of options. She moved all their blankets and pillows into the library and lit a fire. She rocked Kayla back and forth, hoping the room would provide comfort and sleep. Kayla’s eyes drifted closed and her body became heavy. Grateful at the thought of rest, our mother began to let her eyes close, too. The light flickered on their faces and the firewood turned to hot, glowing coals.
Our mother has a hard time talking about the scream that emanated from my sister that night. She says it came from a dark place in her gut. The thrashing knocked our mother backward and she scrambled to get back to Kayla, but she was moving too violently to approach. My mother remembers backing away crying, and yelling, “I don’t know what to do!” over and over again until she stumbles back into the boxes of books that were forgotten. She tries to catch herself but falls and the books spill onto the floor. Through tears, she notices one that looks different from the rest. It’s not a colorful storybook, but a tome bound in brown leather. The spine bears no identifying details, no title or author, only a gold top hat embossed on the front cover. She reaches for the book and starts to flip through the pages. Our mother doesn’t remember there being any words in the book. Every page, she says, was filled with men in Victorian garb wearing black top hats. Their faces were smudged out and their arms were so long, they reached the ground standing straight up. The illustrations of these men with no faces and long arms carried wood from page to page. Our mother flipped through frantically, until she reached the final page, folded like an accordion. Unfolding it revealed a large bonfire, encircled by boulders, and when she squinted to inspect the flames, she could make someone out with long blonde hair, like my sister’s.
Our mother slammed the book shut, disturbed by the images, and thrust back to the present moment by Kayla’s screams. This book had to go and so my mother threw it straight into the fireplace. But it didn’t burn right away. It sat there atop the glowing coals, untouched by heat. Then, with a sudden burst, it went up in flames, and the fire burned blue. Kayla’s screams went quiet. After that, the night terrors stopped, and the blue lady returned to my sister’s side.
I called my sister a couple of weeks ago to get some extra details for this story, and toward the end of our conversation, she got really quiet and said, “I have to tell you something that I haven’t told anyone because I feel embarrassed.” Of course, I encouraged her to share. She told me that, about five years ago, she started to dream about that house. At first in the dream, she’s excited to be back as an adult. But when she walks to her bedroom, the blue wallpaper is peeling and the curtains are shredded. She turns to run, but the staircase is endless and she can’t reach the bottom. Behind her, chase men in top hats with long arms.
Lou Burrows is a queer butch poet and aspiring homesteader whose work lives mostly on Instagram as @lt_chicken. They write about love, nature, and heartbreak, with a focus on queer kinship.