When I was a kid, it wasn’t unusual for my siblings and me to have weekend sleepover visits from other kids who we’d known our whole lives and considered extended family. We’d play board games, run around outside, and watch scary movies hosted by the ghoulish “Sammy Terry” on TV.
And sometimes, if the conditions were just right on an eerie, inky black night, my Dad would tell us ghost stories. And these were no ordinary, over-told ghost stories. No cub scout campfire tales about the young couple who encountered “The Hook” in lover’s lane, no plaintive voice in the darkness calling “who’s got my hairy toe?” while drawing unstoppably closer.
No, my Dad told us real ghost stories. Things that had happened to him and to the generations of family members who came before him. Poltergeist activity. Prophetic dreams of death. Sounds in the night. Ghosts.
On the night in question, my Dad was telling his rapt audience the chilling story of “The Breather.” We all sat in the living room with all the lights off and only a flickering candle or two for creepy, shadow-casting illumination. My siblings and our guests were seated on our large, L-shaped sectional sofa. At one end of the sofa, there was a rectangular table and chair, from which my Dad was spinning his dark tale while facing his audience.
“The Breather” was a presence that had followed my Dad throughout his childhood years. At night, alone in his bed, sharing the old house only with his grandmother, he would become aware of someone or something else breathing in the room with him. Something coming closer. And when he pulled the blankets over his face and held his own breath in fright, The Breather would draw near. Inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, exhaling…
As my Dad wove his story, I excused myself for a bathroom trip. Or at least, that’s what I said I was doing. In reality, once I was out of sight in the darkness I dropped to my hands and knees and very slowly crept back into the living room and under the table where my Dad was sitting. My younger sister, seated next to the table, was the only person who could see me. I met her questioning look with a “shush” finger held to my lips and she nodded.
As my Dad notched the suspense in the room ever higher, I slowly slipped my hand up over the side of the table and left it directly next to my father. Bent at the wrist, it would have looked like a detached human hand. And then I waited.
The moments which followed are among the greatest memories in my life. Every nerve in the room was stretched taut at the moment my father paused in his narrative for a moment and put his hand down on mine. For the briefest of seconds, I could feel his fingertips exploring and trying to identify what he had encountered. And then came the scream.
My Dad shouted in true horror while leaping out of his chair. And of course, everyone else in the room screamed too. Panic, pandemonium, and confusion reigned until I crawled out from under the table, laughing my young rear end off. And after a suitable cool-down period, everyone else laughed while sharing how terrified they were at that exquisite moment.
And The Breather? My Dad speculated that the entity was perhaps someone who had died in the old house where he was raised (now a historical site in Indiana) or a deceased relative just paying a visit. Indeed, he wondered if the somewhat raspy breath, not unlike his own in his later years, had been coming from his own ghost who was returning to keep an eye on his younger self.
It was an interesting and somewhat comforting theory. So that’s the one I choose to believe now, in the dark of night...
...when The Breather visits me.