Next Time a Ghost Slaps You, I Want To See a Handprint
by Zach MacDonald
As far as I can tell, Cassie already feared the dead when she came out of the womb. One of my early childhood memories is of her wandering off around the back corner of the family cottage and shrieking hysterically, until our uncle ran over and scooped her up. She was red-faced, cheeks streaked with tears, babbling that she’d seen grandma, but that grandma had looked unhappy with her. Even at that age, I understood that the ceremony we’d been to the previous spring—a funeral—signified that we’d never see grandma again, and therefore my sister was either crazy or stupid.
I didn’t understand the concept of ghosts until years later. We drew connect-the-dots ghosts around the end of October in primary school, the kind that look like floating bed sheets with eye holes and a zero-shaped mouth. They were still little more than jellyfish lumps with vague faces to me. I didn’t know they represented the shade of a person who has passed away, or a cognizant spirit unmoored from its dead body. Cassie did. She told me her dollhouse shook at night in her room, because the kids who lived in our house a hundred years before were trying to play with it.
As we entered our preteens, Cassie would insist that there were good ghosts and bad ghosts. The good ghosts were people who didn’t realize yet that they’d recently died, or those who had felt fulfilled and at peace at the end of their lives, and the bad ghosts were mainly the ones that had died in resentment or anger. She read a lot of ghost story books, some designed purely to scare and others featuring real-life accounts written by paranormal investigators. These latter authors spent copious amounts of time huddled in supposedly haunted locations with tape recorders and Geiger counters or some such crap. Cassie would freak herself out reading them late at night and then make excuses to come hang out in my room until the hour forced her to at last go to her bed.
On one occasion I couldn’t help but prank her. I waited until just after midnight, when I was sure she’d be asleep, and started rolling marbles one at a time under her door, across the uneven hardwood boards of her room. The floor slanted slightly on that side of the old farmhouse, so the marbles rolled under her bed and hit the opposite wall. I waited until I heard her stir and sit up in bed with a sharp gasp, then I hammered on her door with my fists, shaking it on its antique hinges. She screamed on the other side, paralyzed in the pitch black room, and was screaming and screaming still when my parents burst out of their bedroom with all the racket and came tearing through the dark, flicking on lights. I lost my TV and video game privileges for a week. Cassie couldn’t fall asleep without a nightlight for years afterward.
Cassie didn’t grow out of her ghost obsession. Instead, by the time she was in her early twenties, her superstition had become firmly entrenched in her interpretation of reality. Poltergeists and wandering apparitions were for her a part of the natural world, as real as thunder or ultraviolet radiation. While at university, she claimed to have encountered the ghost of a student that hung himself years before on the unoccupied top floor of her dorm building; she saw a ghost ship at night on Lake Ontario with the sails on fire and shadowy figures leaping from the deck into the water; and in a flat she rented in her third year, she claimed to have felt the nightly presence of a rumored former occupant who’d been found dead in the bathtub after a party.
The other thing that lingered from her childhood, it seemed to me, was her hands. They remained too small for her body as she grew, never seeming to increase beyond their preadolescent size. She fidgeted with them whenever she spoke about ghosts, picking at her nails, or balling them into fists as though in preparation to defend herself from invisible wraith. It was like she’d held on to her obsession with those hands, and the obsession had choked them at the wrists, stunting their maturation.
After graduation, she took a job in China and moved to Beijing on a two-year contract, where her encounters with spirits only increased. China suited her well, she wrote to me, because many people just accepted the existence of ghosts, whether benevolent family ancestors or feared malicious specters. When I visited her near the end of her two-year stint, I found she’d put on a lot of weight, her face pudgy and skin pale. Her teenage acne had made a resurgence and her hair was brittle brown straw. She spoke decent Mandarin, or at least she was able to converse with the locals, and she took me to visit her friends, who were women slightly older than her, living alone in dim apartments that smelled faintly of dried mushrooms and salt. Her friends spoke about the ghosts that lived in their buildings—in the basement laundry rooms and the apartments where suicides had occurred. There were ghosts that lived in the stairwells and the hallways on certain floors. It seemed they enjoyed chattering on about them, as though they were gossiping about their neighbors’ private lives, even as they feared encounters with these departed souls. Each friend of Cassie’s had similar beliefs, and I noticed that they and Cassie had a similar look in their eyes during these discussions. They were weaving these so-called presences together out of thin air. Out of the millions of people packed around her in the city, these were the ones she’d befriended.
She took me to Tiananmen Square. I’d only just begun to walk around, gazing at Mao’s portrait hanging above the entrance to the Forbidden City, when Cassie touched my elbow and said, “You know what happened here, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
She stepped back, regarding me with a mix of wonder and fear. “Can’t you feel it?” She closed her eyes and tilted her head back. “They’re all around us.”
“Who’re all around us?”
“The students,” said Cassie. “Mown down and crushed. Their spirits are still here. They’re stuck to this place, listening to us, watching us. Some are beside you right now.”
I thought I felt fingertips graze the back of my neck, but it was only a puff of spring breeze blowing across the square.
After China, Cassie moved back to Ontario with a new job and rented a one-bedroom apartment. I lived an hour away and was swamped at the time with work, but tried to make plans to get together with her once a month or so. As it was, she’d only been at her new place for a few weeks when she began texting and calling me about bizarre happenings there. It started when she was taking a selfie to show off her living room: there was a spot of white light hovering over her head in the photo, which she insisted hadn’t been on the phone’s screen when she took the shot. She called it an orb, said she recognized it right away as a burst of visible energy that occurs when a spirit manifests in our three dimensions from the one in which the psychic energies they are composed of usually reside. I told her there was no proof of such dimensions and she sent me a link to a Wikipedia page on something called M-theory, which I didn’t bother to read. A few days later she sent me another photo, again a selfie, in which the light was back, but which had elongated into a worm-like squiggle that floated in the air above her, contorted in a rough outline of her head and shoulders.
Slow shutter speed, I wrote. It’s a light streak from the lamp or something.
Light bulb’s ABOVE me! Not even in the pic!
Yea bet it’s something like that.
The next week I drove out to visit her at the apartment. She hadn’t lost any weight since returning home, and had in fact grown doughier. She was paler than ever, her hair matted down against her scalp, greasy and unwashed looking. I felt that, as her brother, it might not be so imprudent to question her current health, but before any conversation could get underway between us she launched into telling me about how she felt invisible presences in the apartment all the time. She told me to remember Tiananmen Square and how I felt there, because that’s what it was like.
I felt nothing in that apartment. I told her I’d felt nothing at Tiananmen as well.
She poured me black coffee from a large pot—she’d taken to drinking coffee constantly, even in the evenings—and said, “You know when someone’s standing behind you, and you can’t see them or hear them, but you just know there’s someone there?”
“I guess, yeah.”
“Well that’s what it’s like. I feel someone near me. A presence, here in the room.”
“It’s me. I’m here in the room with you right now.”
“Shut up, you know I don’t mean you.”
The skin of my arms puckered beneath my sleeves, even though the room felt warm. Cold air slipped across the back of my neck. I saw when I went to put my cup in the sink that the window in the kitchen was open a crack.
The next week, Cassie called me in the evening, panic in her voice. She told me the coffee cup—the one I’d been drinking from previously—had fallen off the counter all by itself while she was in the living room.
“You must’ve just left it on the edge of the counter and it tipped off.”
“It was nowhere near the edge! And it’s not just that. I heard the forks and spoons shaking around in the drawer, but when I went in the kitchen they stopped. I’m scared.”
“You’ve gotta get off this. There’s no ghost there. And even if you think there is, what are you afraid of?”
“It might want me out! It might hurt me!”
I laughed, not because it was funny, but to mock her for getting so spooked over nothing at her age. “Ghost or not, there’s not a single serious account ever of a ghost physically hurting someone—and I mean irrefutable evidence, scientifically verified, not some haunted house case file from one of your books.”
“You don’t believe me?” She sounded on the verge of tears. “It’s hit me already. There were slaps. It started two nights ago. I didn't want to say anything, because I know it sounds crazy—but I felt those slaps.”
“Well then next time a ghost slaps you, I want to see a handprint.”
“It might be too late by then!”
“Too late? Now you think you’re going to be killed or something? Get a grip for Christ’s sake.”
“You did this to me . . .”
“I—what? The hell are you talking about?”
“You did this to me when we were kids, with the marbles in my bedroom. You knew I saw grandma. You knew I could feel the ghosts, how scared I was, and you scared me anyway that night. You scared me so much you broke something in me.” Now she was sobbing. “M-m-messed me up forever.”
“Uh huh, right, I think that’s enough BS for one night. Goodnight, Cass. Tell the ghost to fuck off and eat shit for me.”
“Don't say that!”
“HEY GHOST!” I yelled into the phone. “You hear me, ghost? How about you fuck off and eat shit.”
I hung up. Cassie didn’t call back immediately like I expected she would. That was the last time I ever heard from her at all.
Cassie’s car was still in the yard. Her social media accounts, like the vehicle, sat inactive, abandoned. The light in her bathroom had been left on and the front door wasn’t locked. Accompanied by police, I found the pieces of a smashed coffee mug in a neat pile on the kitchen counter. The nearby window, I saw, was raised wider than when I’d last been in the apartment—enough for a very thin person to wriggle through—despite that it was the tail end of fall and the clouds were swollen with flurries. The investigators checked it for prints, but found only ones that matched Cassie’s, on the ledge and both sides of the glass. Strangely, they didn’t only find her fingerprints on the glass, but the oily marks of her full hands.
It’s been half a year and I’m still waiting to hear from my sister. The investigation went cold almost as soon as it started. She’s never contacted our parents. No body was ever found, no suspects were identified, and no possible motives for disappearing herself were ever put forth, save for the one I carry in my own heart—that perhaps, in our last phone call, I pushed her away for good, that with my dismissals her screws had come completely loose, rolled away, and she’d gone following them. It’s as though she just walked away, that night of the phone call or shortly after, vanishing on foot to God-knows-where.
I was back at her apartment yesterday afternoon, looking around, trying to catch some clue that we missed before, and I found the kitchen window open, wide enough for even my sister to squeeze through. It’s summer now, and there’d be nothing strange about a window being open if someone were living there, but the landlord assured me that no one’s been in the apartment for months. I locked the door myself last time and—I’m sure I’m not misremembering—I locked that window from the inside.
My sleep was troubled last night. I smoked a joint before going to bed, which usually carries me off to dreamland quite gently, but I kept tossing and turning, and several times, on the precipice of slumber, I felt like there was someone in the room with me and I ended up snapping awake. I did finally drift off, but this morning, oddly enough, I was awaken by what felt like a hard slap across my cheek.
The cheek is red. I told myself I’d been sleeping on that side, that the blood had rushed to that side of my face—except I woke up on my back.
I know what I’m looking for in the washroom mirror, whether I want to accept it or not. I’m trying to resolve lines in that redness. I think they are there. The cheek throbs. I really did receive a blow, and I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever hit myself in sleep before, through troubled dreams that are banished from memory by the light of day.
I see the shape now, I’m sure of it. Slowly, it’s revealing itself. Four faint fingers outlined in damaged capillaries. The mark of a small hand, like one of a child.
About the Author
Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, Zach MacDonald has lived abroad extensively, working in Japan and South Korea before moving to his current home in Bangkok, Thailand. His stories have previously been published in the Asia Literary Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Prometheus Dreaming, and Route 7 Review. His first novel, Itsuki, is forthcoming.