The Flashlight Trick
11:13 AM EDT on October 30, 2020
Ed. note: Chris wanted to write a scary story for Halloween, and we thought you might like to read one. So, just to be absolutely clear: the following story is fictional. I think.
There is a cool little thing you can do if you want to feel you are communicating with ghosts. You will need two flashlights, you will need a dark room with a flat surface, and you will need a series of questions that can be answered with a “yes” or a “no.” What you will not need, not exactly, is a ghost.
Greg and Amy had done the flashlight trick many times, in many places. They brought flashlights on certain of their adventures for just this purpose. On a ghost tour of the French Quarter, they had pulled out the flashlights right there on the sidewalk in front of the LaLaurie house. They got two questions in before the tour guide moved the group along as politely as she could. The trial was still a triumph—they’d seen two blinks, which was enough to know that they’d established contact with one of that town’s many spirits, perhaps even Madame LaLaurie herself. For Greg and Amy, the world was practically overfull of talkative ghosts. That a person could reach across the permeable plane separating the real world from the spirit world was becoming a downright mundane fact of life. The conversations themselves were infuriatingly limited, even same-y. Whatever thrill was left in the exercise came from their secret knowledge of it, and their unblemished record of success.
Mark, Greg’s roommate for two years and a reliable lender of a piece-of-shit Oldsmobile, had happened upon his own thrilling secret knowledge: He knew for a fact that the flashlight trick was bunk.
He’d figured it out after Greg and Amy came back from a mid-September hiking and camping trip along the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, full of details of a long chat they’d had with a spirit that had been haunting a local Haunted Place for as long as anyone could remember. They called it the Darrow House, and local kids for decades had made October pilgrimages up the gentle slopes of this range in order to scratch their names in the woodwork of the house’s upper floor or huck rocks through its dust-smothered windows, or, for the bravest among them, even to spend the night. Every area has a Haunted Place. To Mark, the raison d’être of a local Haunted Place is to challenge bored teens, who must confront their fear as a rite of passage. To Greg and Amy, there are Haunted Places simply because there are haunted places.
Possibly Mark had heard too many of their stories. They’d borrowed his Olds for the Blue Ridge trip and felt some obligation to account for their time, which they did over beers in the living room of the apartment Mark shared with Greg. This was a fairly common ritual, but this time Greg had produced a typed-and-printed transcript of the flashlight session and presented it to Mark with maybe just a little too much enthusiasm, perhaps a hint of that awful, oppressive expectation that your listener will reflect your own excitement back at you. The disconnect was, itself, grating: Greg and Amy seemed to think that Mark required these debriefings, but in truth he resented the time he had to spend nodding and lifting his eyebrows and saying “oh cool” to another credulous romp through some crumbling ruin. He also knew and hated that this resentment often made its way to his face. That smirk was a killer: Amy’s face would turn red and her eyes would go from a sincere sparkle to darting and flustered. This curdling was also a fairly common ritual, and no one hated it more than Mark.
The smirk that night was the worst yet—it was the fucking transcript—and Amy’s face burned red and things got awkward. A wave of self-loathing washed through Mark, followed immediately by a flare-up of indignation at being put in this position. If you want me to stop rolling my eyes at this shit, then do not hand me a fucking transcript of your conversation with a dead person. Things wrapped up and Greg and Amy retreated to Greg’s bedroom, no doubt to decompress by quietly mouthing all manner of hurtful things about their rude friend.
So that more or less explained how Mark wound up down a ghost-hunting internet rabbit hole at 2 a.m., where at long last he happened upon the secret of the flashlight trick. The simplicity of it made him groan and slap his forehead; the trick was common knowledge among séance types. Flashlights—most flashlights, anyway—have a rubber gasket where the lens cap screws into the body of the flashlight, which stores the batteries. When the flashlight is on, heat from the bulb causes the gasket to expand. When the flashlight is off, the gasket cools and contracts. If a person unscrews the lens cap of a turned-on flashlight to just the exact right point, so that the battery is separated from the cap-end terminal of the circuit by less than a millimeter, the expanded gasket will begin to cool and contract, and in a few moments the lens cap will fall just enough to complete the circuit, and the flashlight will blink on. Heat from the bulb will quickly cause the gasket to expand, and in a matter of seconds the expanding gasket will again lift the terminal off the battery, and the flashlight will blink off. And then the gasket will cool, and the process will repeat itself. Blinks, but not ghosts. Given the laws of thermal dynamics, it would only be weird if the flashlight trick didn't work.
Mark had another reason for hunting around for the rational end of supernatural experiences, although the flashlight trick was a convenient excuse. Though he had never spoken of it to anyone else, Mark had recently encountered something that did not seem to follow what he understood to be the known laws of the physical universe.
Back in the spring he’d accompanied Greg and Amy one spectacularly sunny Saturday on a scenic trip down Skyline Drive, then west through Luray and out to the interstate, then a turn to the north and the couple hours home. Along the way they’d dropped in on Greg’s mother and stepfather, who lived in an unremarkable vinyl-sided country home near the town of New Market. Mark generally did not enjoy meeting new people, and would’ve preferred to stay in the car, except that he would’ve seemed childish and that ultimately would’ve been more awkward than anything inside the house. After introductions and a few bearable minutes of chit-chat, Mark mumbled a pretext for excusing himself to the backyard, and wandered outside for a big gulp of fresh air and some alone time. The yard was perhaps two acres and sloped down a gentle hill to a thin strip of woods and a muddy trickle of a creek which marked the property line. A crooked little wood building that might’ve once been a chicken coop slumped in the corner of the yard; Denise, Greg’s mom, had appended a sweet little pastel-painted potting station to the house-facing side of this shed, which was being used to store shovels and bags of vermiculite and other various gardening implements. As a thing to explore in order to avoid being among people, it would do.
Mark had ducked his head and gone inside the dark and musty little shed, had made his way to the far wall and the shed’s one small window, and was idly resting his hand on a leaning jumble of digging tools, distractedly enjoying the swirl of airborne particles in the dim, dappled sunlight of the dust-coated window, when he became aware that someone else had joined him. A person, man-sized and man-shaped, was slumping in the doorway, head ducked under the short entry, blocking quite a bit of sunlight and looming in a way that made the neat but tiny little space feel oppressive. The silence of the stranger’s approach and the circumstances of this encounter—Mark was unmistakably hiding in this outbuilding—gave Mark the feeling of having been caught, even trapped. He felt himself straining for some explanation; lacking one, he mumbled something mindless and approving about there being lots of shovels, made a big show of slapping the dust from his hands, and, when the figure did not respond or move, finally made as if to leave.
Only then did the man—to Mark it was definitely a man, though still a silhouette—budge from his spot. The figure took one unhurried step into the shed. Mark froze, unsure of the nature of the interaction that was now taking place, and still unable to tell who exactly had joined him in this sagging outbuilding. Did I break some rule? Mark’s eyes worked to make out the features of the man’s face, which had gone from obscured in silhouette to obscured by the shed’s interior darkness. The man was now maybe two arm-lengths away and the closeness was uncomfortable, not helped at all by Mark’s sense of having been caught. He felt the need to say something, to break the strange silence, but before he could muster anything, the man reached back and tugged the shed’s little door, scraping it across the uneven concrete pad until it was firmly closed. The tiny space fell into hazy darkness.
Silence throbbed between them. The indirect light of the one window illuminated a slash of Mark’s own shirt, the handle of some tool in the corner to his left, and very little else. Mark spent several seconds perfectly still, staring into the black space where the stranger stood, listening to their syncopated breathing, aware of his own heartbeat and the sweat suddenly cooling his neck. What exactly is happening right now? Mark’s mouth felt perfectly dry and welded shut, and the man’s stillness gave the impression of someone in no hurry to break the silence. Several deeply strange moments ticked by.
Mark suddenly had the impression, all at once, that the stranger had moved. No, not moved. The stranger was simply not there. Mark reached out with his hand and felt the space, at first tentatively and then in big groping waves. His urge to be the hell out of that shed was overwhelming. Mark fumbled for the door, overcome by the sickening, inexplicable certainty, in his bones, that the crooked door that had just moments earlier audibly protested at being tugged into place would be stuck, that he would be stuck. And then the panic would simply overtake him.
That is not what happened. Mark's fingers found the knob and he gripped it with both hands and lifted the door—for some time afterward he retained some measure of actual pride that he’d had the presence of mind on his first try to lift the scraping door—and pushed it outward. He managed to walk and not sprint into the open air. A look back at the shed’s interior confirmed the impossible: The shed was empty. From where he knew there had been two men, only one had emerged.
That Mark had had what he considered very possibly to have been a supernatural experience made that stupid fucking smirk of his all the more infuriating to him. It reflected a way that he very much did not want to be. He knew that he did not have a good reason for rejecting his friends’ experiences with ghosts except that he had not certified them himself. Mark knew he’d become a know-it-all and a wet blanket, and that Greg and Amy were fundamentally kind and sweet and good-humoured and generous. And these people had fun. More than once Mark had cursed aloud at his own rotten heart and his own traitorous face for over-representing the sensible little core of skepticism in his brain. An adjacent and very dear part of Mark’s brain shouted it’s good to have fun! at these tales, but somehow that message seldom made it to his face to hold off the smirk.
So Mark made a decision that September night. He resolved on the spot to never share his newfound knowledge of the secrets of the flashlight trick. To present it to his friends would be the ultimate wet-blanketing, so he would keep this knowledge inside and it would be his, as Greg's and Amy's knowledge of the sprit world was theirs. Mark was genuinely impressed by the secret behind the flashlight trick, he told himself, and so it should be easy for him to smile sincerely at future recountings of its deployment. He even ran out the next day and bought himself a flashlight he very much did not need, so that he could practice the trick himself, and experience for himself the delightful predictability of its magic.
There were no ghost chats for a few weeks, or at least none that Greg and Amy shared with Mark. Not that this was odd, but Mark was eager to practice his new beneficence. And anyway, spooky season was upon them, and Mark had lived with Greg for more than two years, and knew that Greg and Amy would be stepping up their haunted adventures before the end of the month. They’d borrowed his car two weekends in a row, but had limited their reports to pleasant but brief descriptions of the changing weather, the fall foliage, where they’d slept, and so forth. Mark was beginning to believe that they’d given up on him, that they’d resolved to cut him entirely out of the fun, that he would never again have the opportunity to get it right. The thought made him itchy and miserable. Neediness, that most dreaded of emotional conditions, blossomed in his chest.
So it was that Mark responded a little more enthusiastically than usual to Greg’s announcement that he and Amy were headed on another weekend ghost-chatting-and-camping trip. Greg looked somewhat taken aback but also possibly tickled by Mark’s newfound interest, and was for a moment actually speechless when Mark asked if he might be allowed to tag along this time. Greg and Amy were heading back to the Darrow House, the discussion of which only weeks earlier had created the awkwardness between them. Mark could feel himself overselling it, going on a beat too long about how curious he was to see for himself the flashlight phenomenon—he was careful to use the word “phenomenon” and not “trick." Greg blinked out his surprise and smiled warmly, and the date was made.
Two important things had settled in Mark’s brain: that he would become a better friend to Greg and Amy, and that the flashlight trick, which to him symbolized the difference between the Culture of Greg-and-Amy and the Culture of Mark, would be the pivot-point of his assimilation. Greg and Amy wanted to believe in their conversations with dead people. Mark’s first act of generosity in this new era of friendship would be to give them what they wanted, by keeping what he knew to himself.
Mark meant all this very sincerely, even desperately, but Mark also sincerely meant to cut back on his drinking, meant to pick up jogging, meant to overhaul his diet, meant to make more of an effort to stay in touch with family. Something Mark feared about himself was that no person ever had been of two minds quite so distinctly as Mark. This Mark he thought of, sometimes, in his darker moments, as Other Mark. He would go to bed intending with all his heart to start a new, healthier regimen in the morning, and then his alarm would seem to yank him out of sleep several hours too early and the brain in his head would not just reject last night’s goals but would actively, angrily hate the Other Mark who’d set them, not just for his plucky do-goodering but for seeding today’s Mark with self-loathing. And then, by bedtime of that same day, he would find himself pleading with next-day Mark to wake up with a better attitude. Please.
So when Mark found himself coming out of something like a trance the following day, standing in front of the camping supplies at the big-box retailer, with another flashlight for purchase already in his hand, the momentary decoherence of the two Marks almost made him dizzy. He felt oppressed. Worse, he felt scrutinized, and resentful of both the impulse to suppress his rational self and of the people who inspired that impulse. He felt that a fine compromise, among people who considered themselves friends, would be for him to maybe not tell Greg and Amy that he knew their flashlight trick was a pile of shit, but to give them the opportunity to learn it for themselves. He felt that he could present this opportunity by bringing his own flashlights, without rubber gaskets, and when they started to set up the flashlight trick he would merely suggest they use these and not those, because these had been prepared specifically for the purpose of providing more persuasive evidence of a spiritual encounter. If the experiment worked. And then it would not work, because it’s a thermal reaction and not some damned ghost. And maybe some of Mark’s rationality would nudge out and permanently replace some of his friends' doe-eyed naivety, and those honest terms could be the basis of a relationship worth actually maintaining.
Mark was aware that he was undermining Other Mark. That Other Mark might regret this later on was both inescapable and, he felt, deeply unfair. This struggle was still raging inside Mark’s head when he distractedly negotiated the check-out lane and purchased the flashlight. He became aware that he was too deep inside his own thoughts when he realized the cashier, trying to make small talk, evidently thought she knew him, or had seen him recently. She was smiling at him expectantly, having said something along the lines of you’re back. Mark smiled and mumbled something and resolved to stop at the gym on the way home and hit the treadmill and burn off as much of this angst as he could stand. Fifteen minutes later he found himself not at the gym but sitting at his desk in his bedroom, using an X-Acto knife to carve the letters "Y" and "N" into the plastic handles of his two flashlights. Yes and No—for science, Mark chuckled to himself, gulped Other Mark down into his belly, turned up the volume on the television, and began to make another deepening pass with the blade.
By the time Saturday rolled around, Mark finally had reached what he felt was a fine state of equilibrium. He’d socked the two flashlights—gaskets removed, letters carved in—away in his backpack, along with a pack of D batteries, a large plastic bottle of water he’d stored in the freezer overnight, most of a six-pack for sharing over a campfire, a paperback he hadn’t picked up since at least June, and a pack of wieners he hoped would be preserved by proximity to the frozen water bottle. He was resolved to keep the flashlights out of sight as long as possible, and possibly forever—if the moment presented itself, if spirits were high, if he felt that the adventure could withstand it, he would give himself permission. If not, they would stay in the pack..
It would be a four-hour drive, closer to five when you factored in bathroom, food, and gas stops. The day was sparkling clear, gusty, and quite cold. Mark offered to drive but halfheartedly, aware that though it was his car he was ultimately the third wheel on this excursion. Mark accepted Greg’s counteroffer and was relieved to occupy the backseat. Days of ambient stress and Greg’s mellow electronica mixtape immediately caught up to Mark, sprawled across the bench seat, and before they’d even made it out to the interstate he was already dozing. The sun was noticeably lower in the western sky when Mark snapped out of a strange dream, the details of which almost immediately dissolved away as he gathered up his surroundings. It felt like they were in a different part of the world: The low line of the Blue Ridge rose off the highway to the left. Greg and Amy were talking softly about what sounded like parenting strategies. In his groggy condition Mark couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and didn't try.
Jammed into the pocket behind Amy’s seat was a red file folder that was not Mark’s, with a slim stack of papers inside. Mark pulled it out and saw that it contained the notorious ghost chat transcript, bound with a little pink paperclip. The movement and shuffling of papers interrupted the front-seat conversation, and Greg, watching Mark through the rearview mirror, sheepishly explained they’d brought along the transcript in order to pick up the conversation where they'd left off. Mark nodded and leaned into the papers in order to communicate sincere interest. He was not sincerely interested. Or, anyway, not at first. But by the second page the pure silliness of the exercise had grabbed his attention. Did you die in this house? A blink from the “yes” flashlight. Was it long ago? A blink from the “no” flashlight, and then before the next question could be asked, another blink from the “yes” flashlight, recorded as “NO, +6sec YES.” Mark felt the smirk arriving and lifted the papers to shield his face.
It went on like that. A “yes” followed by a “no,” with a “yes/no” or a “no/yes” thrown in from time to time, which by the end of page three Greg had started recording as “conflicted.” To Mark it seemed that the gasket on the “yes” flashlight was simply heating and cooling more rapidly—perhaps this meant the lens cap was unscrewed to a narrower gap, or that the gasket itself was thinner, or made of a different material. But it threw off the rhythm of answers in a way that he knew could be tracked if you approached the exercise with skepticism. The “yes” simply caught and lapped the “no” periodically. At any rate, Mark knew that if it came to it, his flashlights wouldn't be subject to the cycle.
The sun had just dipped below the horizon when Greg pulled the Oldsmobile off the interstate and down a lonely off-ramp, which came to a stop sign at a rural two-lane road. However far they’d gone from real civilization—a stone’s throw, really—the lack of other cars, or of any sign of life, gave Mark the feeling of having wandered into a forgotten place. As the car headed more-or-less directly at the dark wall of the distant ridgeline, browned corn rose up in walls on both sides of the road. Mark found himself searching out clusters of lights in the gloom, groping for markers of homes and churches and people, people doing normal things, neighborhoods and stop-lights and country stores.
More to break up the sudden eeriness than out of real curiosity, Mark asked Amy who exactly they were going to contact. Amy perked up. She didn’t know, for sure—it was hard to establish an identity using only yes or no questions, she said. The legend, as told by the kids in town, as remembered by Greg’s friend who’d put them onto the place, had it that a mean and perhaps evil woman had died there, and that it was her only pleasure in death to trap visitors so that they would keep her company. Amy did not believe that there was any such thing as evil, nor that there could be such a thing as an evil spirit. Probably the woman was lonely—ghosts usually are—but certainly she would mean no harm to good people who visited her home in the spirit of fellowship. She and Greg had seen no visual sign of her on their earlier visit, nor had she done anything to prevent them from leaving. They’d toured the main floor of the house and then the second floor, and they’d spoken to her in a large upstairs bedroom that looked over the rear of the house and out to the crest of the ridge.
The road soon started uphill, at first very gently and then somewhat more directly, and took on a long, loopy, switchback route. They passed out of open country and into coniferous woods. There were no more lights here, but every so often a mailbox would mark the head of a dirt or gravel track. The road was in no hurry to climb these low mountains. It meandered along in one direction for minutes at a time, until Mark was sure it was just headed thataway, and then reflectors would appear in the windshield and the road would bend back around and head the other direction, always angled to gain altitude. It seemed to go on like this for some time, until suddenly the pavement broke up and they were on a rutted gravel track, surrounded on both sides by dense trees and dark woods. Greg cheerfully indicated they were nearly there.
The loose surface kicked up rocks into the Oldsmobile’s battered undercarriage in a noisy popcorn rattle. Mark became hyper-aware of his car’s bald old tires and wished very much that he'd attended to that like Other Mark had sincerely meant to. This less-used upper portion of the road lacked the helpful ruts of the lower portion—the elements had wiped and carved and otherwise fractured the track, so that at times it seemed they were driving in a dry streambed rather than a real road with a real route-number. They thudded down heavily on the car’s right side—it felt like Greg had driven over a small boulder—and Amy asked if maybe they hadn’t missed their turn. Greg insisted testily that they had not.
For all Mark knew they’d even taken the wrong road, and the thing to do was to admit defeat and revisit this foolishness with the benefit of daylight. This sort of retreat was not among the versions of this night he’d imagined up back on the highway, but he liked it very much, and so he was both crestfallen and more than a little alarmed when Greg broke the silence only a few minutes later, still on the roughest section of this godforsaken track, by announcing that he’d spotted the turnoff. It was a minor miracle—all Mark could see from the backseat was what might’ve been an ancient, leaning, badly rotted mailbox post, jammed off to the left among the gnarled hedge of brambles that bloomed out of the darkness, bone-colored in the high beams. The lane it marked was a dark and narrow holloway, carved out of the wilderness around it, narrow enough to easily have escaped their notice, if not for Greg's eyes.
The surface was lunar. A tire should’ve burst. Instead the brave old Olds fought on, until Greg eased the car to a stop at what was simply a wall of peeling old tree trunks. Mark grabbed up his backpack and emerged stiffly from the backseat, into a nighttime clearing ringing with forest sounds. Greg flicked on a flashlight. Mark did not yet dare reveal his own, even though it would’ve been perfectly natural to use one in this moonlit wood. Greg’s beam swung through the trees to their left and Mark caught the crisscross pattern of white latticework. The three of them shared a nervous little smile and shrug, and then Mark was following Greg and Amy toward the colorless mass of the Darrow House.
What Mark could see of the house in Greg’s narrow flashlight beam and the dappled moonlight was not particularly ominous: A decent-sized country home in reasonable condition, grey and weathered and propping up vines along the crawl-space lattice and the columns supporting the roof over its wide porch, but without the crooked and sagging look of many uncared-for old homes. Greg gestured with his light at a section of the roof along the front left corner that had apparently been punched in by a falling tree limb. A bay window on the first floor near that same corner, facing the front yard, had had its panes knocked out. Gauzy whitish curtains moved with the breeze. The other front-facing windows were boarded, and some delinquent from years past had spray-painted “NATE IS GAY” on the swollen, deeply weathered particleboard covering a double window to the right of the front door. The hand-sized, head-level square panes of the door itself were long gone, and the door stood a couple inches ajar. The inside seemed very dark. Mark found he was not eager to enter. Greg and Amy bounded inside.
A wide staircase greeted them in what had once been a lovely open entryway. The air was musty but not dank or sour; the corners were cobwebbed but the floor was clear. It was possible to imagine, based on this first impression, Greg and Amy one day falling in romantic love with this place, and there being enough left on its bones to reward a committed rehabilitation. Mark could see them greeting guests in that two-story entryway, which they would’ve appointed with small tables and silver dishes for keys and loose change, and a coat rack, and an oval rug. He felt sure they’d imagined just such a scenario.
Greg led the way up the wide stairs, which led to a loft-style open hallway, and toward an open door at one end of the hall: a large back bedroom. The back bedroom, Amy explained, was The Place.
The second floor had generally been mistreated, Mark presumed due to the location of The Place, which would be where kids dared each other to go. Greg had said it'd been years since this house had been much of an attraction for local teens, but many of those who’d come over the long decades of its abandonment had carved their names in this or that of its proud old walls. Scrawlings were everywhere in the hallway. Paint and plaster now sloughed away where various Johns and Jims and Marys had made themselves immortal at the house's expense. Moisture and cold and heat wrinkled and cracked these memorials so that they were now like ragged bedsores. Dark mold spots bloomed and congregated around them. Mark knew that someday these defilings would rot their way to the studs and joists and structural members, and the Darrow house would crumple. The place was cursed all right, but not by a spirit—the names of the intruders, cast against this old house like some sort of incurable incantation, would one day corrode right through its bones and bring it to the ground.
The vandalism was even more pronounced in the back bedroom, which was otherwise clear and clean. Surprisingly, its two windows on the rear of the house and one side pane were both unboarded and unbroken, and a decent amount of moonlight made its way through the glass. There was no furniture. An empty shallow closet, its door missing, was set into the front wall. Greg and Amy stood aside for a moment, presenting the room to Mark as if they’d built or discovered it or birthed it.
After Mark nodded something between acknowledgement and approval, Greg and Amy knelt in the center of the floor and got busy with their preparations. Mark leaned against the wall beside the door and watched as Greg gently unscrewed the cap on his lit flashlight until it turned off. Greg gently pressed on the lens cap, and when the light did not blink back on immediately, very slowly and delicately began to screw the cap tighter, testing the gap with the gentlest pressure every couple degrees of revolution. On the fourth try, the light blinked on. Greg looked up and smiled at Amy, who’d finished preparing her own flashlight the same way and was visibly buzzing with anticipation.
They carefully balanced the flashlights on the ground, pointing up, so that the ghost could reach out and exert just the tiniest whisper of downward pressure to cause the lights to blink. Amy clicked on a small tape recorder and set it between the flashlights. Mark, despite himself, could feel his heart thumping in his chest. His backpack, with his own flashlights, hung between his knees like a secret weight. Greg spoke.
“Is anyone there? Light one of the flashlights if you’re there.”
Ten seconds ticked by. A tiny little bell in Mark’s brain started to sound. Fifteen. Twenty. No response. Greg sighed through his nose, shook his head at Amy, and picked up the flashlight in front of him. Amy picked up her own, and they again worked at setting the threads and minimizing the gap. Amusingly, Mark realized then that Greg and Amy did not preset the flashlights in their trials. Whichever flashlight blinked at this first question became the “Yes” flashlight, and the other one automatically the “No.” When Greg and Amy satisfied themselves that they’d narrowed the gap as much as possible they reset the flashlights on the floor for another try.
“Is anyone there?”
Mark could see Greg’s silhouette fidgeting. They waited in darkness and silence. The flashlights sat dormant. Night sounds echoed around the dark room. Disappointment was coming in waves off the dim windowside coronas of Greg and Amy. Greg muttered “damn it” and once again grabbed up his flashlight. Amy wondered aloud, “maybe it’s moved on." The bell in Mark's mind was now sounding loudly, it commanded his attention. This carved-up room in this shrouded house suddenly seemed impossibly remote, and Mark felt a very sudden and overwhelming impulse to be back in the real world.
Amy glanced up at Mark apologetically and said something about usually being much faster with this. Mark could see on the silver-lit sliver of Amy’s face that she didn’t like his look, and he wanted to scream to her that this wasn't the smirk, that it was something else, something much worse.
“Is anyone there? Please. If you’re there, light the flashlight. It’s us.”
The flashlights did not light. They sat there for more than three minutes, repeating the question. Greg and Amy were clearly receiving this as a sign of an empty house, an absence of ghosts. The slump in their shoulders was over the blemish to their perfect record, and perhaps the embarrassment of having had this failure in front of Mark. Maybe they even felt that Mark’s skepticism was chasing away the spirits. Either way, Greg seemed ready to throw in the towel. He shrugged and looked up at Mark with a resigned little half-smile.
Mark knew that he looked very unwell. He could not tear his eyes away from the flashlights in the center of the floor, even to meet Greg’s puzzled expression. He asked Greg, as calmly as he could manage, if he could try the flashlight himself. Greg handed one over.
Mark’s fingers were uncooperative. He screwed the lens cap all the way down and the light shot on, illuminating a corner of the ceiling. Mark began to unscrew the lens cap. Greg looked confused when Mark shot past the off point and kept unscrewing. The lens cap came off in his hand, and Mark stuffed his fingers down into the cap, searching. It was there, and quite warm. A thin rubber gasket. He blinked from Greg to Amy, registered their puzzlement and their unworried disappointment. He could not form the words.
It’s a thermal reaction.
The gasket heats when the flashlight is lit. Heat causes the gasket to expand. The expanded gasket supports the lens cap, which has been unscrewed until just a whisker’s width of air separates its end of the circuit from the top of the battery. Because the bulb is no longer receiving current, it goes dark. In the darkness, the gasket cools. As it cools, it contracts, and when it has cooled enough, the lens cap sinks enough to once again make contact, which completes the circuit. The light comes on. The gasket heats, expands, lifts the lens cap, the light goes off.
It’s a thermal fucking reaction.
It should work. Every time.
Mark felt like sprinting out of there. The only urge that could possibly compete, at that moment, was the urge to see this fucking trick work in order to prove that the laws of the universe still held. He looked into Greg’s face, the absolutely unbothered face of a man who understood this violation of the laws of physics to indicate an absence of the supernatural. Mark gently screwed the lens cap back into place until the light blinked on, and then waited, perfectly still, with two very puzzled people watching him very closely, while the gasket heated up. In his head he counted 30 Mississippis, and then as carefully and precisely as he had ever done anything in his life, he unscrewed the lens cap until the very moment, the very zeptosecond, that the light blinked off again. Mark pressed on the lens with the force of a butterfly landing on a delphinium. When the light blinked on, he knelt in front of Greg and set the flashlight upright in front of him. Greg was watching him. Mark did not wait. He locked eyes with Amy.
“If the universe works as intended, this light will flash.”
It did not. They sat in confused silence for what felt like an eternity but could not, in fact, have been more than three impossible minutes of darkness. Mark’s eyes searched the corners of the room, the dark hollow of the closet, the black line of space under the door to the hallway. The room had changed, he thought. The darkness was blacker. The space itself had gotten thick, there was somehow less of it between them. Mark felt on his skin, in the movement of currents in the air around him, that something else was in the room, some fourth thing. His senses, all of them, including some he could not name, were bent on locating this thing. The feeling that it might find him before he found it was unbearable.
She likes to trap visitors so they’ll keep her company.
Greg broke the interminable silence by suggesting, breezily enough, that sometimes these things don’t work the way they’re supposed to but they could always try again tomorrow. His voice made Mark flinch. Mark opened his mouth and closed it. He wanted to tell Greg that some things must work the way they’re supposed to.
Mark felt himself decohering. He felt that Greg and Amy needed to appreciate what had just happened, or not happened, perhaps even for their own safety. Something that delighted in confusion had taken command of the flashlight trick, and Mark’s urge to be far away from whatever it was was the strongest feeling he’d felt in his life. But Other Mark, inadequate Mark, needy Mark, go-along Mark knew that explaining this in such a way that they would grasp it would mean revealing the entire flashlight deal, exposing his knowledge of the gasket dynamics, and ruining something Greg and Amy had spent years of their lives exploring and enjoying together.
Amy, looking as worried by whatever look was on Mark's face as by the failure of the flashlights, started to say something about maybe giving it one more try, when it happened.
Somewhere else in the house, something heavy and solid banged into something else heavy and solid. Greg and Amy jumped to attention; Mark felt his heart lurch. Greg and Amy grabbed up their flashlights. Amy turned to Mark, the beam of her flashlight fell on his face, made him blind to everything else. From the sound of her voice, she was jubilant.
“That could be it!”
Greg tugged open the bedroom door and strode out into the hallway. He seemed suddenly refilled with confidence. He called back to Amy that they should split up, that he would search the upper floor and then catch up with Amy and Mark on the ground floor. Mark was badly dazed. But Other Mark tugged him toward the hallway. Other Mark shrugged gamely, and Other Mark reached into the backpack he’d left lying next to the bedroom door and pulled out one of his own flashlights. If I’m gonna search a haunted house in the middle of the fucking night, I’m gonna use a flashlight. Both Marks felt the scratched letter he’d stupidly carved into the plastic handle, traced the N for “No” with the tip of the thumb.
Greg was poking his way into the front room opposite The Place, when Amy led the way back down the hall and to the stairs. Mark felt himself calming a little, step by step. In truth, this suited Mark, going with Amy. For one thing, the thought of being alone in this place at this moment made his balls try to crawl up into his abdomen. For another, Mark was like a lot of guys in that being alone on a job or errand with a woman made him buck up a little, stand a little taller, and think of himself as a kind of protector. By the time they’d made the ground floor, Mark felt like he could keep his shit together, could string words together, could even make a decision or two. It was only at the bottom of the stairs that Mark tried to turn on his own flashlight.
He remembered, jolted by the unexpected darkness, the pack of D batteries he’d thrown into his backpack the night before. He’d used the “Yes” flashlight back in September after he’d first learned the secret of the flashlight trick, but had only purchased the “No” flashlight a couple days ago, and had not bothered to actually insert batteries. He'd meant to do that here, but now the batteries were back upstairs. He’d armed himself with a useless plastic tube.
They started toward the bay window. Mark could hear Greg thudding around upstairs, crossing the hall. On this south-facing half of the first floor, the open bay window was letting in a little light and a trickle of fresh air. A side window near the midpoint of the wall was also unboarded, and a thin wash of pale light fell over an old farmhouse sink, a tiled section of countertop. It was a kitchen, and opened to what he guessed was the dining room. Nothing toppled, no sections of fresh rubble, nothing to suggest where the sound had come from. They made their way through the kitchen to what looked to be an interior door, set at the end of a couple crumbling cabinets. Amy grabbed the handle and pulled. The door swung open without a sound.
The room they entered seemed to stretch along the entire back of the house, and was well-lit by moonlight. It might’ve been a sitting room or a parlor, and it opened into something like an enclosed sunroom off the back of the house. The abundant glass of the sunroom was unbroken, if covered in dust and dirt. Silvery light bathed the concrete floor, and more than a fair amount of it bounced into this parlor space, illuminating its contours. Amy was entranced. She smiled dazzlingly at Mark. Mark wished very sincerely in that moment that he had whatever switch allowed a person to easily take in someone’s joy and reflect it back to them, but he did not. His face was grim. Amy’s smile faltered. She looked at him for a beat, then turned away abruptly, almost disgustedly.
“Get with it, Mark.”
The words slammed into Mark’s chest, momentarily driving out his anxiety and replacing it with something spiky and acidic. He realized, too late, that to happy people like Amy, this was the fun part. It took him a moment of gaping, full-bore, universal hatred to compute that she was moving away from him down this long, narrow room, using her flashlight to probe the wall opposite the sunroom. He wanted to shout something terrible at her and march back to the front door, leaving her in eerie darkness. Other Mark knew Amy would not worry about being alone, and knew also that Amy had good reason to be exhausted of Mark’s whole thing, and felt that he could swallow his pride in this moment, show some spirit, stick to the plan, and even maybe apologize for being a chronic downer. It was his last best chance.
Amy’s flashlight had traced two doors on the inner wall, both more-or-less situated underneath the main staircase. She asked which one he’d like to take. Since she was farther into the room, Mark halfheartedly gestured at the one nearer the way they’d come. The door was slightly ajar, and was loose and draggy on its hinges. The space on the other side was near complete blackness. Mark had the awful sense of a pit yawning before him.
It was not a pit. As Mark’s eyes adjusted to the dark he could see steps leading downward, and a featureless back wall, and could even make out his own distorted shadow in the dim rectangle of light thrown against it. He registered Amy identifying her room as a bathroom, to his left, muffled through the wall. Mark had very little sense of the shape of the basement in front of him. He did know that it was the very last place he wanted to be on the planet.
Mark also knew he did not have a working flashlight. He knew there was no earthly reason why he should venture into the coal-black basement of an abandoned home at the end of a deep holloway in the middle of fucking nowhere. He knew that he could wait for Amy to get out of that bathroom, check in with him at the top of these steps, sweep her flashlight through the space below them, and have it over with. Moreover, Mark knew—knew—that whatever had messed with the flashlights two floors above was waiting down there in that inky black. Every cell in his body knew it. Knew it for a fact.
Other Mark knew it would be an unrecoverable humiliation to wait for Amy to come and save him from his fear of the dark. Other Mark took one, two, three steps down into the basement. Other Mark watched as his very own shadow descended the rectangle of pale light on the far wall.
Several things happened then.
Mark watched in fascination and horror as the now-unobstructed rectangle of moonlight illuminated, on the far wall, the crude shape of a woman, scrawled onto the crumbly concrete in something black like coal. A child’s drawing, life-sized. A triangle for a dress. Little twig arms at 45-degree angles. Little twig legs that disappeared in the utter dark beneath the rectangle of light. Another triangle for a head, but this one fully blacked-out, as if the woman had been drawn facing away from the room.
He did not have long to look at it, because all at once the rectangle of light was filled with the shadow of a person, much as his shadow had filled it moments earlier. It was all he could do to mutter Amy’s name, pleadingly, in the dark. The shadow in the rectangle was perfectly still. It breathed, and Mark breathed. Another thing he knew was that it was not Amy.
And then, it moved.
Wood scraped along an arc of dust-covered floor, and the rectangle of light began to narrow.
Mark tore his eyes from the wall and gaped in blind, paralyzed terror at the silhouette pulling the door shut. The figure, a man, had stepped back from the doorway and was shoving the door closed. The world swooned violently under Mark’s feet, blood roared in his ears. He lunged up the stairwell, too late. His dive left him scraping his fingers against the bottom of the door. He leapt to his feet and grasped for the doorknob, but there was none. Mark became aware all at once that the door in front of him was no longer a door, not for him. Boards crisscrossed it at chest height. Between Mark and the sane world stood a heavy, latched, boarded-over door, sealed from top to bottom, surely for decades. Not even a sliver of light passed over it or around it or underneath.
Mark heard his fist banging on the door, sounding impossibly feeble and distant. He heard the thunk of the dead flashlight in his left hand as it too thrust against the barrier. He heard himself whimpering.
“Please, please, please. Please let me out.”
In his left hand, the flashlight, the one with no gasket, the one with no batteries, the one with a crude “N” carved into its plastic handle by some Mark from another age, blinked on.
Mark felt a scream bubble up his throat, heard it die in his mouth. That is not all he heard. Muffled by the heavy door and the thick planks, but clear enough to be unmistakable, Mark heard his own voice.
“My door’s jammed shut, Amy. Guess I got lucky.”
He heard Amy chuckle. He heard Greg calling from some other part of the house. He heard footsteps—Amy’s and, impossibly, his own—walking away from the basement door. Dimly, insanely, as piss flooded his sneakers and his legs gave out, Mark wondered which one of him was headed back to the world, and which one was trapped down here.
Somewhere below him in the dark, something shifted.