Used to be, I didn't believe in ghosts or anything.

This isn't a story about how I had a paranormal experience that changed my mind. I still don't believe in ghosts. You have my apologies if that comes as a disappointment. But now, I do believe in the "or anything."

There are plenty of people I know, people I trust, who tell me they have had experiences they could not explain. My dad died when I was pretty young, and my mom is a firm believer that he's still around to help her or play cute tricks on her—he'll hide something she's looking for, only to leave it in a meaningful place instead of where it should be. She promises me she's seen shimmers in the periphery of her vision that she believed was him, and swears to me that on the night my sister wrecked her car, she could hear my dad's voice in her ear as she was falling asleep, just as plainly as if he were in the room with her, telling her there was trouble just before the phone rang.

I've always been the type to find the logical explanation, but I've never been opposed to the idea of ghosts. I'd just never had an encounter like that for myself to contradict it.

At the same time, I've never been without a healthy fear of the unknown. My dog Max is my only housemate, and we live a half-mile off the main road in bumfuck nowhere, eastern Kentucky. If I'm walking the dog at night, the porch light does a pretty crappy job lighting up just the yard. I'll look out into the darkness, in the woods surrounding my house, scanning for the glowing eyes that a thousand ghost stories would have me almost expecting to find. And if there's a rustling sound, a branch snapping, the dog and I still dart back into the house at warp speed like Shaggy and Scooby, even though I know deep down it's just a deer or a raccoon or something.

Or when the wind is whipping through the trees at night, making that awful noise like a scream that's grown too tired from eons of torture to ring out at full blast, I still pull the sheets up to my nose.

And if there's a thunderstorm, lightning flashing images of the stormy void outside, neither money nor love would compel me to look out the window. Some part of me just knows there will be a nearby lightning strike, with instant and deafening thunder to accompany the flash, and find a face pressed against the glass.

I've been thinking about this paradox all week: I know there is nothing to be afraid of in the dark, but my hair stands on end anyway. The creaking noises of the old house at night have never been the footsteps of a maniac, the tingles up my neck were never the breath of a monster behind me. Why do I physiologically fear what I know is not real?

So I decided to push back. Either I'd find something, and believe, or put this nonsense to rest.

I started last night, I sat out on the porch with the dog through dusk, hearing the owls talk to each other, watching the gray bats bicker over the insects, until the storm rolled in, bringing lightning, thunder, wind, the driving din of rain. It was beautiful, and majestic, but it still left me shaken; it was the kind of sublime adoration you get from the view on a high cliff, that the natural world below you is great and powerful and interesting, but the fall could still kill you.

I walked through the house in the darkness, afraid as always of being silently followed. Every scary prospect my mind could invent, I would fight back to dispel.

I went to the bathroom; there could be a monster hiding in the shower, so I—still in the dark—fumbled my way around the curtain and stepped in. Nothing.

I closed the door, turned to where the mirror would be, and did everything I could to summon Bloody Mary and the Candyman and everyone else I could think of. When I clicked the lights on, my eyes hurt like hell, and my ugly ass was looking back at me through the squinting—but I was alone, without a hook in my neck or anything.

Lights back off. The darkness was total now, my eyes trying to readjust. I shuffled off to bed. I sat on the edge, taking off my shoes, looking out the window. A flash of lightning. Nothing. Another. Nothing. Just the thunder and the static of the rainfall.

I was ready to finish the experiment, ready to tell myself I won the game, ready to live the rest of my life unafraid. I told the darkness one last time, "If anything is out there, if anything can hear me, I'm listening."

The darkness answered, "I'm right here."

I felt it in my knees first, like they just locked up. My breath hitched and was suddenly still, but it felt like I'd been hit in the stomach. That feeling you get in the movie when the jump-scare finally comes, like if you did see the face in the window, or someone else in the bathroom beside you—that primal, complete fear that freezes your mind with panic, that makes you scream for help and mercy—it was that. But the jump-scare lasts only a frame or two, the lightning fades and the face disappears, you blink and the person in the bathroom is gone; it lasts only a moment before it passes and fades and your reason returns—it wasn't like that. It wasn't temporary. I heard someone answer me.

A hand came to rest on my shoulder, but I didn't jump. Actually, I've never in my life felt anything as comforting as that hand, that found my shoulder and gently squeezed.

"It's okay, I'm right here."

The hand was large, strong... familiar. And the voice, I hadn't heard it in over a decade, but I recognized it.

The fear started to melt, like physical weight being lifted off my ribs. I sucked in a shaking breath, half crying already, because I knew only one person who would stand close behind me and squeeze my shoulder like that to calm me down.

"Is this... really," I started to ask, not sure what to do. Since I was twelve, I had a thousand questions I wanted to ask him, but in this moment, none would come.

A swift knock to the back of my head. Laughter, different now, laughing and barking like an angry dog, the sound circling around me, and then rambling, the voice like an old man and a lion and a child all at once:

"You retarded little faggot, you come looking for something and you shit your pants when you get it? How stupid are you? 'Oh, Daddy, please talk to me and tell me I'm not a miserable failure.' You dumb fucking worm. You think dead people can just come back? You think your dead dad would come back to teach you how to shave and catch a fish? No fucking way. When you're dead you're just fucking dead, and gone, and gone forever, and no one gives a shit. I'm not your fucking faggot daddy come back from the dead just for you," and here, a new hand took me by the jaw, clammy but so hot it hurt, sharp fingernails in my cheeks, "—I'm anything but. I'm as old as these hills and smarter than you'll ever be. Sometimes I fuck with your slut mom just so I can watch her try to masturbate and cry herself to sleep. She's dying in a fire right now, getting licked all over by flames and every one of them is me, eating her up by the pound, fire-fucking that ugly pussy you fell out of into ashes, and the only reason I'm not doing the same with you right now is so you can tell the world, the people smart enough not to go seeking me out, tell them I'm coming."

I remember thinking, I know what's coming next. Even though it was dark, I screwed my eyes shut as hard as I could. I reached up to take the hand off my face, but I hesitated, wondering if I was truly prepared to actually grasp whatever it was that had me. I just had to find a way to keep from seeing it.

The grip on my jaw tightened, and there was the pricking pain of its claws actually cutting into my skin, and then hot fingers plucked my eyelids apart and held my eye open.

A flash of lightning. There it was, not towering over me, but staring at me inches from my face. The eyes wet black pearls, the toothy tusked smirk, but then that awful nose, its ridges and folds, pushed high up on the face like a bat, the sulfur breath steaming out of it and choking me.

The lightning gone, leaving complete darkness but for the negative of the face still glowing green and red behind my eyelids; the hands let go and I felt alone again, and I could move again, breathe again, gasping for clean air; a gunshot-loud clap of thunder, but as it tapered off, the sound of the phone ringing.

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