“Hank, can you run down to the basement and fetch me some more flour?” I asked my son, who had just come downstairs for breakfast. He plopped down onto one of the kitchen chairs and shook his little head.
“No,” he muttered, ”I can’t.”
I craned my neck to look at him from the pancake mix bubbling on the stove. He seemed fidgety and pale, not at all like his usual self, “Why not?”
He stared at me, his eyes wide, “There are ghosts in the basement, mum.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” I chuckled, “Ghosts aren’t real, sweetheart. Or even if they are, they live in very old, abandoned houses. Much older than ours.”
Hank was silent, watching me as I poked at the batter in the pan, “That’s not true, is it?”
His voice was earnest and eerily calm, sending chills crawling up my spine.
“Of course, it’s true!” I assured him, “Think about it. What is a ghost?”
Hank thought for a moment, “Someone who’s dead?”
I nodded, “Exactly. And no one has died in our house. We bought it brand new last year, remember? So, we can’t have ghosts.”
“How do you know?”
My heart skipped a beat and I turned to look at him again. For a seven-year-old, Hank was an incredibly deep thinker, a quality that had the capacity both to impress and to unnerve.
“How do I know what?”
“How do you know that no one has died in our house?”
I tapped the spatula on the edge of the pan, trying to gather my scattered thoughts, “Well, wouldn’t we know if anyone had? Hey, darling, could you run down and get that flour, please, these pancakes are breaking apart.”
There was a pause, “No, mum.”
I sighed impatiently, “Hank, your dad’s downstairs, the lights will be on. Go on, there’s no ghost, trust me.”
But Hank sat there, kicking his legs under the table, visibly uncomfortable. This had never been a problem in the past, and I couldn’t think of any reason for it, aside from some silly horror story his friends might have told him at school.
“Look, how about I call dad to come to get you, hm?” I said, making my way towards the basement door, “Tho-”
“No, mum, don’t!” Hank jumped to his feet, dashing after me and gripping the hem of my apron, “Don’t call dad!”
His eyes welled up with tears, “I don’t like him.”
I stared at him, taken aback, “You don’t like him? Why?”
“He’s a bad person.”
“What? How can you say such a thing?”
He stuck out his bottom lip, “He’s very angry.”
“He’s not angry, sweetheart, what makes you say that?”
“Well,” Hank sounded hesitant, “Yesterday, after school, I went down to the basement to ask for some help with the pasta, and he was yelling at the lady. And then he hit her.”
I froze, “What pasta? What lady?”
He hid his face in my apron and shook his head, “I don’t know.”
I put my hands on his shoulders and kneeled in front of him, “Hank, can you tell me what happened?”
My husband was a stay-at-home dad and normally spent his time tinkering in the garage. His only responsibilities were keeping the house tidy and taking care of Hank after school. I always worked late and usually came home long after my son went to bed.
“Dad always has a new lady in the basement when I come home from school. I’m not allowed to go down there, but I hear them. He says I have to get my own dinner, but last night I forgot to turn off the stove and some water got on my arm.”
He pulled up his right sleeve, revealing a large area of scorched skin on his forearm. I stared at it, and then at my son in bewilderment, my throat closing up.
“…And then I went downstairs to tell dad, but he was busy with the lady. He got really angry when he saw me.”
I didn’t know what to say. My heart was thumping fast in my chest, making me feel lightheaded.
“W-what happened to the lady, Hank?” I whispered.
He wet his lips, “I- I don’t- She lives in the basement now. They all do.”
My blood ran cold, “Stay here. I’m going to talk to your father.”
“No!” Hank grabbed my sleeve, “You can’t go, mum!”
“I have to, baby. Don’t worry, the ghosts won’t get me. I just need to find out what’s going on.”
“No, you can’t go,” he kept repeating, frantically tugging at my blouse, “Dad said you’re not supposed to know about last night!”
I stared at him, “What? This is important, Hank, your father is supposed to be taking care of you!”
Hank crumpled to the floor, burying his face in his little hands.
“I’m afraid,” he sniffled, “I’m afraid that if you tell him, he’ll make me return to my grave.”