We made up a ghost. And now it’s killing us
I just got off the phone. One of the Stonebrook Six, one of my best friends in the world, was killed last night. His husband Anthony called me, voice raw with fatigue and emotion. He said that the police didn’t know the details of what had happened yet, but last night Ellis’ remains were found in the parking garage of the building where he works. Where he worked.
They told Anthony that they would have thought it was an explosion, but there were no signs of any fire or damage to anything other than Ellis himself. They would have said it was an obvious murder, but they don’t know how someone could crush and dismember a human being that thoroughly without heavy machinery, much less spread him across the twelve foot ceiling of Floor 3B in that monolithic parking structure like a thick layer of chunky peanut butter.
Anthony was crying again by that point, so I assumed I had just heard him wrong. Then he repeated it, his voice coming in hitching gasps. A co-worker had come out just a few minutes after Ellis to find my friend dripping and plopping back onto the relatively clean concrete below where he had been pressed into the ceiling.
Anthony said that the only way they even knew it was him initially was due to the security footage of him going out toward his car. The video cut out as he approached the area, and when it returned the time stamp showed thirty seconds had passed without footage. The girl who found him was out less that five minutes later, and no one else had entered or left the garage in that time so far as they could tell. Crushed personal effects and initial blood work confirmed it was him.
I could feel myself teetering between arguing with Anthony that he must be wrong and breaking into tears myself. I had just seen Ellis two days ago when we were all together mourning the first of our circle of friends to die. Those of us that were flying back out of Chicago had ridden together to the airport, and after Mills had caught her flight back to Austin, me and Ellis had just hung out at an airport restaurant until my flight came up. Our mood had been sad because of Cassidy’s funeral and everything that followed, but we were trying to make the most of the time we had left. Ellis was telling me about his wedding and showing me pictures. I still felt guilty for not making it in person, but I had just started my new job at the time. Ellis, like always, understood and worked to make me feel better about it.
I told him some about the girl I’ve been dating—the relationship was still improving after six months, which was a record for me. Ellis said that very thing, but then quirked an eyebrow at me. He asked if I had realized how I was looking at Mills the past couple of days, and I tried to play it off like he was joking, but I knew he wasn’t. In that subtle way he had, he was trying to nudge me to consider if I was still in love with Millicent like I had been when we were growing up. But my head was too full already from everything else, so I pushed the question away, gave him a hug, and headed to my flight.
That was the last time I talked to Ellis before something tore him apart.
I hung up with Anthony after an hour, my throat raw and a feeling of exhaustion weighing down my every step as I went to the bedroom and collapsed onto the bed. I wanted to cry but couldn’t, as though the engine of my heart was too busy burning through gallons of fear and guilt to allow even a drop of sadness into its chambers. I tried to sleep, but after awhile I gave up on that as well and began to write this account. I need to get it all out and away from me.
I realize that I’ve jumped in at the middle of all this rather than the start—I’m tired and not thinking straight. Let me provide a bit of background and then I’ll talk about Cassidy’s funeral and everything that happened after it.
I had four best friends growing up—Ellis Mackery, Millicent Davis, Thomas Wall, and Cassidy Friel. I think we were unique among many groups of childhood friends in that we had all come together at the same time (Mrs. Webber’s third grade classroom) and were all equally close to each other. Aside from occasional childish arguments, we never fought with each other, and as we got older, we somehow managed to safely navigate the choppy hormonal seas of two pairs of hetero guys and girls and a third guy that was gravitating towards bi-curiosity.
This is important because as I start to question my memories about so many things, I keep returning to my idea of my friendships with the people closest to me. Ellis, who was always the kindest of us. Mills, who was the smartest and kept the rest of us out of trouble on several occasions. Thomas, who was always so moody around others but so light and happy when it was just the five of us. And Cassidy, who was shy and sweet and I now think died terrified.
I don’t have any close family left—my father died when I was fifteen and my mother doesn’t like talking to me anymore. My old friends fall into two categories: College friends that I rarely keep in touch with beyond social media, and my best friends from my days at Stonebrook. It sounds strange because we didn’t meet at Stonebrook, which was our middle and high school before it was closed. We had spent three years together at Jackson Elementary across town, and were just as close then as we were later, but it was almost like our group identity wasn’t fully cemented until we got to Stonebrook.
Fifth grade rumor was that the place had been a small college fifty years earlier, and I do think that was true. It was certainly an old building, and the shape and layout of the rooms retained faint traces its earlier life. The building was shaped roughly like a hash mark, with two long, wide corridors intersected perpendicularly by two other long, wide corridors. The center square of those crisscrossed lines was filled by a small gymnasium that actually had a pool underneath its motorized floor, though the floor was kept locked and the pool had supposedly long been drained dry.
But the age and uniqueness of the school, its quiet sense of history and mild creepiness, it had an effect on us. We stuck together even more than usual, making few outside friends. We worked to get into the same classes, and the few times when one of us was by ourselves, the wait until the bell rang was interminable.
It was during one of these isolated classes when I first thought about the school being haunted, and even now, having talked about everything this past weekend with the others, that’s still one of my few clear memories of our time at Stonebrook. Some small idea, an idle daydream, a simple what-if. What if the school was haunted by a ghost?
I got the news about Cassidy’s death last Wednesday. It was Thomas that called me, just as he had called the others. After I had moved away at fifteen, after Stonebrook was closed, the group had drifted apart. Thomas and Cassidy had stayed the closest, and sophomore year of college they had gotten married. In the ten years since, they had generally seemed happy the few times we talked or got together, but I knew they had ups and downs. Thomas told me on the phone that they had been legally separated for the past three months but were trying to work things out for themselves and their little girl. And then Cassidy had gone missing one morning and was found five hours later in the groundskeeper’s shed of the park across the street from their apartment.
The police were investigating it as a potential homicide due to the strangeness of the death, but there were no leads. Thomas had been on duty at the hospital where he worked as a physician’s assistant, so his alibi was solid. Worse was that she seemed to have been drowned, despite being in a dry room with no clues as to how she got there.
I couldn’t get into Chicago until the morning of the funeral, but afterward we all went back to Thomas’ house. They had been living together during the separation, and as the four of us sat around his living room, I found myself looking out the window at the park across the street, wondering where the shed was where my friend had been found.
We had been talking about Cassidy for the last three hours, telling funny stories and listening to Thomas go on emotional monologues about how much he loved her and how he had failed her, which was always followed by us reassuring him that she had loved him too and that none of this was his fault. He would always glance at me at this point, and I would try to give him a comforting smile while hoping it was enough, because I didn’t know what else to say.
But as the evening wore on, you could feel the conversational momentum grinding to a halt. It was just past eight, but our tiredness and sadness were palpable. Still, I looked at Thomas, and I knew that his daughter was staying at his parents’ house overnight and I hated the thought of him being alone. So at the next lull, I suggested some or all of us spend the night with him. He looked like he was going to argue, but then he nodded with a weary look in his eyes.
“Yeah, I think I’d like that. For any of you that want to, though I know some of you have rooms already paid for.”
Millicent grinned. “My hotel looked like shit anyway.” Ellis murmured agreement, and I felt a slight buoyancy that I had found a small way to help. That’s when I ruined everything.
“The Stonebrook Six are back together again!”
As soon as I said the words, I regretted them. I had meant it as a joking, overly dramatic and silly proclamation to get a cheap laugh out of the others. But as soon as I said it I realized that Cassidy was barely in the ground and I was talking about us being all together. Thomas glared at me while Mills started shaking her head, her eyes wide.
“Why would you say that?” Ellis tone was more hurt than accusatory. “Why the fuck would you say that, Alex?”
I felt like I could hardly breathe, my eyes roving between the three of them. “Fuck…I’m so sorry. That was so stupid. I’m just not used to Cassidy being gone, and…”
Thomas stood up, his expression hard. “This isn’t about Cassidy. Why would you call us the Stonebrook Six again? Is that some kind of fucking joke to you?”
Mills was on her feet now, putting herself between me and him. “Tom, chill out. He doesn’t remember. You know that.”
Thomas glanced down at her, his face reddening. “Then how the fuck does he remember the Stonebrook Six?”
I was growing more confused and alarmed by the second. “What…that’s what we called ourselves. I remember we called ourselves that. The Stonebrook Six. It was a joke.”
Ellis had stood up now too, moving closer to me. “Okay, Alex. That’s right, sorta. But do you remember why it was a joke?”
I could feel tears stinging my eyes now. I didn’t understand why everyone was so mad at me, especially if they weren’t mad about me saying it with Cassidy gone. “It…well…It was because there were only five of us. We were talking about nicknames one day and about how our group should have one, as a joke. We talked about calling ourselves the Stonebrook Five for some reason, but ended up all agreeing that the Stonebrook Six sounded cooler. Like an old outlaw gang. So we called ourselves the Stonebrook Six even though there were only five of us.”
Thomas took a step closer. “Bullshit! Such bullshit. You know, I’ve never fully believed your convenient ‘I don’t remember’ shit, but how the fuck are you pulling out shit like that and not remembering what it really was?” Mills gave him a shove that didn’t move him but got his attention.
“Fucking back off him. He’s not lying. He lost more than we did, so try to remember that.” Mills’ glare melted away as she turned back to look at me. “Alex, it’s not exactly like you think. A lot happened, and…well, you blocked out most of the bad I think. We don’t understand how or why you don’t remember, but you need to know that we believe you and love you.”
Thomas snorted. “Typical. Alex makes Cassidy’s funeral day about him.”
Ellis shot him a dark look. “Button it. We all loved Cassidy. You don’t have the market cornered on missing her.” Looking back down, he gave me a sad smile. “Alex, what you were saying, about how we started calling ourselves the Stonebrook Six… that never happened. We started calling ourselves the Stonebrook Six because of the Professor.”
I felt a rush of fear running through my body at the name. My mouth went dry and I shot up like the room was on fire. “No…what…no.”
Mills looked at Ellis. “You shouldn’t have said anything. You should have left it alone.”
Ellis shrugged. “I didn’t bring it up, but he has a right to know. Alex, do you remember the Professor?”
I shook my head violently and started trying to move past them out of the room. “No, I don’t want to talk about this.”
Thomas caught me in a strong grip and pulled me into a bear hug that was equal parts angry and loving. “We’re going to talk about it, bro. I think it’s time.” Mills was yelling at him but he went on. “The Professor was the sixth in the Stonebrook Six. It was the…” I shoved him hard enough that he lost his grip and went staggering back into a low coffee table, his arms pinwheeling as he tried to regain his balance before sitting down hard enough on the small table that one of the legs gave way and sent him sprawling on the floor. For my part, I imagined I looked like a trapped animal. But that was okay, because that’s exactly what I felt like.
Mills had her hands raised as she stepped forward and touched my cheeks. “Sweetie, it’s okay. We should probably go ahead and talk a little about it now, just so you’re not confused any more. Is that okay?”
I still wanted to run, but her cool, smooth hands on my face were like a soothing balm. I nodded reluctantly, looking down at Thomas. “Are you okay, man?”
He stood up slowly and gave me a slight smile. “Yeah. I’m sorry, I was being an asshole. Are we cool?”
I nodded. “Sure man. I’ll replace the table. I’m just…really freaked out at the moment.”
Mills stepped back and nodded. “I know. So let’s try talking it out, and if you reach a point you get too scared, we’ll stop, okay?”
“Okay.” I paused and then pushed on, my eyes going between Millicent and Ellis. “So who was the Professor?”
Ellis is the one who answered. “It was the ghost. The one we made up. The one that hurt all those people.”