It was a lovely stone house on a leafy street in the Lakewood neighborhood, an area notable for its mature foliage, historic homes and proximity to White Rock Lake. The price was a little steep for Dallas, but it seemed more than worth it, because it was in an ideal location close to my new job downtown, and it had all the amenities we’d longed for in New York — off-street parking, a dishwasher, one-and-a-half bathrooms, a washer and dryer, wood, tile and brick flooring (crucial for me, because of my damned allergies), and front, back and side porches. A picture window that took up most of the front-facing wall in the living room was one of 17 windows in the place. Seventeen windows! And not one of them looked out onto an ugly Dumpster!
We were thrilled to have found this place, and eager to lock in a two-year lease. We quickly discovered, however, that it wasn’t exactly utopia, starting with the night we moved in.
They say that animals sense when things aren’t quite right, and Simon’s behavior that first night was alarming and, as it turns out, probably a sign that something was terribly wrong with our new home. After I unzipped his carrier, he made a bee line for the office, a cool little room with french doors, a small closet and a ceiling fan. I heard pawing and snuffling, and when I entered the room, I found him in the corner, transfixed by an invisible presence. Thinking he’d found some kind of unfamiliar bug, I tried to move him to the side for a better look. He hissed at me for the first and only time in the more than 13 years since I’ve known him. Nothing was there.
Shortly thereafter, we noticed the spiders. They were everywhere, their webs, nests and egg sacs occupying every corner in the house. Bad luck be damned, I went after them, mercilessly sucking them up with the vacuum, brushing away webs with my broom — and still I’d find more. They descended from the ceiling like paratroopers. The battle lasted for days, but eventually I won. And then the mosquitoes came.
My landlord liked to keep potted plants and trees around the perimeter of the house, and he was, shall we way, rather lax about draining standing water. I despise mosquitoes with a red-hot fury most people reserve for terrorists and the IRS, and so for weeks I hunted for offending vessels, upending them, spilling their fetid contents and watching the greenish brown fluid pool briefly before seeping into the ground to nourish the weeds that grew between the cracks. I won this battle, too.
But something else had taken up residence in that house. Something that I had no power to eliminate. It sounds crazy, but that house was haunted.
We heard things in the night: bumps, thuds, creaks, etc. All of these are, I have heard, sounds we should expect in an older, settling home. What I didn’t expect, though, was the pitter-patter of little feet.
Most nights Chris and I would hear this, and the first couple of times we thought it might be Simon trotting into the bedroom. We’d call to him, asking him to “come here,” his signal to jump into the bed. He didn’t — because he wasn’t in the room. As we’d soon find out, Simon wouldn’t enter the room. Something about that bedroom spooked him, and in the entire time we lived in that duplex, he crossed the threshold maybe four times. This is a cat who up to that point, and for every night since we moved back to New York, spent at least part of every night either curled at my feet on the bed or snuggled close to my chest. Not in the Belmont house, though.
One night Chris went to a sleep center. We’ve been fortunate in our time together to have jobs that don’t require travel. I can count on one hand the number of nights I’ve slept alone. A friend came over to keep me company that night, and we talked until well past midnight. I passed out shortly after she left but slept fitfully. When Chris returned in the wee hours that morning, Simon was mewing plaintively. I checked his water bowl: full. His food bowl: full. And then I checked his litter box. It was turned toward the wall, so that the entrance was blocked.
Not even a month later, I emerged from the bedroom in the morning to find Chris on the couch, awake and confused. “What is that perfume you’re wearing?” he asked. He’d been awakened earlier by the sensation of wind blowing through his hair. He drifted back to sleep, and when he came to, the air was thick with a woman’s fragrance. I don’t wear perfume.
Then Simon got sick. He’d overcome an acute illness (now a chronic disease managed with medication) back in 2007 but had been in impeccable shape since then. One day he just stopped eating, and we scrambled for a reason why. Had he eaten one of his toys? Had he developed an allergy to his favorite food, which he’d eaten every day for nearly four years? His illness came shortly after we’d decided to move back to New York, and we were struggling to get him healthy before the long drive.
After thousands of dollars worth of tests, the vets couldn’t determine the problem. We took him to a specialist, who said his symptoms were consistent with FIV, so he tested him, and it came back positive. I was devastated, but also convinced they were wrong. Simon had tested negative for FIV more than a decade earlier, and he’d had zero contact with other cats since then. Three days and more than a thousand miles later, I had him retested in New York, and the result was negative. Ultimately they decided he had an overgrowth of toxoplasma, an organism that lives for a relatively short time in soil and cat feces. How did little Simon, who ultimately recovered beautifully with time and drugs, fall ill because of this?
The day before we surrendered our keys to our landlord, I was cleaning the floors in our empty house, and I heard the blinds moving in the office. For close to a year they’d been doing this, and when we’d hear them, we’d assume Simon was pawing at them, only to enter the room and find him sitting innocently on the couch. By this point, the cat was recovering from his various tests at my parents’ house. The fans and the air conditioner were both off, and there was no wind outside to cause a draft. I was alone, but I’m confident I was not.