Ghost / House is a short story by Caroline Kim. Ms. Kim is the author of a collection of short stories about the Korean diaspora, The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories, which won the 2020 Drue Heinz Prize in Literature. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in New England Review, Story, The Michigan Quarterly Review, TriQuarterly, Pleiades, Lithub, and elsewhere. Find her at carolinekim.net and @carolinewriting.
Jean found a box of paperbacks next to the dumpster with a note that said FREE! She looked around for competition even though she knew no one else in her apartment complex would be excited about books, free or not.
From the swirly covers of long-haired women limp in the arms of big-chested men, she could tell they were mostly romances. Jean knew they were for lonely women. No man would want to be caught dead holding such books. The other books were: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Catch-22, Pride and Prejudice with the cover torn off, and two Stephen Kings. Jean took the books she’d heard of, Carrie and Pride and Prejudice, and left the rest.
Jean had turned twelve at the beginning of summer. Her best friend at River Crossing had gone up to New Hampshire for the summer to stay with her father. Sometimes Jean was jealous of kids with divorced parents. They got double helpings of presents celebrating their birthdays and Christmases. They even, like Jean’s best friend, Lucy, got baby brothers or sisters. Jean believed she would have made an excellent older sister. She would have preferred a baby sister but a baby brother would have been okay too. She was patient and responsible, not squeamish about changing diapers or cleaning up baby puke (she had a baby cousin she saw irregularly), and everyone said she had a soothing voice. But she had long ago stopped asking her mother to have more babies. Her parents worked all the time at a paper goods plant. They had to wear masks to keep the fine dust out of their lungs and came home with red rings around the bottom half of their faces that took hours to disappear. Her mother was too tired sometimes even to cook so Jean made ramen for all of them, carefully cutting the scallions into tiny, perfectly cut square pieces before adding them on top of the noodles. Her parents always told her what a good daughter she was, and looking at their tired slumping bodies, Jean felt it was her job to be one.
She wished school would start already. She didn’t have any other friends at River Crossing besides Lucy. She’d been watching a lot of TV but even that was getting stale so she’d started wandering around the other buildings in the apartment complex. There were six in all, including hers. She’d wait outside the big front door until someone came out and then she’d slip in. Hardly anyone who lived there paid attention to kids. Inside, the other buildings looked just the same as the one she lived in though they all smelled different. She would walk quietly down the hallways, stopping when she heard people inside and then press her ear to the door. It was never very interesting. Usually the noise was the television or someone on the phone. But once she heard a fight that was so loud she didn’t even need to put her ear to the door. “I could kill you! You stupid bitch!” a man’s voice said. “Fuck you!” a woman’s voice yelled back. Then there was a sound like a light bulb popping and a thud. Jean got scared. She knocked on the door and then ran as fast as she could to the end of the hallway and out the back door. She had stopped wandering inside other buildings after that.
Now Jean took the two books back to her apartment and starting reading Pride and Prejudice while eating cereal again as a snack. It took a lot of concentration to read the book. The sentences threatened to go on forever and there were so many words she didn’t know that by the time she got to the end of a paragraph, she’d forgotten what was happening at the beginning. Still, she liked imagining being in a family with so many daughters.
After she read for an hour, she got bored again and decided to walk up to the pool. When her family had first moved into River Crossing five years earlier, the kidney shaped pool had been a perfect cool blue. Kids were screaming and water was splashing everywhere and Jean had thought that living in America really was better than living in Korea. Otherwise she didn’t see what was so great about America, especially the town she lived in which was poor and ugly compared to the suburb of Boston where her cousins lived. Their town had wide, ordered streets and houses with huge, empty lawns, and even their McDonald’s was in a clean brick building. Jean’s town had a business district anchored by a used car dealership, and old, abandoned shoe factories lining the polluted river. It was hard to believe Boston was only forty miles away. A hundred years ago, her town had been the shoe-making capital of America. She liked thinking of that time, a town full of workers in good shoes, young people excited about life.
Jean tried the chain on the gated fence to the pool even though she knew it was locked. She looked around in the weedy grass until she found an old bobby pin. Bending it apart, she tried to pick the lock but it was as futile as it felt. She threw the bobby pin away and stared at the pool through the fence. It was dark green, frothy with algae at the edges. People had complained but nothing was done about it. Last summer when it was just green but algae-free, she and the other kids had gone swimming in it anyway. When you opened your eyes underwater it was too dark to see anything and they swam blind, bumping into each other and laughing, kicking and trying to drown each other. Jean gave up and decided to go back to her apartment. Her mother called at three set times everyday and if Jean wasn’t there to answer, her mother worried and couldn’t do her job well.
As Jean approached the front door of her building, she saw a girl sitting on the steps reading a book. It was Pet Semetary. Jean stood next to her until the girl looked up squinting and said, “Can I help you?”
“Did you find that book in a box by the dumpster?” Jean asked.
“Yeah. Why? Was it yours?”
“No. But I saw it. I took a couple of books too.”
“Good for you,” the girl said. She went back to her book. The girl was wearing a yellow shirt that was just a band around her breasts and jean shorts so tight, her thighs squeezed out of them. Jean felt like a baby in her cotton shorts and strawberry t-shirt.
“Are you visiting?” Jean asked. “I’ve never seen you before.”
“Just moved in,” the girl said. Jean noticed she had an accent different from the one she normally heard.
“Where’d you move from?”
The girl stared at Jean, measuring her. “Kind of nosy, aren’t you?”
Jean said, “I’m bored.”
“I’m bored too,” the girl said. “I’ll tell you if you tell me.”
“I’m from Korea.”
“I thought you were going to say China.”
Jean shrugged, used to this response.
“I’m from Atlanta,” the girl said.
Jean sat down next to the girl and they exchanged names. Chantal was a year older than Jean. Jean thought Chantal was the most beautiful name she had ever heard. It sounded like a French perfume.
Chantal said she had moved up north with her mother and older brother to get away from her father. Even though he was locked up in jail.
“What’d he do?” Jean asked.
Instead of answering, Chantal ripped a page out of the paperback, crumpled it up and threw it as far as she could. Then she did another page and another. She held the book out to Jean as if offering a treat.
Jean thought ripping up a book was rude, as was littering, but what the hell. They made a game of it, first trying to see who could throw the farthest and then whether they could hit a certain fencepost. After ten minutes, the pathway to the apartment building looked like it was covered with ragged snowballs.
“I’m hungry,” Chantal said.
“I have food,” Jean said. “If you want to come in.” She got up to pick up the crumpled pages.
“What are you doing?” Chantal asked.
“Cleaning up,” Jean said.
“You’re such a goody-goody,” Chantal said, standing up with her stomach poking out.
She made a dramatic sigh and then helped Jean pick up the rest of the torn pages.
Jean led the way to her second floor apartment. Chantal said her apartment was on the basement floor near the laundry room. She complained that the machines cost more here than they did down south. Jean sensed that Chantal’s life was more chaotic than hers and that gave her a feeling of superiority. She unlocked the front door and threw her shoes off as soon as she got inside. Chantal watched her and took off her own shoes without being asked, placing them neatly on the shoe rack next to the door.
Jean walked into the small kitchen and opened the refrigerator. There were two tupperware containers stacked on top of each other. One was of leftover bulgogi from the night before and another held seasoned spinach. She took them out. There was kimchee too, but Jean didn’t think Chantal was ready for that. She hesitated just briefly before asking, “Have you ever had Korean food?”
“What’s that? I mean, what kind of food is Korean food?”
“This is a meat dish and this is spinach.” Jean put the tupperware on the table between them.
Chantal shrugged. “I’ll try anything,” she said. “My mom always says my brother and I are like dumpsters. We’ll eat anything.”
While Jean was heating up the meat in the microwave, Chantal walked around the small apartment looking at the pictures on the wall, leaning in close to see. “Your dad looks mad,” she said. “He never smiles.”
“Nope, never,” Jean said.
She poured lemonade into two glasses and handed one to Chantal. “Do you miss Atlanta?” she asked.
“Of course,” Chantal said. “This place is nothing compared to Atlanta. It’s nothing even to Toledo or Houston.” When Jean looked at her, she said, “We’ve moved around a bunch.” She sighed. “And there’s no Sonic this far up north. I miss their tater tots.”
Jean told Chantal there was a McDonald’s just beyond the highway overpass. It was in a strip mall with a grocery store, drugstore, bank, and Chinese restaurant. Jean and her parents ate at the Chinese restaurant once a week on Fridays, and sometimes her father went alone during the week to drink beer and sit at the dark bar with the hanging coconut lights. Jean loved those lights.
Chantal gulped her lemonade and sat leaning forward. When Jean sat down next to her, she felt Chantal flinch though not in a way that could be seen. Jean moved a few inches away. She felt intimidated by Chantal, by her long dirty-blonde hair, her restless energy. Even when she was just sitting, her body was tense, ready to run. She was constantly nibbling the skin around her thumbnail.
“What’s there to do around here?” Chantal asked, putting her hand down. “I saw the pool. It’s disgusting. Is anything going to be done about that?”
Jean shrugged. “Probably not. It’s been like that since last summer.”
“Somebody’s got to do something,” Chantal said. She put her empty lemonade glass on the coffee table. “Isn’t there a manager in this place?”
“I don’t know,” Jean said.
“I’m going to ask my brother when he gets home,” Chantal said. “He’ll know what to do.” She explained that her brother was at work. He sold tires at Sears. “It isn’t right. We pay good money to rent here, and the pool was part of the deal.”
Jean wondered how Chantal and her family hadn’t noticed the green pool before they decided to move into River Crossing.
“What’s your sign?” asked Chantal.
“Your sign. You know, the zodiac?”
Jean said, “I’m a rooster in the Chinese zodiac.” She had seen that on the placemats at the Chinese restaurant. It said she was loud and showy which she was not.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Chantal said. “When’s your birthday?”
When Jean told her, Chantal said, “That means you’re a Gemini.” She looked at Jean appraisingly. “That means you’re two-faced. I’ll have to watch out.”
Jean was about to protest but Chantal just continued on. “I’m Aquarius. A water sign. Emotional, passionate.” She got up, waving her hands as she spoke as if to prove it.
Jean didn’t really see how all the people born in the same month or year could be the same so she only half-listened. Chantal talked on and on about horoscopes and planets until Jean called her to the small kitchen and set a bowl in front of her, rice with bulgogi and spinach on top. Chantal picked up the bowl and sniffed at it suspiciously before taking a tentative bite. Her face changed. “Mmm, it’s good,” she said. “Usually I don’t even like spinach.” She ate hurriedly, like Jean’s father. Jean’s mother said her father ate like that because he had grown up during the Korean war. But so did her mother and she didn’t eat like someone afraid her food would to be taken away.
The phone rang; it was one o’clock. “It’s my mom,” Jean said. “I have to talk to her.”
“No problem,” Chantal said, taking her bowl to the sink. “I’ve got to go home anyway. I’ll see you around.” As Jean picked up the phone, she heard Chantal say, “Thanks for lunch. It was good. Yeah, really good,” before shutting the door.
* * *
The next morning, while Jean was watching Good Morning America and eating cereal, there was a knock at the door. “Well, what are we going to do?” Chantal said when Jean opened it. She was wearing a white, baggy boy’s shirt and the same jean shorts. She had dark smudges under her eyes, and had asked the question like she was throwing down a challenge.
Jean thought about taking her to an old cemetery she’d found once in the woods back behind the complex, so old the headstones were from the 1600s, but she wasn’t sure yet that she wanted to share it with Chantal. She suspected Chantal might belittle it, maybe declare graveyards didn’t scare her.
Then she thought of another place. “I know!” Jean said, sitting down on the ground to put on her sneakers. “Just follow me.”
They walked down to the front of the complex where a big, peeling sign read River Crossing in fading gold letters, out to Rancher’s Road. On one side of the road was farmland that was full of tall grass and weeds and on the other was a strip of woods. For a little while, they walked in silence, the day warm but not yet hot.
“Is there really anything out here?” Chantal asked, sounding annoyed.
“There’s a house I want to show you,” Jean said. She wondered if she even liked Chantal. She sensed that a friendship with her would require more than her friendship with Lucy. Require what Jean didn’t know and she also wasn’t sure that even if she did she would want to give it.
It was both quiet and loud on the road. No cars, but insects making all kinds of noise, flying up in clumps in the sunlight.
“God, there’s nothing here,” Chantal said. “How can you stand it?”
Jean kind of knew what she meant. In Korea she had lived in a big city. Jean wished she could remember more about it. But it was like once she lost the language, she lost the memories too. All she had left were vague feelings and impressions. America was her home now but it still didn’t feel like it.
“There it is,” Jean pointed as the house came into view. “That white house?”
“What’s wrong with it? It’s leaning over.”
“Something terrible happened there.”
Jean knew she had Chantal’s full attention. She could feel her stand up straighter, focus, and walk faster. They approached the driveway which had a feeble chainlink gate in front of it. Since most of the rest of the fence had fallen away, they simply walked around it. The driveway was pitted and uneven, weeds growing in random spots.
“Let me guess,” Chantal said. “Someone was murdered here.”
“Not just one person,” Jean said. “A whole family.”
“Shit,” Chantal breathed out.
Jean felt inordinately proud that she had impressed Chantal and considered them on an equal footing for the first time.
“Did you know them?” Chantal asked.
Jean shook her head. “It happened a long time ago. Murder-suicide. Murders. The dad went crazy and shot the whole family and then himself.” They both stopped to take in the house. It had been a modest sized white farmhouse with a front porch. Now one side of the porch was detached from the house while on the other it leaned dangerously toward the ground. It reminded Jean of Carrie, which she had started to read the night before, another weak, falling down house. It had scared her so badly that she had had to remove the book from her bedroom in order to sleep.
Chantal’s eyes were closed. “I can feel the energy,” she said. “It’s bad.” She opened her eyes. “There’s so much pain here.”
Chantal’s voice had grown flatter, deeper, so Jean looked over to see if Chantal was joking, doing an impression, but she was not.
Chantal was looking at her. “Have you ever been inside?”
“No way,” Jean said.
“You know we have to go in, right?” Chantal said.
Jean did not want to do any such thing. She was scared enough just looking at it from the outside. Especially after what Chantal had just said.
Jean was easily scared. Months earlier, when Prom Night had come to the discount movie theater, she had snuck into it with Lucy. It was her first rated R movie. Since then she had had trouble sleeping because every time she closed her eyes, she saw the detached prom king’s head with its open eyes rolling over and over down the stage or the girl huddled in the janitor’s closet while blood dripped like candle wax onto her head and face from the ceiling.
“It’s a murder house,” Jean said. “No way.” Forgetting she wasn’t with Lucy, she reached for Chantal’s hand. Chantal stiffened and then moved away, toward the front steps. She turned around. “It’s fine,” she said. She walked to the front door and pushed it in. All Jean saw was blackness. Chantal looked back with a serious look on her face. “C’mon,” she said. “This is going to be fun.”
Jean went slowly up the few steps, and stopped on the porch, the tilting making her feel the whole world was off-center. From inside, Chantal said, “Look at this!”
Jean pushed the door further open and stepped inside. Her feet crunched on mysterious things, bones, dried blood, and insect skeletons, Jean imagined. It took a minute to make sense of what she was seeing. There was a set of stairs in front of her to the right, a hallway leading to the back of the house on the left and rooms on either side. Chantal was in the right hand room plinking the keys of an old upright piano. The keys were dark yellow and most of them were missing. Jean wished Chantal would stop hitting random keys. It would only wake whatever ghosts were around.
“So what happened here?” Chantal asked. “Why did the man kill his whole family?”
Jean shrugged. Nobody had ever told her why. “He went crazy, I guess,” she said.
“Yeah, but why?”
Jean whispered she didn’t know as she followed close behind Chantal. They went through the downstairs rooms. It was brighter than Jean had thought it would be thanks to the patches of blue sky filtering in through the rotting roof. The floor was littered with broken bits of wood and glass, not blood and bone. Also crushed empty beer cans and cigarette ends all over, like busy white ants. In what must have been the living room there was still a torn couch with stuffing coming out of it, a hall table on its side with only two legs, a cracked clock in the fireplace and a large light fixture on the floor, its chain like a coiled snake. In the kitchen was an old ice box with the door hanging open, a sink with no faucet, broken windows through which the dry, back fields could be seen.
Chantal returned to the entry and looked up the stairs. “I’m going up,” she said. The stairs creaked badly as she went. Jean hesitated at the bottom and had almost decided to wait outside for Chantal to finish seeing whatever she wanted to see, when Chantal called out, “Hey, guess what’s here?”
“What is it?” Jean called.
Jean missed Lucy. Lucy was just as much of a scaredy cat as she was. While they watched Prom Night, they had huddled together, gripping each other’s hands, not minding that they were sweaty. They took turns watching the movie and narrating what was happening while the other squeezed her eyes shut and told herself it was just a movie. Afterward, Jean had slept over at Lucy’s and without discussion, they had slept with the lights on.
“Don’t be a pussy!” Chantal shouted down.
Jean decided it would be over faster if she went up and looked. She held her breath and ran up the stairs which was a mistake because it made her feel that something was chasing her. At the top, she called out Chantal’s name.
“Here!” Chantal called from a room on the right.
Chantal was sitting in an old rocking chair with only one arm. She held up a paperback. It was another Stephen King book, this one with a scary, glowing-eyed dog on the cover.
“Isn’t that crazy?” Chantal said. Jean felt all her little hairs rise.
Jean looked around the room. There was a twin sized bed with an old towel thrown on it. On the floor next to it was a lamp, the cover’s fabric torn off so only the metal shape of it was left. In the corner there was a bookshelf with more empty beer cans but no books.
“Whoever lived here was loved,” Chantal said, her eyes closed again, her voice eerie again. “A lot.”
Jean wished Chantal would stop saying creepy things. She looked out through the broken window to the long driveway, the falling down fence and the road they’d come on. It was so bright outside. She wished she was out there on the road, in the sunshine, walking home.
“Have you ever had an out of body experience?” Chantal asked.
“What do you mean?” Jean crossed her arms.
“Like you’re standing outside your body, looking down at yourself.”
Since moving to America, Jean did see herself from the outside, wonder automatically about how others saw her. It was never the way she saw herself. But she knew that wasn’t what Chantal was talking about.
“No,” Jean said.
“Anybody can learn to do it. I’ve been doing it since I was five years old. If I close my eyes and concentrate only on my breathing, I can feel myself rising. Up and away from my body. Then I can fly to wherever I want.”
Jean watched Chantal’s face. She seemed there and not there.
“The girl who lived here. I know what happened to her. Someone loved her too much. He wouldn’t leave her alone. She used to fly out of her body too.”
“Chantal,” Jean said.
“I can feel it. She was loved. Want to know something? She was killed last. Here in this room. On that bed, I think.”
Jean looked over at the rusty iron bars of the bed, the stains on the mattress that could have been blood. Even the flat pillow was stained by something dark.
Every part of Jean wanted to run away while also feeling frozen when something small and dark ran across the floor close to her. She held her face and screamed and then flew down the stairs, throwing aside the door, running down the driveway, along Rancher’s Road, past the blank fields and dark woods, not stopping for anything until she got to her apartment. Her hands shook as she tried to fit the key into the lock. She never looked back to see if Chantal was behind her.
Starting that night she began having terrible nightmares that woke her at night, and left her with the feeling of having been suffocated. She couldn’t bear to have Carrie in the apartment and threw it away. She stopped going outside and only wanted to watch TV all day. It didn’t matter what, it only had to crowd her mind. It wasn’t just fear she felt, but dread. She didn’t know why. Her appetite left her until her mother worried enough to send her to Pennsylvania to spend the rest of the summer with her cousins, even though she felt it was a loss of face to ask. Jean’s parents didn’t want to be reminded how they were poor and the rest of the family was not.
Her aunt and uncle belonged to a country club where she went swimming every day in an Olympic-sized pool that was icy blue. The world in the water was just as clear as the world outside, full of light. Every day she ate hamburgers and fries that she charged to her aunt and uncle’s account. By the time she came back tanned and heavier, Chantal was gone. Jean’s mother didn’t know where. How could she? She was at work all the time.
Years later, Jean took her young daughters to a neighborhood park that had recently been refreshed. All of the playground equipment, like the town itself, had a newly wealthy sheen to it, bright colors, durable plastic, gentle shading. There was a group of nannies from Southeast Asia in one corner, another from Africa in another, a few lone mothers like Jean spread out on blankets, the children’s snacks waiting in small stackable containers. Jean didn’t notice how peaceful it was until a group of teenagers came sauntering through, sitting momentarily on the swings, going down once on the slide before continuing on their way. Among them was a girl with dirty blonde hair wearing jean shorts and a white crop top who even from afar gave off a restless energy as if she might suddenly flee. Suddenly, she felt a buzzing in her body and Jean remembered Chantal, remembered the same dirty blonde hair, the way her voice could go flat, how her clothes couldn’t contain her, how she flinched when touched. And she realized that Chantal had been telling Jean something very important that had happened to her but Jean, stupid Jean, hadn’t known then how to hear it.