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Photo by Eric Calonius

My mother liked to tell us ghost stories at supper. A long time ago, she said, in that yellow

house up the block, a man stumbled down the stairs and broke his neck. She stopped and

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cut her asparagus into pieces and paused for a long, painful moment to chew, to wait

until my brother and I were squirming, could barely breathe. Then she said: This was

back when people still had wakes in their homes. So they mourned the dead man there,

and afterword his wife collected the half-burned candles and put them in a drawer. She

told her family to use the same candles at her funeral, in the same arrangement, in the

same upstairs room. Maybe the family couldn't find them ten years later, or maybe they

forgot or never saw the note. Maybe they were too darn busy or they didn't have the time

for what seemed like a trivial little request. A few nights later a neighbor saw flames in

that upstairs window. He rushed to call the fire department. When they arrived, they

found no fire. My mother's sister told us a different story. She drove us to school each

morning, and we had to pass that yellow house, that abandoned house. She held her

breath from it and shielded her eyes and made this strange croaking sound that seemed to

follow us up the block. She said that a slave had once escaped his plantation and snuck

into that house to hide in a room upstairs. It wasn't long before they discovered food

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missing from the cupboard, discovered him. Back at the plantation, the overseer punished the slave, burning his legs so badly he couldn't stand for a month and never walked again without a lilt. Later, someone saw fire in that upstairs window. The fire department came.

There was no fire. I told this to a boy on the playground. He scooped a handful of sand

and watched it sift through his fingers. He said two girls had slept there once, in that same

upstairs room. It was winter, a long time ago. The floors creaked and the wind turned

and the girls were scared. Their mother reminded them she would be in the next room,

just on the other side of the wall. If the girls needed her, all they had to do was knock. For

much of the night, the older sister listened to the younger sister sleep. She stared into the

dark, too warm under the blankets, the air too cold outside them. Then she heard the

door open gently and shut gently. Footsteps crossed the floor. A hand combed its fingers

though her hair. The mother woke to sharp knocks on the wall. She lit her lantern,

rushed to next room, and found her daughters but no one else. There were stories in the

paper: A gardener had claimed to see the old wife standing in the parlor, her hands out,

her fists flaming. A real estate agent had heard someone running up and down the stairs

and another thought she could make out moans of hunger. On a website, we found video

from a team of ghost hunters that had stayed there. They had brought a children's piano

with them, and, in the dark, it began playing itself. We got older, we heard more stories,

the house stayed a block away. Once, when I was a kid, I tiptoed into my parent's room

and stood there silently until they woke. My mother led me back to my bed. She

unbuttoned the top button of her nightgown and then buttoned it again. This is the

South, she told me. Not all histories are ghost stories, but all histories are the stories of

ghosts. I nodded. I didn't understand. Not really. Even yesterday, back visiting my

parents, I took a walk and crossed to the other side of the street as I passed the house. I

held my breath like my aunt had done. The upstairs windows were covered as always, boarded, but I searched them for fire anyway, the illusion of fire.

Lucas Southworth's first collection of stories, "Everyone Here Has a Gun," won the Grace Paley Prize. He teaches fiction and screenwriting at Loyola University Maryland.

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