I knocked at my aunt’s door. With fall giving way to winter and most keeping indoors, it was quiet on my aunt’s street, and I thought I could hear movement inside her house. I knocked harder.
“Aunt Bea! It’s Audie!” I shouted.
I took a step back and leaned against a porch post. At the urging of my mother, who had called me earlier in the day, I was there to check on my aunt. My aunt and I live in the small college town of Holden where I’m a student and my aunt was, until very recently, a professor. Actually, it was my aunt’s sudden resignation from her teaching position just days earlier and her avoidance of our calls that prompted my mother’s request.
I could hear footsteps approaching the door. It opened slightly, and my aunt peered through the crack. Her haggard face startled me; her eyes were bloodshot and her hair an uncharacteristic bird’s nest.
“Audie?” she said quietly.
“Aunt Bea, may I come in?” I asked, concern in my voice.
She studied me silently, leaving me at a loss. While my aunt was naturally reserved, she had never hesitated to welcome me into her home, until then.
“Aunt Bea?” I asked meekly, unsure of what else to say.
She still seemed to be debating whether or not to let me in. Without a word, she closed the door.
I couldn’t believe it. Before I got too carried away with the idea that my aunt had shut her door in my face, I heard her removing the chain. The door opened.
“Come in,” she said and then stood aside to allow me entry. I walked past her and turned to the living room. I took a seat on the leather couch while she made her way to a matching armchair opposite the couch. She watched me closely, seemingly unsure about her decision to let me inside. I had never seen my aunt behave like this and did not know what to make of it.
“My mom asked me to check on you,” I said as soon as she settled into the armchair.
“Oh,” she murmured.
“Aunt Bea, is everything alright?” I asked.
She gazed down to the hardwood floor and began to absently rub her forearm. We sat in this awkward silence for a moment.
“Audie?” she said, still looking downward. She then looked up, met my eyes, and asked, “Is it really you?”
“Yeah, Aunt Bea,” I said, confused. I reached into my pants pocket for my cell phone. “I’m going to call my mom. Alright? Let her know you’re okay.”
“Wait,” she said. “Let me explain what’s going on. Please. I haven’t been able to tell anyone. Please let me tell you.”
In that moment, hers was the most tired and desperate face I had ever seen. I nodded and said, “Please do, Aunt Bea.”
“Audie, you’re going to find what I’m about to tell you very difficult to believe.”
“It’s okay, Aunt Bea,” I reassured her. “Just tell me what happened. I’m happy to listen.”
She propped her face in her hand, clearly collecting her thoughts.
“I had a new student,” she finally said. “His name”—she grimaced—“his name was Gabe.”
I nodded to let her know I was listening.
“Oh, Audie,” she said, “What am I going to do?”
“Aunt Bea, perhaps if you tell me what happened, I might be able to help you.”
She sighed and sat up. Wringing her hands, she continued. “Like I said, I had a new student. He was in my Milton course, and he was, well . . . different.”
“Oh,” she said, “it wasn’t too much at first, but pretty quickly, I noticed that he was very . . .” She took a moment to consider her word. “. . . talkative. He was the type of student who would absolutely dominate discussion to the point of annoying the rest of the class. He wasn’t my first student like this, of course, and, just as I’d done in the past, I tried to discourage this behavior and encourage others to participate.” A pained expression came over her face, and her lip trembled. Expecting tears that did not come, I determined my aunt was likely too exhausted to cry. “But it didn’t work with him,” she continued, “He would just talk over everyone. So, not long into the semester, I pulled him aside after class, hoping that a simple, direct conversation about his behavior would be enough to get my class back on track. But instead”—she furrowed her brow—“I discovered that I was not merely dealing with social awkwardness but, rather, a conscious, deliberate effort to . . .”
“To what?” I asked.
“To cause grief? Mine? His peers? He never admitted this, of course, but when I spoke to him, I could see in his eyes . . . sense in his voice . . . an awareness of the distress he was causing.”
“Really? That’s horrible.”
“It was subtle, though, so I couldn’t accuse him of anything. Instead, I became determined to reclaim my class. I disregarded nicety and firmly instructed him to stop talking whenever he tried to take over. But he was incessant. He took every single opportunity he could—within reason—to speak.”
My aunt directed her gaze downwards, and we again sat in silence.
After another long, awkward moment, I asked, “So what did you do?”
“Well, before I could do anything else, he died.”
My eyes widened.
“It was an undiscovered heart defect,” she said, still looking down. “He died suddenly, unexpectedly. That was two weeks ago.” She looked up.
“Oh, wow. I’m sorry to hear that, Aunt Bea.”
“Don’t be,” she said flatly.
I grimaced before I could think better of it. She seemed to not mind.
“About a week ago,” she began, in that same resigned tone, “I was in the middle of a lecture, and I remember looking at Gabe’s empty desk and thinking about our poor relationship. And then it happened.” She stopped to rub her eyes and take a deep breath. “It was like any other class—most were listening, taking notes, and, of course, there were the few who were clearly checked out, daydreaming, playing on their cell phones—that sort of thing. But then all of a sudden, everyone sort of, well, jerked, turned towards me, and said in perfect unison, ‘Hello, Ms. Wyatt.’”
“It’s true, Audie. I can’t believe I’m saying this aloud, but, yes, Gabe had gained the ability to possess people. And all he seemed interested in doing was talking to me. You must believe me. You do believe me, don’t you?”
Her desperation seemed genuine, but I simply could not bring myself to merely placate this woman, whose shrewdness I had always admired, without first testing her sincerity to at least some degree.
“Aunt Bea . . .” I carefully considered my words. “You know I love you, and I would never want to hurt you, but I have to ask, are you being serious right now?”
“Oh, Audie,” she moaned. “I wish I were only joking, but,” she begin to accentuate every syllable, “everything I tell you is true.”
I could no longer doubt her belief in her story and decided in the moment that I would humor her but would have to sadly apprise my mother of her sister’s sorry mental state once I returned to my dorm room. My mother and I could together determine what to do next.
“Please tell me more, Aunt Bea,” I said.
She perked up a little.
“Well,” she said, “I fled from my classroom that first time and came home in a panic. I eventually convinced myself that it was just a tasteless prank, and I returned to work the next day ready to take my students to task, but . . . they were completely oblivious about what had happened, and pretty much as soon as I was certain they were being honest with me, it happened again. Everyone said, ‘Welcome back, Ms. Wyatt,’ and I realized just how in sync they all were—every movement down to a blink was identical. And their voices! They shared that cadence I had grown to despise over the course of the semester. I couldn’t deny the obvious. Gabe had taken over, but this time I didn’t run. Instead, I mustered the courage to reply.”
“What did you say?”
“I asked where he came from. What he wanted. He wouldn’t say much about . . . the afterlife . . . other than he’d been to more than one place and had found each ‘insufferably boring’—his words. I imagine wherever he went after he died, whoever was already there couldn’t tolerate him and his endless chatter. I think this is why he’s back, harassing me.”
“Wait. How often does he . . . talk to you?”
“It’s all the time, Audie. Anytime I’m around people, he takes over and goes on and on and on about the most inane topics. Shows he likes. Celebrities he admires. That’s why I had to quit. That’s why I don’t answer the phone. He’s cruel, too. He’s wound me up to the point where I’ve absolutely lost it and have yelled at him to shut up only . . .” Her voice became quiet, and she directed her gaze sideways. “. . . only to leave me belligerent in front of a stranger.”
“That’s horrible,” I said, “but, I have to ask, why hasn’t he taken control of me?”
She sighed and seemed to deflate a little.
“Audie, he took over as soon as you sat down. He talked at me for about forty five minutes before saying that he’d enjoy me trying to convince you about him.”
“No,” I said incredulously, “I would have noticed something—missing time at the very least, but I clearly recall everything that’s happened since I arrived.”
“That’s how it is with everyone he possesses. They’re always adamant that they’ve no idea they’d been taken over.”
I wished I could believe her, but such fantastical claims more than strained credulity. I just couldn’t bear the charade any longer.
“I’m sorry Aunt Bea, but I need to go,” I said as I stood up.
My aunt made no effort to stop me. “I understand, Audie,” she said, “but please know that I’ve been telling you the truth.”
The expression on her face was pathetic, and I felt compelled to embrace her.
“It will be okay, Aunt Bea,” I said.
She sobbed in my arms.
I left shortly after, and as soon as I returned to my dorm room, I called my mother to relay the conversation I had with Aunt Bea. And as I spoke to my mother, it struck me—a sad irony about the whole situation. My poor aunt, so clearly suffering some sort of psychosis, was avoiding people because she believed the soul of a deceased student enjoyed the ability to take them over and harangue her, and at the same time, I dreaded encountering my aunt again not because she might be host to an evil spirit, obviously, but in her falling victim to a sudden, random, and undeserved mental illness—an insidiousness that was robbing her of her personality—she was unfortunately similar to the imagined hosts of her former student.
Three days later, my mother arrived to town, and we went to my aunt’s house so that she could appreciate for herself the severity of the situation.
We arrived at around eight in the morning, and it was my mother who knocked on the front door.
“Bea, it’s me, Betty!”
There was no response. My aunt’s hatchback sat conspicuously in her driveway, so I took out my cell phone and called her home phone. We listened to it ring from inside. After the third ring, we exchanged a knowing glance.
“Let’s go in,” my mom said, and she went to the side of the porch to locate the spare key that sat just inside the lattice work. She unlocked the front door, swung it open, and screamed. My aunt, a taut rope around her neck, hanged lifelessly from the upstairs banister.
Days later, my mother and I attended my aunt’s funeral. The service was an especially solemn affair given the circumstances of my aunt’s death, and although the attendance suffered no lack of extended family and friends of my aunt, no one was able to take much solace from the company provided, and one could sense a shared desire for the funeral to end as soon as possible. Despite this atmosphere, or in part because of it, the service went by without event, and after its conclusion, a smaller group, spurred largely by familial obligation, travelled to the cemetery for the interment.
My mother and I drove to the cemetery together.
Sitting in the front passenger seat, my mother blankly fiddled with her keychain. “I still can’t believe it, Audie,” she said, “She wasn’t the type.”
“I know, Mom,” I replied.
At the cemetery, I parked along the curb as close to the entrance as I could get and walked demurely with my mother towards my aunt’s final resting place. It was windy, and while I wore a decent overcoat, the late fall breeze bit at my hands and cheeks, making me secretly eager for the end of the ceremony. Once we reached the plot, my mother and I sat on folding chairs set up by the mortuary; we sat next to my grandparents—my aunt and mother’s parents—who had arrived before us. My grandfather put his arm around my mother, and she begin to tear up. Shortly after, the rest of our funeral party arrived, and the interment began in earnest.
The pastor began to speak. He said in a practiced, gentle voice, “Family members of Bea, friends of Bea, co-workers, acquaintances—all in attendance—I’d like to thank you for joining us on this day to celebrate the life of Bea Wyatt and to say goodbye.” He paused—the expression on his face authoritative yet sincere.
My mother, still sobbing, sniffled.
“I’d like you all to join me for a prayer.”
I bowed my head and waited for the pastor to begin. Instead of his voice, I heard a loud creaking. Anxiously, I peered up and saw my aunt’s corpse sitting upright, staring at me with a rictus grin on her face—worn, as a panicked look around revealed, by everyone in attendance.
My deceased aunt, along with everyone else—my mother and grandparents included—then said, “Hi, Audie. You know, you’re a really great listener.”