Sometimes when we get together at “Mommy and Me,” we talk about what happened that summer at the beach in that huge house by the ocean. We usually don’t refer to many of the details directly, they are still puzzling, and painful. We just laugh and talk about what a pain it is to potty train our little ones when toilets are known to haunt. “Isn’t it hard enough?” One of us we’ll sort of do a faint little laugh, more from relief that we are acknowledging something difficult than experiencing something that is genuinely funny. At that point, there is usually more grabbing for the wine or extra food, depending upon one’s choice of comfort.
Talk to any one of us individually and you will witness for yourself the fracturing nature of a shared experience, a shared experience of encountering unexpected darkness. You will witness pained expressions and hesitations and the trailing off of answers and explanations of events.
But first, let me start by orienting you to what things were like when we were younger. Do you remember playing a slumber party game called Bloody Mary? You probably played it gathering round the bathroom mirror with a friend, candles lit, spinning and chanting louder and louder Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary! And then looking for a glimpse of the terrifying witch in the mirror. What’s more you could be maimed, have your eyes torn out, appear on the other side with the witch, go insane, die. Dare you summon Mary Worth back from the afterlife? The mirror was her portal.
I don’t know about your slumber parties growing up, but at our slumber parties, we had one person who knew the rituals and the stories about spirits who could be summoned, who passed things along to us and told us what to do. For us, this person was Aideen Campbell. It was Aideen who told us about the witch Mary Worth. We didn’t have youtube and Instagram, we didn’t relay messages and pictures and information that way. We only had word of mouth and the more connected you were, the more you knew. In my group of girlfriends which also included Mandy, Heather, Rachel, Courtney, Julie, and Shannon, Aideen was that source of information.
Besides that, Aideen was different than the rest of us. For example, her mother was busted for shoplifting even though her father was as rich as Croesus. While it appalled my mother, a proper southern church going lady, it made Aideen all the more intriguing. Aideen’s mother had gone to jail! My mother’s friends never did anything by comparison. Their excitement over the least little thing was depressing.
All of us hung on every little thing Aideen said. What’s more, she wore makeup before any of us was allowed to, smoked, got access to booze through her older sister, had boyfriends first, kissed them, did other things too, things we knew we weren’t supposed to do. So when Aideen also showed us, at our hang outs and get togethers, things that were new and unfamiliar, things like Bloody Mary, she had us spellbound. When I told her our youth pastor said “do not turn to the spirits of the dead,” because that’s what it says in the Bible, she laughed, little puffs of cigarette smoke escaping her nose and glossy lips.
“That girl isn’t a Christian,” said my Mom to me once after she found out who all was going to one of our parties.
“She goes to the Catholic Church,” I said, which was true. Aideen said she went with a family in her neighborhood because her mother and father never did and she wanted to go.
“She’s not baptized and confirmed,” said Mama. “That wouldn’t even pass muster for most good protestants.”
This was back when the fashion icon was Madonna, the pop singer, and all of us wore rosaries with our bustiers or tshirts and mini-skirts. Sometimes it didn’t even seem to matter, all the rules of the church. We only relied on each other for the real spiritual information, the real spiritual access and experience.
My mother was forced to give up her principals when she was diagnosed with cancer. Her hold on me loosened, whatever hold she had by the time I was twelve and going into the seventh grade. When I was asked to go to the Campbell’s beach house for the summer, she gave in rather than completely agreed. She knew girls from other good homes were going there too so that gave her some comfort.
When I was packed and ready to go, my mother held my hand and made me promise to be good. “I’ll be praying for you,” she said. “Maybe you can find a church to go to there.” My father hugged me, told me not to worry about Mama, she was sick now from the chemo but she would feel better and starting to heal by the time I was home in the fall. He told me what Mama couldn’t say: Have a good time.
Mr. Tommy the Campbells’ driver picked me up first, then Mandy, Heather, Courtney, Rachel, Shannon, and Julie. I felt closest to Mandy, who went to my youth group at the Presbyterian Church. After picking all of us up in the family van, Aideen told us there was someone new who would be joining us, someone who would begin school with us in the fall.
Her name was Chanlina Chea. Aideen told us that she and her mother fled Cambodia when her father was killed. Chanlina had only been a baby. We didn’t know much about Cambodia, only what our parents happened to mention when they were talking about Vietnam.
Chanlina’s mother was going to drive her to the house and we would meet her there. She and her mother are very close she said so it was a big deal that she would be allowed to come at all. When we started asking questions, Aideen just rolled her eyes and put on her headphones.
When we got to the huge old beach house mostly hidden from the road by trees and dense tall bushes, Esmerelda, Aideen’s childhood cook and nanny, came out to greet us. This, we all knew, would be the extent of our adult supervision. And Mr. Tommy had a gun, we all knew. He was there to protect us, to drive us around and peruse the grounds.
He was a strange man who rarely spoke, but he made us feel safe and we didn’t feel we had to change who we were around Mr. Tommy. Looking back I realize he was a long suffering servant of Aideen’s parents though of course he was not unpaid. His gifts in return, were silence and loyalty.
Esmeralda was her own bird. She was gentle and animated and fawned over us and insisted that we eat what she provided, and always second helpings. She was a kind and sweet woman and I never asked myself at the time whether she had a life of her own outside of our activities.
We brought our things in and Aideen directed us to the basement, a huge lounge space her parents had let her decorate and furnish as she pleased. She had painted the walls purple and on top of that had painted huge magenta flowers with thick twisting vines. There were two long pink velvet sofas with all manner of pillows and our beds were tucked into walls, like little caves, and hidden by sheer curtains tied back with muslin bows. The basement had its own kitchen and bathroom. The only thing Aideen didn’t include that most of us would have was a television set. Instead, she had bookshelves built in.
“I don’t watch television here,” said Aideen and grabbed a book and sat in an egg shaped rattan chair that was suspended from the ceiling. She spun it around with her foot. Chanlina was already in the basement, we had greeted her when we made our descent. She sat in the other egg chair on the opposite side of the shelves. She laughed and spun too, like Aideen.
Someone turned on a jambox, played a cassette – The Cure, Duran Duran, The Motels. Aideen passed out the beers she managed to smuggle away as well as packets of cigarettes. We opened windows high up on the wall facing the ocean and heard the waves crashing against the beach in the black night.
“We’ll go out later,” said Aideen, “when the moon rises.” She liked to turn her head when she smoked and let the smoke out so it rose in slow curls.
We pulled each other up to standing and danced in the candlelight to The Motels’ song about a never-ending summer. None of us said it but we were all watching Chanlina to see how she fit in. Would she dance like we did? Would there be something odd about the way she behaved? Could she laugh and have fun? She seemed to be having a good time and she had a nice way of dancing, like a fluid sea creature. She was more womanly than most of us who sort of bopped around. Aideen picked up a pillow and swatted her. Chanlina laughed and picked up a pillow from the couch and hit her back. Good sign.
We went outside. The moon was a huge yellow disk hanging over the undulating waves. We ran down to the water and splashed each other though no one was swimming. It was hot so we didn’t care we were wet. We walked along the beach, shining our light on sand crabs and the occasional jellyfish. When we got back to the shore in front of the house, there was a fire in the middle of a circle of Adirondack chairs. Mr. Tommy had built it for us and left us a cooler of drinks, along with a table loaded with supplies for s’mores. We loaded up wire coat hangers with marshmallows along with plates of graham crackers and Hershey bars. We grabbed Cokes and took a seat.
“I’ve asked Chanlina to tell us a story,” said Aideen when we settled in and began to toast our marshmallows. “It’s probably the weirdest story I’ve ever heard.”
The fire crackled and the breeze lifted our hair and brushed our cheeks in little puffs. The moon was brighter and higher in the sky and cast an eerie glow on the sand and water.
Chanlina began: “This is a story about a girl who haunts school children in Japan. Have you heard of it?”
We shook our heads no, all except Aideen.
“A boy that works with me and my mother in the restaurant, he told it to me.”
The waves came up gently on the beach, crashing on the shore in tiny claps. Chanlina’s black hair and dark skin set her apart from us. Her accent leant her an air of authority.
“If you think you are ok, you are probably wrong,” she said. I wasn’t really sure what she meant by this. Was this generally the way someone in Cambodia started a ghost story? Or was she just saying something from her own personal experience?
“When I was a baby,” she continued, “my father was killed for wearing glasses,” she said.
We remained silent, and still, not quite knowing what to say.
“The government in charge thought he was an intellectual. They thought he would question them and cause problems. Many people were put to death for wearing glasses.”
Of course, we had never heard of such an absurd, random way to die.
“Now my mother and I live here. We live alone.”
Aideen lit up a cigarette from a pack she kept in pocket, punctuating the silence with the little “clink” of her lighter.
“The spirit ghost of Japan is named Hanako-san. Her story shows anything can happen to anyone.”
An old couple walked up not far from our circle and nodded and waved. They were wearing tennis shoes and knee high athletic socks and floppy hats. They asked us how we were and we told them fine, thank you, like we had been taught.
When they passed, Chanlina continued. “Hanako-san died when she was hiding in a toilet stall at her school. She was playing hide and seek with her friends. Americans dropped bombs on her city. It was World War II. Everyone in her city was killed.”
For some reason, I thought of the hair floating down on my mother’s shoulders after a few weeks of chemotherapy. I always tried not to think about what would happen if my father’s chipper predictions didn’t come true and instead my mother died.
“Remember Ms. Bray showing us a film of the mushroom cloud?” said Aideen. Ms. Bray had been our history teacher. “Remember when she told us that the ones who were vaporized had their organs boiled? Their bones turned to charcoal.”
Mandy and Heather put their marshmallows down on the ground. The rest of us were holding onto our coat hangers awkwardly, the marshmallows forgotten. Only Courtney was loading her graham crackers up with melted marshmallows and chocolate.
“To this day, the spirit of Hanako-san haunts the hallways of schools in Japan,” Chanlina said. “but especially the bathroom where she died.”
“I told Chanlina we’re going to summon her at the Devil’s School,” said Aideen. Aideen was the only one who wasn’t making s’mores. She was always on a diet even though she just turned thirteen and didn’t need to be on a diet. She was smoking again, and smoke trickled through her nose.
“The Devil’s School?” said Mandy. She was often intent on keeping Aideen in check or at least asking the necessary questions. No doubt, she would write about this later tonight in her journal.
“Annie Lytle Elementary,” said Aideen, practically smiling, “Or, as it was known back in the day, school number 4.”
How strange to have schools known simply by numbers, when all of them now are given names. I thought of other times when people were given numbers instead of being spoken to their names, like in the Holocaust when each person in the camps had a number emblazoned on their arms.
“What’s so special about it?” said Heather, trying to sound cool, taking a cigarette from Aideen and pretending she knew what to do with it. Her ratted out short red bob and kohl eyes made her look like a slightly more punk Mollie Ringwald.
“I know this one,” said Courtney, having stuffed a large portion of a s’more sandwhich in her mouth. She was trying to talk but her words were coming out funny and we laughed. When she had swigged down some coke, she said “The principal was a cannibal and ate kids.”
“Well, you would know about eating, now wouldn’t you?” said Julie. We fell out laughing.
“Is this going to be really scary?” said Shannon nervously. She picked up a piece of her hair. She always twirled her hair when she was nervous or thinking about something, like an essay on a test. “Maybe I’ll stay here tomorrow.”
“No way, Shannon.” said Aideen.
“I’ve heard you can hear kids screaming,” said Courtney. “And there’s a tree growing up through the auditorium floor where the roof was burned away by a fire.”
Aideen picked up a coat hanger and slid a couple of marshmallows on the end. She told me once she liked to burn them because that took away some of the calories. I had no idea if it was true, but she was always skinny, so there was the answer I guess. “Tell us how we summon Hanako-san, Chanlina,” she said.
“Well, we have to go to the girl’s bathroom,” said Chanlina, “to the third stall. Then, someone has to knock three times on the door like this,” and Chanlina wrapped on the armrest of her Adirondack chair three times. “Then you sing this tune…” and Chanlina sang a song to the tune of a nursery rhyme: “Hanako-san, Hanako-san, would you like to play today?”
Chanlina was quiet for a bit, letting us think about this.
“What happens next?” said Rachel. She was a little more matter of fact about things, not easily caught up in emotion.
“If you see Hanako-san, who wears a red skirt, white blouse, and her hair tied back, she will grab you with her black fingers and drag you down through the toilet and into hell.”
We were quiet and still for a moment. Even Courtney stopped at this, hesitating mid re-load of a marshmallow onto her coat hanger.
“Oh yeah, right!” Julie said, breaking the silence, laughing. She never believed anything about bloody Mary or anything. In fact, she had said she hoped to see Mary in the mirror one day. She’d like to kiss her shriveled up witch lips.
Shannon was laughing too but quieter, nervously, the clump of hair in her fingers going at a furious pace twirling around and around.
“I don’t believe in hell,” said Rachel. “I think we all just disintegrate into the ground. We don’t go anywhere.”
“But what about heaven?” I said. I couldn’t think like this. What would that mean for Mom?
“Heaven neither,” said Rachel. “Nope.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Aideen. “We’re all going to meet Hanako-san third stall bathroom toilet, tomorrow, Devil’s School.” And she grinned at us, pulling a burned marshmallow from her hanger and putting it in her mouth and licking her fingers.
“Whatever,” said Rachel, pushing herself up from her chair. “I’m going for a walk.”
“Oh me too!” said Julie, always looking for the slightest opportunity for mutiny as long as fun was involved.
Shannon stood as well, probably wanting to get away from the conversation around the fire. And she also probably knew there would be light, simple chatter between Rachel and Julie, nothing too challenging, though Julie could be a bit harsh.
“Enjoy,” said Aideen. “We’ll be praying for your souls,” and she laughed.
The next day, Aideen made good on her promise and had Mr. Tommy drop us at the abandoned school. It was beside a highway overpass so that the passing cars and trucks made loud swooshing noises. It was encompassed by a chain link fence and had the appearance of a sad, old person, dripping with dead vines, the few hollow windows not boarded looking like eyes and the entry a gigantic black maw. The front was graced by huge white columns whose tops were weathered and grey. The old brick of the walls was blackened in places, red still in others, in some places nearer the earth painted with graffiti, some pornographic.
An old man sat on a crumbling step. He was thin and shriveled and wore a baseball cap and long pants and long sleeves though it was ninety degrees. “Death tryna’ come out of this here place,” he said, wagging a finger at Aideen. How would he have known she was the ringleader? “But death, he ain’t never getting’ out. That’s ‘cause death, he locked up in there.”
“We’re going to summon a spirit,” said Aideen.
The old man just looked at us as if we were barely visible to him. “You ladies, I’m Alfred, but I can’t be helpin’ you none.”
“I’m not sure I want to go in,” said Shannon, predictably. I didn’t want to either, truth be told, but I wasn’t going to say anything. I could always count on Shannon to say exactly what she was feeling.
“Here, hold my hand,” said Mandy. And Mandy grabbed her hand but waited for someone else to take the lead.
Aideen and Chanlina went first, walking past the old man on the steps, followed by Julie and Heather and Courtney, Mandy and Shannon, then me and Rachel.
Our feet fell on a disintegrating wood floor once we were past the peeling threshold. It was dark in the entry even though it was bright outside. We turned on the flashlights we brought from the house.
“This way,” said Aideen and we crossed through a hallway where the sun shown in through huge gaping spaces where windows once were. Tendrils of vines pushed in the openings like fingers. Plaster had fallen away from the walls, exposing brick underneath. Trash and debris lay at the bottom of the walls and in the corners. And on all the walls were scribbled layer upon layer of graffiti, up to the ceiling in some spots.
“The whole building feels like it’s crying,” I said.
“It’s practically shouting,” said Julie.
“It looks like homeless people have been here,” Mandy said. There were piles of tins and broken bottles.
At the end of the hallway was a concrete stairwell that looped back on itself. “The bathroom’s up here,” said Aideen and began to climb.
“Wait!” said Courtney. “I think I hear screams! Shh!” and she put a finger to her lips. We stood still. Nothing. Then she began to laugh. “Just kidding!” she said.
But Shannon wasn’t so sure. “Shouldn’t we call Mr. Tommy on the walkie talkie?” she said.
“Shannon!” scolded Aideen.
When we got to the top of the stairs, Aideen disappeared into a pink door frame, though the paint had worn off in places. The girls’ bathroom. Leaves had fallen in through the smashed windows and filled the sinks and floor. The once white walls were gray with mildew and in places the plaster had come off, revealing the brick beneath. The stalls teetered on their hinges and a couple of stalls didn’t have doors. We stood in a little entry area, all eight of us packed in and not wanting to go into the space between the line of sinks facing the toilet stalls.
“I don’t even think a ghost would want to hang out here,” said Courtney.
“Spirits are everywhere,” said Chanlina. “But they won’t speak unless we speak to them.”
“Rachel,” said Aideen, “Since you don’t believe in all of this, why don’t you call on Hanako-san?”
“This is so stupid, but ok,” she said, shuffling through the leaves. Wind blew through the palms outside the window and we could hear the clacking of the long fronds and also the mournful sounds of cars whooshing past on the highway.
“Don’t forget,” said Aideen, “third stall.”
Rachel turned to us and put a flashlight under her face, rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue. We all laughed of course, though a bit quieter than when we laughed at Courtney’s prank on the stairs. Well, everyone laughed except Shannon who was by now frozen. Mandy was quiet too, probably out of respect for Shannon.
“You have to turn out your light,” said Aideen.
She turned her light off and Aideen motioned us to turn our lights off.
Sunlight filtered through the broken panes of the window.
Slowly Rachel knocked on the stall door. Knock, knock, knock. Then she sang: “Hanako-san, Hanako-san, would you like to play today?”
We all stood there for what felt like an hour but it was probably a few seconds. No sound, no slowly creaking stall door, no ghoul in a red skirt. Rachel did not get dragged down into the toilet and to hell. Rachel shrugged her shoulders and shuffled back through the leaves.
Then there was a loud pop. We screamed. The door from the third floor stall opened and smashed into the sink, breaking the porcelain.
Shannon wailed and shook. Mandy put her arms around her. The rest of us silently quaked in fear, huddled together tightly.
“Should we get Mr. Tommy” I said, my teeth chattering with the words.
“No fucking way, Lisa” Aideen lashed out but I felt something desperate in her words.
We waited again.
“This place is falling to pieces,” said Julie, breaking the silence. “What a shithole.”
“Yeah, and not a thing to worry about,” said Rachel even though she didn’t sound as confident as before. She broke away from the huddle to stand closer to the door frame where she placed a foot on the tile wall and stretched her leg, affecting nonchalance.
Our exit from School Number Four was more somber than our entry had been, though we were mostly relieved the ordeal was finished and there was probably nothing to worry about.
Still, something had happened.
“Do you think that door was bound to fall off like that?” said Courtney, “Or do you think….” She didn’t finish her thought.
“I was actually hoping to meet her,” said Heather. “Personally, I think the door crashing scared her.”
No one laughed, not even Rachel and Julie.
“Well, thanks for the memories, Devil School,” said Aideen, spreading her arms out as if she was making a speech. She began to sing: “We love you Hanako-san, oh yes we do. We love you Hanako-san, and we’ll be true. When you’re not with us, we’re blue. Oh Hanako-san, we love you.” And her song reverberated off the disintegrated, graffiti walls, a faint echo returning to us.
At the bright threshold, the old man in the baseball cap sat on the stairs. “I done told you now, chillrun. You done seen death. I can tell. You scairt!”
We let his chiding follow us out past the chain fence where Mr. Tommy waited for us in the van. None of us spoke then or later that night as we quietly put on our pajamas and crawled up into our beds so strangely nestled into the wall.
In the dead of night when the only sound was the surf lapping up on the shore in little claps, there was the loud crash of the bathroom door against the wall. A dark figure, Chanlina, stumbled out and stood in the middle of the room weeping.
“Chanlina, what is it?” said Mandy, emerging from her bed, trying to put her arms around her to comfort her. But she jerked away.
“I want to go home!” Chanlina screamed. “Take me home! Mr. Tommy take me home!”
No one could figure out what had happened, only that something had happened in the bathroom. We all asked her questions and tried to get her to calm down but she kept getting more frantic.
Aideen went upstairs to wake Esmerelda and Mr. Tommy. We fetched Chanlina and stood in the kitchen and told our caretakers what had happened that day, about the story Chanlina had told us and what we had done at the Devil’s School.
Chanlina sat at the table, inconsolable. Esmerelda brought her milk and buttered bread, but she would have none of it.
Chanlina went home to her mother.
As the days and weeks past, the beauty of the beach and monotony of the waves took away the strangeness of our summer’s beginning, like a water’s current softening a sharp rock. Although I felt guilty for putting Chanlina out of my mind, it wasn’t long before the eight of us were back to the way we used to be before a stranger was in our midst. And since we left off pursuing ghosts, the last time we would ever do this, I thought more about my mom and actually felt compelled to read from the little Bible she gave me and say a prayer for her. According to Dad, she was doing better.
When we got home in the fall, we received word: Chanlina was dead. She had fallen into a coma and doctors could not find the reason.
One night, she just slipped away.
First published in Demonic Household. Under the title: Hanako san of the Toilet.