Remembrance of Things Past

“Remembrance of Things Past”
by Maura Stone

I read somewhere that certain people are magnets for ghosts and ghostly events. That’s true; I know firsthand.
My kid sister, seven years’ younger than me, attracted the paranormal since she turned ten. We shared a tiny bedroom. When Sveya got old enough, my mother outfitted the room with a bunkbed. In fairness, to show no favoritism, mom made us toss a quarter to decide who got the upper bunk. Just my luck, Sveya won. Watching her climb the little ladder like a monkey irritated me. She had lots of space whereas I repeatedly knocked my head on the underside of her bed getting in and out of that crawlspace. Not to mention the inability to sit up once wedged inside. My displeasure magnified when she dangled her arm down one side of the bed, swaying it gently, scaring the crap out of me late at night.
“Stop that,” I said on more than one occasion.
“Stop what?” she innocently replied, “you don’t like my dead arm?” and tossed from above a stuffed animal that hit me squarely between the eyes.
“What the hell?” I shrieked. “Let me sleep!” In retaliation, I kicked the wooden particle board that supported her mattress. She retaliated by expertly pelting me with a cascade of tiny Smurf dolls. 
Sharing a room with Sveya was my cross to bear. For she was a slob. Every day, I folded my clothes and placed them in drawers. I tucked away my books and records into the bookshelves. She chucked food, clothes and whatever else in her possession atop a monstrous pile in the center of the small bedroom. A mess I was forbidden to touch. When I did, the little girl screamed her head off.
“Leave her things alone,” remonstrated my mother, hugging my tear–laden sister to her chest.
“Mom, I can’t live with a garbage dump two feet from my nose.” The brat swiveled around and stuck her tongue out at me.
Oblivious to my sister’s mischief, my mother continued to support her. “Pretty soon she’ll tire of living like an animal and you’ll see, she’ll start to clean up.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Were we raised by the same woman? This is the woman who taught me how to clean up after myself and the family ever since my head could reach the top of the kitchen counter. With unbridled glee, Mom shoved a chair in front of sink and I washed dishes for the family until I left for college. Talk about indentured servitude. Yet, with Sveya, those parenting skills flew out the window as did Mom's pop inverse psychology.
Early one morning I woke up to catch my kid sister going through her pile, rifling around for something to wear. She picked up an article of clothing and sniffed it. Wrinkling her nose, she discarded it and selected another soiled choice.
“What the hell are you doing?” I shouted from my cramped bed.
“Looking for clean clothes for school.” This time, she didn’t bother to smell that pair of underpants. She simply turned them inside out and put them on backwards.
“Sveya, that’s disgusting. I’m gonna tell Mom.”
“If you do, I’m gonna tell her I saw you and Keith kissing on the porch.”
My sister, with that damn sixth sense, popped up at the most inopportune times. Especially when a boy bent down to kiss me near the house. Or when he tried to cup my breast. Her “Whatchya guys doin’?” piped in her babyish high–pitched voice was a dash of cold water, ruining those moments for perpetuity. It set my teeth on edge. It even caused the neighborhood dogs to bark.
Before I could interject a word in this debate of wits with a ten-year old about wearing dirty underpants, she added, “Tell Keith the price went up from a quarter to a dollar.” And stuck out her tongue. I neglected to mention she was a precocious little brat.
Age difference aside, we were physical opposites. Most people couldn’t believe we were sisters. Sveya resembled our father, Slavic to the nth degree with white blond hair, light green eyes, blessed with a perfect peaches and cream complexion. I, with my hazel eyes and dark auburn hair, inherited our mother's olive, oily skin prone to acne. We were only similar in three aspects: we inherited large breasts from our mother, curly kinky hair from our father and had the same space between our eyebrows.
When I couldn’t tolerate her sloppiness, I taunted her. “There’s no way we’re related. We don't even look alike. It goes to show that you’re adopted.”
No, it’s not true! Take that back! Or I'll tell Mom!
“Go ahead. But Mom won’t admit it,” I said, “she doesn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
Sniffing, she wailed, “Moooommmmm!”
My mother rushed into the room and cradled the sobbing child. “Why do you torment your baby sister?”
“Torment her? You think living in a garbage dump isn't torture enough?” At seventeen, I chafed at sharing space with a kid, let alone a sloppy one.
Mom kissed and hugged Sveya. “Ignore your sister. She’s jealous of you ‘cause you’re a wonderful little girl. She’s the one who’s adopted.” My sister, content and confident in my mother’s embrace, stuck out her tongue once more.
In the middle of one night, I awoke from a deep sleep due to howls in the bed above me. Abruptly, I sat up and knocked my head against the particle board.
“It grabbed my hair!” cried Sveya.
I flopped out of bed and flipped on the bedroom light. “What grabbed your hair?”
“I heard a scratching and a hand came out of the wall. And then it grabbed my hair.”
“You’re having a nightmare, that’s all.” As the older sister, I felt compelled to comfort her. I turned off the light and made me way back to bed, not without thumping my head a few times. After listening to her sobs, I offered, “Come down here and sleep with me.”
She clambered down the bunkbed steps and crawled in beside me. In moments, she fell asleep. At least she had a peaceful night. I couldn't get a wink of sleep from her chronic kicking, punching and bogarting the sheets. The next morning, she didn't speak about the incident. Or any time thereafter.
I moved out of the house that fall and went to college, never to return except for short visits. During those years, I couldn’t tolerate living with roommates, thanks to my sister. I became a compulsive cleaner, grace to my sister. Those years flew fast. After I graduated, I moved into Manhattan with a guy and when we broke up, at twenty–three, I earned a salary that allowed me to live alone in my own apartment in New York City.
To my dismay, at twenty-five, my doctor discovered an embolism in my right leg. It was life threatening and I had no alternative, but to undergo an extensive operation to have it removed, along with several other veins. Knowing I would be unable to walk for three months let alone able to walk on that leg, I decided to recuperate at the summer house where I would be surrounded by family who could assist me.
The summer house was a rambling, century–old plywood cabin that had add–ons built over the years. It sat on stilts situated by a lake. After my parents drove me to the house from the hospital, right leg bandaged like a mummy, they set me up in a bedroom I formerly shared with Sveya. Yes, even at the summer house they put us together even though we had three bedrooms. My brother, at the time, lived in Florida. Sveya couldn't share the bed with me because I had to have my bandaged leg elevated on pillows. No way did I intend to have that girl kick my leg while she slept.
My mother had already assembled on my nightstand my prescription pain killers, a carafe of water, glass and several books. Once I got settled in the bedroom, she knocked on the door. “Dear, there’s been a change of plans,” she advised, eyes downcast. “Your father and I want to take a quick trip to Canada to visit my sister.”
“Mom, I need you!” I wailed.
“Sveya can help you.” She sat down on the edge of the bed and patted my hand. “We don’t want to leave her alone. It’s also a good opportunity for the two of you to get to know each other better, you've been away for so long.”
“More like you want to make sure she doesn’t bring boys in the house.”
Sveya, at seventeen, was full of spit and fire just like I was at that age. She was a brilliant girl, but unable to focus on her studies, preoccupied more with being popular than an academic future. In other words, she was going through the boy crazy stage. No doubt, the underlying reason for my parent’s sudden decision to leave while they had a built–in baby–sitter. As a non–ambulatory older sister, I was an effective boy repellent.
“Very clever, Mom,” I added as she bent down and kissed me on the forehead.
"We're taking off early tomorrow morning."
The first day was uneventful. I was practically alone because Sveya was asleep most of the day in my parent's bedroom. She got a summer job working the graveyard shift at Dunkin Donuts fifteen miles away. Late in the afternoon, she took off to run around with her friends before going to work.
 In pain, I hopped from my bedroom to the bathroom, a herculian effort. Hours later, I hopped to the kitchen and made a meal. Afterwards, I washed the dishes on one leg and hopped back to my bed, exhausted and slept. My pattern involved bathroom breaks, reading, painkillers and sleeping.
In the middle of the night, I awoke from a shove on my shoulder. “Wake up!”
“Sveya, I was sleeping!” I groggily said.
Impishly, she sat next to me on the bed, cross–legged with a huge sandwich in her hand.
“Watch out for my leg,” I said, grouchy from being awakened.
Taking a bite, she shoved the sandwich towards my face. “Wanna taste?”
Dubious, I looked at the filling which didn’t resemble any foods known to mankind. “What is it?”
“Gefilte fish on rye with French salad dressing.”
“It looks gross!”
She took a big chomp out of it. “Yummmm.”
When I saw her grin, I knew she dared me. Half–heartedly tempted, I vacillated for a mere second. “Okay, why not,” and took a bite. It was delicious. Sveya had a creative knack when it came to preparing food. 
The next day, I yelled at her for being messy. She left dishes on the table and in the kitchen sink; the room stunk of gefilte fish. In the living room, she littered the floor with her shoes, clothing and other accumulated junk. “Sveya, you gotta clean up. I can’t housekeep! I can barely walk, let alone bend down.”
She glared at me. “You’re not my mother. You can’t tell me what to do.”
“Oh yes I can! This place is a pigsty. It’ll be your fault if I slip and fall and rip open the stitches. I may even break my good leg.”
"I'll get to it when I can," she muttered.
“If Mom and Dad were here, they’d whup your ass,” I stated.
Glowering, she threatened me, “If I were you, I’d sleep with one eye open.”
That night, I laid down on the bed with my leg atop several cushions. I reached one arm under the pillow and felt a slimy, moist object. Shrieking, I jumped out of bed and landed on my good leg. Regardless, the movement hurt like hell. I flicked on the light switch and discovered a soggy peeled cucumber underneath my pillow.
I hopped to the old rotary wall phone across the hall and dialed the number to her job.
“Dunkin Donuts,” she pleasantly answered.
“Sveya, I’m gonna kill you!”
“Oh, found my gift?”
“Girl, you can’t play these games with me. I jumped out of bed. I could’ve hurt my leg! You know I can't use my leg!”
“Yeah yeah yeah,” she said and hung up.
Fuming, I hopped back to bed. Unable to sleep, in pain and anger, I passed the time reading, propped up in pillows from head to toe. Bit by bit, I became aware of a noise inside my bedroom, a knocking sound.
Placing the book down beside me, I listened. Within seconds, I heard a double knock on the bedroom wall in front of me. Then to the right side next to the window followed by two successive knocks behind me where the bathroom was situated. Knock knock on the wall to the left. This happened again. And again. And then the pace increased. Within seconds, the entire room resounded with rhythmic knocking. I yelled out, “Knock it off!” without realizing the pun. It immediately ceased.
Aching, I took my time to get out of bed and limped across the hall to dial those familiar digits.
“Dunkin Donuts,” she pleasantly responded.
“Let me guess. You heard the knocking.”
“How did you know that?" Accusatory, I added, Say, did you orchestrate this?”
“I didn’t. You’re usually deeply asleep when it happens. Now you know.”
“Know what?”
“The house is haunted.”
“Give me a break. An animal probably got caught between the walls.”
Quietly, she said, “I’ll be home in three hours. We gotta talk,” and hung up.
Those three hours felt like three years. Even though I no longer heard any knocking, I was convinced an animal got trapped inside the walls, trying to burrow its way into the house. At last, at daybreak, the car door slammed at the parking lot and moments later, the key jiggled in the lock. She walked into my bedroom with two cups of coffee and a box of Dunkin Donuts, one benefit of working in that franchise.
“Let me change and wash up before we talk,” she said and dumped the box on my lap. She whirled out of the room, not before placing the coffees on the nightstand.
My evil sister filled the box with all my favorites: cream–filled, glazed, custard, chocolate covered and crunchy donuts. Immobilized by the choices, I realized that if I feasted on these goodies, given the fact that I couldn’t walk, pretty soon I could forget about using the bad leg. All I’d need to do was tuck in my chin and roll.
Freshly showered, wearing an old flannel night shirt, Sveya sauntered in and sat on my bed cross–legged, her favorite position. Reaching over, she grabbed a donut. “Don’t worry, I won’t touch your leg.”
“Make sure you don’t get crumbs in the bed!” I said.
“That should be the least of your problems,” she stated. She took a huge bite and crumbs flew all over. I sighed in exasperation.
Changing tactics, I asked her, “Sveya, what’s with this knocking noise? It was a sequence—”
“A double knock that went slowly around the room, then faster and faster,” she finished.
My mouth dropped. I lost my appetite and placed the donut I selected, a vanilla cream–filled one, back into the box. Sveya handed me a cup of coffee.
“This only happens when I’m up here alone.” She peered at me. “You were never alone, were you?”
“Never. You were always around.” I sipped from the Styrofoam cup. “Guess animals must’ve gotten inside the walls.”
She scoffed. “Animals? Naw.” She paused for a moment. “Ghosts,” she said with determination and took another bite out of her donut. “Remember what happened a few years ago when we came up to open the house for Mom and Dad?”
I shook my head.
“We were at the front door and heard voices from inside the house. The sound of two women engaged in conversation. You opened the door and shouted ‘hello’ and right then they stopped talking.”
“Oh,” I said, vaguely recalling a dim memory. “Didn’t I tell you it must’ve been the clock radio?”
“The electricity wasn’t turned on.”
“We live on a lake. Voices carry.”
“It came from within the house.”
“Who, Sveya, do you think these voices are from? Who are these ghosts?”
“Our dead relatives… like… Aunt Charlotte.”
That name brought back vivid memories. Every family has its skeletons, ours included. When Sveya was a toddler, my father’s sister committed suicide. My mother took us for a long car ride. Sveya sat in her baby car chair behind me, singing loudly and kicking the back of my seat. Mom, peering forward to navigate the country back roads, quietly discussed Charlotte’s death to an uncomprehending eleven-year old.
“Your aunt was a beautiful woman. Simple–minded, yet beautiful. And unlucky in love.  While turning onto a highway, she added, “After your grandmother died, Charlotte stayed alone in her parent’s house. She was unhappy and lonely, wandering that huge house.”  
My aunt hung herself on the second floor in a separate passage that led to an unused apartment on the third floor. When she didn’t respond for three days to my uncle’s phone calls, he drove over and searched the house. Finally, he opened the door to the passage. Confronted with his sister’s dead body suspended from a rope. Standing on the stairs, he cut her down. He was never the same since.
Since Mom's disclosure, I had nightmares about my grandparent’s house during my formative years. Nothing occurred in those nightmares other than a sense of impending dread while I stood paralyzed with fear in the entrance foyer, listening to a ticking clock. I awoke drenched in sweat, teeth chattering, heart pounding away.
“Do you think it’s Charlotte?”
“Could be,” said my sister, “but that doesn’t explain the chain noises in the attic.”
“Chain noises?”
“Yes, and sand noises. Like sand’s pouring and pouring.”
“Thanks loads, Sveya. I can hardly walk and now you’re filling my mind up with this nonsense.” Angrily, I randomly pulled a donut from the box and gulped it down in two large bites.
“Mom and Dad should be back in a few days, so it’ll stop when they return. As I already told you, these noises only occur when they’re not here.” She picked up another donut and sucked out the custard center. “Remember that time I felt my hair pulled?”
“That didn’t happen. You had a nightmare,” I pointed out.
“Doesn’t explain the scratch marks on the wall.” Unlike me, Sveya had very short nails, like our father. They never grew long, long enough to scratch. She held up her hand. “Couldn’t have been me!”
I gave her a moue of distaste. “You made that up! There were never scratch marks. And it happened in our winter house. Give me a break.”
“Believe what you will. These things happen to me all the time. I never wanted to talk about it because you’d think I’m crazy. But now that you experienced it yourself…” She hesitated and then defiantly laughed, “And that’s why I work the graveyard shift.”
She got up, took the box off my lap and carried away the coffees. “Sleep well,” she said over her shoulder as she exited the bedroom.
I had to hand it to Sveya: by placing a nugget of doubt, she made me a believer of sorts. I wanted to strangle her. I spent an uneasy night sleeping.
The following day, while I was on the toilet, I heard light footsteps approaching the bathroom. Suddenly, the bathroom doorknob turned slowly.
“Stop it. I’m in here. Busy.” It continued to turn until the door opened a crack. “What the hell’s your problem?” I yelled. “Go away!” I didn't hear her walk away.
“Damn you,” I shouted, “stop monkeying around.” Finishing my business, I flushed, washed my hands and then fully opened the door. “I hope you enjoyed yourself.”
She wasn’t there. “Sveya?” I said.
I applied a little pressure on my bad leg and haltingly walked down the hall to my parent’s bedroom. The door was closed. With a tug and a creak, I budged it open. Inside, I saw her deep in sleep, the old flannel night shirt twisted around her body, jaw slightly agape, complete with drool.
Closing the groaning door behind me, I hobbled into the kitchen. “That was weird,” I thought, “could’ve been the wind.” The house shifted from age and poor construction. I always knew when and where Sveya was due to the resounding footsteps that advertised her every move.
“Ah, so you had a bathroom visitation,” she crowed hours later when she awoke. “Had it happen several times. Talk about nerve–wracking. And humiliating.”
“I even heard footsteps walking up to the bathroom door,” I recounted. “It was weird, like someone really was in the house.”
She nodded her head wisely. “Told you so!”
“When are Mom and Dad due back?” I asked.
She tittered. “Why, frightened?”
“Not necessarily,” I said, “I need rest and can’t keep up with cleaning after you.”
“Ha!” she snorted with glee.
That evening, I couldn’t fall asleep. Each time I nodded off, I imagined hearing the sound of sand falling, or knocks on the walls and shook myself awake. “It’s the rain drizzling outside,” I rationalized. Even so, I found it difficult to relax, alert to any noise inside and outside the house.
Sveya phoned around midnight. I gingerly shuffled out of bed to the rotary wall phone.
“Guess you can’t sleep,” she chortled.
“Thanks a million, darling sister, for putting those thoughts in my head.”
“See ya in a few! A few hours, that is,” and laughed while she hung up.
Once again, I propped myself in bed and pulled out my favorite book, Pride and Prejudice. I made it an annual ritual to read that book, marveling at the way the words always seemed fresh and alive. Immersed in the story, my concentration was interrupted from knocking that must've gone on for quite a while.
“That’s it!” I yelled at the walls, this time thudding from force and violence. “I had it!” I pitched the book on the bed and loped to the rotary phone to dial the local Sheriff’s office.
I introduced myself and gave my address. “I’m down by the lake all alone and believe someone’s outside.”
“We’ll send one of our constables right over.” Back in the bedroom, I noticed the knocking ceased.
Ten minutes later, the front door pounded and a man’s voice yelled, “You called the police?” There stood Constable Ketchum, armed with a massive flashlight.
"One moment please," I shouted and hopped out of bed. Opening the door, I poked my head out. 
He frowned and said, “Listen, I walked around your house. The ground’s wet from the rain and I saw no footprints at all. No one’s been here.”
“I heard knocking on the walls.”
He looked at me disapprovingly. “Could be animals trapped in the walls.”
I felt embarrassed. “Thanks so much, officer, for your assistance.”
He saluted with the flashlight against his cap and took off. Returning to my bedroom, I sat on the edge of the bed. My nerves were frayed. “Perhaps Sveya has a point,” I said to myself. Just as quickly, I shook my head. “This is nonsense. All of it. Sveya’s playing one of her head games on me.” I tenderly elevated my leg and flopped the covers over the rest of my body. In moments, I fell asleep.
Outside of a few more footsteps to the bathroom and subsequent doorknob twisting and door opening incidents occurring while Sveya wasn’t home, I pushed all thoughts of ghosts out of my mind. “Sveya and her head trips,” ran through my head, “I gotta stop listening to her!” Once I made that resolution, I no longer had any difficulty falling into a deep sleep each evening, unaware and unconcerned whether knocking occurred or not.
My parents returned two days later from their trip to Canada, happy and enthused. My mother inquired about my leg. “Can you walk yet?”
“It’s still weak and painful. It should take at least two more months to heal properly.”
“What do you do all day? You look like you put on weight.” She scrutinized me up and down. “Is Sveya bringing home donuts for you?”
I laughed.
“I told that girl not to. You’ll put on a ton of weight, not being able to exercise!”
“Thanks for the support, Mom.”
After a week, my father returned to the winter house. He worked five days a week in the city and came to the summer place only on weekends. This time, Sveya joined him. “I miss my city friends,” she told me. “I’ll be back up with Dad.”
Mom and I were alone. The summer weather turned cold and rainy and we found ourselves indoors playing cards at the kitchen table. As opposed to sitting outside on the deck playing cards at the picnic table. My mother treated our card games seriously. She hadn’t won a single one in ten years, but eagerly insisted on playing, exhibiting the true definition of optimism.
“Mom, got a question to ask you.” I took a card from the deck.
“What’s that, dear?”
“Have you heard any strange noises at night?”
“What kind of strange noises?”
I described the knocking and Sveya’s description of pouring sand and chains. Also the bathroom incidents. Mom looked skeptically at me.
“You girls and your wild imaginations,” she rolled her eyes up. “I bet your kid sister put you up to this.”
“No, mom, I witnessed most of it.” I paused, “although I was swayed by Sveya and her stories.”
She picked up a few cards while laying down others. “Aha! I won!” she shrieked.
Miraculously, she did. In a buoyant mood, my mother leaned forward and confided in me, “You know I don’t like being here alone. One time, years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night to see a man floating above me.”
“Holy shit!” I responded. “Is that your way to comfort me?” I shook my head. “Where did you learn those parenting skills?”
Sveya left home that fall to attend college. There was no more mention of ghosts and paranormal experiences. The years passed quickly. My kid sister married and moved away to Maine. I continued to pursue a career in New York City and lived a single lifestyle, traveling and enjoying my social life. My parents died, one right after the other. In accordance to their wishes, I strewed their ashes around the house and in the lake.
In addition, they bestowed upon me the summer house which drove a wedge between Sveya and myself even though she inherited all the art, jewelry and money. Spoiled through and through, she demanded that I sell the house and divide the proceeds. I already spent money to winterize it, a very costly expenditure, and looked forward to passing my retirement years there. Accustomed to getting her own way, an accolade to my mother’s parenting skills, she was so enraged when I didn’t do her bidding, she stopped all forms of communication to the point of changing her phone to an unlisted number. I hadn’t seen or heard from her in almost twenty years.
Eventually, I fulfilled my dream of retirement at the summer house. In actuality, the poor economy did the job for me. At peace with my solitude, I occupy my hours in a newfound skill, writing. Alone and isolated in a creaking and groaning abode, I never give much thought to the strange incidents of that summer when I recuperated from a leg operation. Two young and silly girls terrified of noises in an old house, feeding off nonsense and my sister’s touch of the dramatic. 
Seated in the kitchen, writing on my laptop at the table, I heard footsteps emanating from my parent’s former bedroom. The door creaked and groaned while it opened. I stopped what I was doing and looked up. To see my sister emerge from the room wearing a flannel night shirt, the one she wore when she was seventeen. She walked up to the bathroom door and twisted the knob. The door opened and she entered, closing it behind her.
In shock, I got up to follow when my cellphone rang. Turning back to the kitchen table, I picked it up; I didn’t recognize the number until I realized it had a Maine area code.
“Hello?” I said and walked a few paces in the direction of the bathroom.
My brother–in–law said, “I’m sorry to let you know like this, but Sveya just passed away. She was sick for a very long time.”
With the cellphone pressed to my ear, I hurried down the corridor to the closed bathroom door.
He continued, “I know the two of you weren’t close, but Sveya loved you the best way she could. And she knew you loved her.”
While he spoke, I put my hand on the knob and twisted it. Holding my breath, I opened the door, hoping to see my sister.



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