We were nine, maybe ten or eleven. Old enough to know better but young enough to reject any sort of objective explanation. We were the Goosebumps generation—thrilled by the supernatural and open to the possibility of the beyond. Cheap thrills and thunderstorms were the height of entertainment, and Hide-and-Seek was the best way to waste an afternoon.
We were Okoboji babies—annual visitors to the lake resort town hidden inside the forests and corn-laced highways of Northwest Iowa. My extended family had met there for years, sharing conjoined cabins and living up a short-term life of leisure. It was a town rife with history and allusions to spectral sightings, made all the more believable by the aged and creaking rides at Arnold’s Park with its abandoned-chic vendor shops.
Midday at the lakefront cabin, the men and boys dangled their feet over docks in hopes that a fish might bite, while the women went off to peruse the Emporium, leaving the girls behind, swapping stories in the back bedroom.
As we sat on the bed, laughing and painting our nails, a sound from inside the bathroom caught my attention. I asked my cousins if they heard it, and the three of us paused to listen.
A low, rhythmic flapping beat like the blood pulsing in my ears.
We exaggerated our fright, clinging to each other by wrists and elbows so as not to mar the half-dried paint. Sydney—the oldest—stood up and we followed, inching to the bathroom to flip on the switch. As light filled the shadows, the bedroom door shut by itself as though it had just admitted an invisible guest. We huddled, frozen in the bathroom doorway, where above us a rogue ceiling tile lifted and fell in attempts to communicate. We screamed again and ran through the room, spilling a bottle of red nail polish in our haste, leaving it to spread on the carpet like a fresh pool of blood.
We flung open the door and ran toward the lake, calling out for the men at the docks. But there was no one in sight. Where could they be? Our fear rose and we felt deserted by the ones who could save us.
We didn’t dare turn back. We wandered the shore until my grandfather approached, shirtless and baring a rod with a barbed and swinging hook. Could he be trusted? Was it him, or had he already been possessed?
We took our chances and related our encounter. He raised his eyebrows and chuckled. “Sounds like a draft to me,” he said. We denied it up and down. The day was stagnant and steamy; there was no breeze to support his theory. No, it was a ghost, we cried, unwilling to consent to his nonchalance. Come look, we said and led him through to the back.
The bathroom tile gave a single immoderate flap and settled into place for good. My grandfather, tall as a tree, reached up and prodded the tile. “Just a draft,” he repeated. “You girls should get out and enjoy the lake. Go for a swim. And clean up that spill before your mothers give you a real reason to be scared.”
He left, leaving the door open in his wake. We looked at each other and shrugged. No matter what might haunt the back of the cabin, there was no way we were going to test what lay beneath the waters of the lake.