The Silent and The Fearful
The bomber was returning home, eastward. No doubt another successful special operation, Papa thought. Deep gashes—valleys—had been cut by the Russian convoy along that dirt road. There were no people in the town, only cats, scattering as the car drove by. Rainwater from a morning shower had pooled in those ruts. It shook as the bomber flew overhead.
The girl sat preoccupied, wedged in between Mama and her brother Alexei. Papa broke their silence as they drove past a caved-in synagogue.
“Were the Nazis here?”
“Most certainly,” responded the producer. “This whole area was overrun before the special military operation began.” He was a gruﬀ man. There were certain men in Russia you didn’t want to stand near. He was one. He puﬀed his cigarette as he drove through town, that desolate ghost town, where a year ago the echoing joy of schoolchildren ﬁlled the main road.
The daughter, Dasha, had always spoken to spirits. Her parents thought they were her imaginary friends. But they fell silent as the car rounded the hill and came into view of the house. It would be several hours before Dasha’s friends spoke again.
The house was beautiful. A white cottage with stone foundation. Firewood was stacked shoulder-high along the side. Green shutters framed each window. This was to be their home for the next three days.
Ghost House: Seventy-Two Hours was a massive success across Russia. A former KGB officer producing a terror-driven reality show week after week. Millions of viewers tuned in to watch a new family being terrorized by the supernatural. The premise was simple: if the family can stay three nights, they win a prize.
“It’s just like a vacation,” Papa had said. “They ﬁlm us three days for the show. Maybe we hear a few sounds…”
“Like what?” Mama asked.
“Like an old house. Remember those radiators, how they drove you mad that ﬁrst winter? Flickering lights. Nothing too scary, not even for Dasha. There’s a prize.”
“We don’t need…”
“The prize is a new home. They’re resettling the town, expanding even.”
“But we don’t need…”
“I already signed the contract.” Papa gave the illusion of spousal democracy, but beneath was a true autocrat.
The mood stiffened upon entering the home. The producer hated this part the most. Grown-ups acting self-conscious, forgetting where to place their arms. The mother dutifully set to work preparing supper while the father and son explored. Only Dasha remained compelling at that moment.
She was quiet now. The disappearance of her invisible friends had frightened her. She sat at the table and began playing with the flatware, oﬃciating a wedding between Fork and Spoon. The table had been set for ﬁve; the producer would be staying for dinner. Pewter candlesticks and a centerpiece of dried wheat. In Donetsk, wheat was more than food, it was a symbol of pride. The dried whiskers brushed her ﬁngertips like fuzzy caterpillars.
At the top of the stairs, Papa stood admiring an old grandfather clock whose movements had ceased long ago. His hand rested on his chin as he nodded.
“Look at the beds!” shouted Alexei. A queen bed apiece for the children. Goose down. “Dasha, come see!”
She looked to Mama, who urged her along. Dasha remained at the table, head bowed. Mama understood.
“Children!” the father called. Dasha came obediently. In the master bedroom, father and son were wrestling on the largest bed she had ever seen. She dove in and began climbing through the duvet over to Papa. The siblings tackled the old man and the three sat laughing while Mama cooked downstairs. The cameras were hidden throughout the house. The show had begun.
In the kitchen, Mama already had water boiling, though she didn’t yet know what for. I should have brought my recipe book, she thought. Dried herbs, vegetables, radiant colors, vibrant smells. A broth to start. “She’s her most beautiful when making soup,” Papa had once said, and it was true. The broth simmered, steam rising up, smells wafting. Green and red and orange in small piles on the cutting board, but of course the purple. Her hands remained beet‑stained for most of the year.
By the time dinner was served, the family had grown accustomed to being filmed. Only Dasha sat uneasy, breaking her bread with great diﬃculty. There was a slight whistle from the basement. No, not a whistle. Like wind through a canyon, but soft. She sat with napkin in lap, back straight. She had her hair done up now, like she always did when eating. A pet peeve of hers—hair touching her lips when she ate. The thought of it made her shiver.
Outside, the wind picked up. A shutter banged against the side of the house, over and over, again and again.
The producer’s work had started. To him he was a conductor, slowly orchestrating a crescendo of terror. Right on cue, a barn owl hooted. He was as methodical here as his previous work. “You have to find the right pace for each subject,” began the interrogation handbook he authored, which was still in use. “You cannot simply overwhelm the subject with terror, or the information will be unreliable. There is an art to interrogation. There must be a beginning and a middle before there can be an end.” Now his so-called art reached millions.
Lately the show had turned political, much to his displeasure. The star program on state-run media, taking a family to Donetsk for propaganda. The ghost town was to be repopulated by grateful Russians being gifted houses, cars, schools for the kids, new jobs. It would be Russia’s strongest foothold in the tenuous region. And this was to be the town’s debut. A whitewashed—or de‑Nazified, if you prefer—backdrop to Russia’s most-watched program.
None of that mattered to him now. What mattered was setting the stage for tonight’s scare.
The children were carrying plates when they heard it, the unmistakable sound of footsteps upstairs. Poor Dasha’s plate shattered as it hit the ﬂoor. The producer was already picturing the title shot, a plate falling in slow motion.
“Stay here, I will go see.” The father lumbered up the steps.
“Mama, you said it wasn’t haunted,” Dasha protested as her brother gathered broken pieces of china.
“I said I didn’t think it was.”
“There’s nothing here,” Papa called down. “Not even an imaginary friend.”
“They won’t come inside,” Dasha replied. “They are too scared.”
“Someone’s too scared,” said Alexei.
The producer had the footage he needed. It was time for him to retire for the night, back to the town where his crew was cutting, editing, splicing. “I will go check the videos, little one,” he assured her, “just to be safe…”
Dasha stayed close to her mother the next morning, while Papa and Alexei explored outside. Her mother was preparing latkes. Patiently she chopped onions and shredded potatoes. Diﬀerent aromas than yesterday ﬁlled the house. Years from now, her children would still remember the smell of her breakfasts. Although Russia had more ingredients nowadays, Mama still practiced the old ways, with few ingredients but a plethora of spices. The producer sat in the other room, chain smoking, drinking coﬀee.
Papa saw a glint as the recently sharpened axe caught the morning sunrise. The producer and his crew have done much to make the house a home, he thought. But then a painful memory crept back…
“What if the Ukrainians are innocent?” Mama had asked.
“No. No. No!” He pounded the table. “If we are not liberators, then what are we?” They never spoke of Ukrainians again, only Nazis. A country overrun by Nazis and Westerners. The memory twisted his already aching stomach.
“Come, Alexei.” The boy was examining an empty hen house by the edge of the woods.
By midday, Dasha had begun to emerge from her shyness. Mama smiled as Dasha’s imaginary friends returned to tell new stories. Dasha told her mother all about the family who lived here before. About their daughter, and the schoolhouse down the street, and the hens out back. Some villagers had ﬂed in spring, leaving an uneasy feeling behind. Many had abandoned their cats and dogs; pets could not cross the border.
“What border?” Mama asked. She loved her daughter’s imagined tales.
“She doesn’t know. The western one.” Dasha’s tale continued. It had once been a quiet town. There were ﬁelds of blooms in springtime. There was a picture over the ﬁreplace of a husband and wife praying in the ﬁelds, over a basket…
From the other room, the producer’s eyes lit up. He stood in the doorway and began listening more intently. “Little girl, tell me again about the painting.” But her friends once again fell silent, as did she. She did not trust the producer. His cigarettes scared her.
“Did you research the town before coming here?” the producer asked Papa. “Your contract forbids it.”
“No, I swear. We found it on the map, that’s all.” For the ﬁrst time in this story, possibly the last, Papa was scared. “Why do you ask?”
“Your daughter, she knows things about this place. Things she shouldn’t know. Did you have family here?”
“No!” Papa’s throat clenched. “It must be coincidence. Sometimes she makes up these stories, like a detective, she sees clues. She is very bright.
The producer examined Papa’s eyes. There are certain men in Russia who decide when conversation has ended. And most Russians instinctively know when they are in such a conversation.
The pause was unbearable to Papa.
“We need some outside shots for the show. My crew will be set up in a half hour.” With that the producer turned and left.
The children played in the yard as instructed. Alexei climbed an apple tree while Dasha spotted for him. She did not like heights. She stood with arms raised, watching for the slightest sign of danger. He was four years older and could climb the tree blindfolded, but he appreciated her concern. She had always been cautious, he adventurous.
Alexei wanted to show Dasha the empty hen house, but the producer wouldn’t allow it. There were too many boot prints in the backyard. She ﬂinched as a ﬂock of birds suddenly took ﬂight nearby. Alexei hung from the tree by his legs, trying to ﬂick her ear.
They were eating dinner now, another spread Mama had spent the day preparing. There was ﬁlleted ﬁsh, smoked and presented on a wooden plank. Yogurt ﬂavored with ﬁg and fresh herbs. She had never used fresh herbs in winter before. Homemade applesauce. Papa beamed with pride. All of Russia would see his wife’s cooking.
“Papa, why did the Russians scare away the villagers?”
“The people who ran were Nazis…they were bad people.”
With a boldness that startled her parents, Dasha inhaled and continued. “They were not Nazis, Papa, they were villagers…” Her mother shot her a look.
Her father rose to his feet as her bravery evaporated. “Dasha, you will not speak of this again. Go to bed at once!”
“Papa, please!” She cowered by her mother’s side. Being alone upstairs, with the footsteps.
“Go along, little babka,” her Mama reassured her. “I will sleep in your bed tonight. You’ll be safe.”
Dasha wiped her eyes. Inside her head, her friends reassured her. She went upstairs without once looking at Papa. Hands and teeth clenched in anger and fear.
When her door had closed, the producer ﬁnally spoke. “It’s no good. We can’t air that. We’re trying to show Russia the truth about Donetsk. They need to see the progress.”
“We can start over,” said Mama.
“With your plates half-eaten? No. Enjoy your evening. I will ﬁgure it out.”
He rose to his feet and ﬁnished his vodka. The anger was mostly for show. His engineers had crafted a truly terrifying device for this evening. Nobody would sleep well, he was sure of it. Once again he saw himself out and went to join his crew in the town below.
The three settled around the ﬁreplace after dinner. The ﬁre had been going since morning, and needed little encouragement to become a roaring blaze. Papa made shadow puppets on the wall. It had been a tiring day. His silhouette grew as his anger at Dasha returned. She had ruined one of his proudest moments with her damned storytelling.
Even Mama was frustrated. There was a status quo in the family, a balance. Dasha confronting Papa had disturbed it. Perhaps Dasha has gotten too old for such childish things. It didn’t occur to Mama that Dasha was not only speaking out of turn, she was aware of things outside her small world.
Alexei rested his head in Mama’s lap. Papa told Alexei’s favorite story, how the ﬂap on Papa’s thermals opened during the school play, and how he didn’t feel the cold until half his class had burst out laughing. Papa laughed so hard his eyes watered as he spoke.
The family barely noticed when the embers began popping from the ﬁre, but slowly—slowly—the embers landed closer to them. Mama and Alexei moved, but the embers followed. Now the laughter fell silent.
“Papa, did you see that?” Alexei asked.
“The embers. They followed us.”
“Don’t be silly…”
In the town below, the producer tilted a joystick, now aiming his ember launcher directly at the family. He had first noticed a problem with the show a few months back—the parents were always in on the secret, pretending to be frightened by every creaking floorboard and ghoulish sound. He smiled at his solution, a device so dangerous that even the parents were terrified.
Crack! A coal sprang from the ﬁreplace and into Mama’s lap. Papa swatted it to the ﬂoor and stamped it out.
Crack! Another coal struck him in the chest.
“Mama, I think the house is haunted. I want to go home now.”
“It was a coincidence,” said Papa, sounding unsure.
“But earlier I heard strange noises from the basement, a child crying.”
“Must have been your sister.”
Alexei knew it wasn’t, but he dared not cross his father.
“It’s time for bed dear,” Mama said. “Remember, I’m sleeping in your room tonight.” Papa placed the iron screen before the ﬁre to block more projectiles; Mama sighed as calm returned.
Mama awoke in sleep paralysis. She was lying on her back. Her mind screamed at her body, but her arms and legs wouldn’t budge. Dasha was speaking in a deep voice next to her.
“The troops arrived right before winter. Whoever didn’t ﬂee by nightfall was shot. We tried to hide, but the Russians wanted the house for their headquarters. They hanged us in the basement. Spit on our bodies. Called us Nazis, though we are Jewish. Why? Why?”
The house came alive with rage. Mama wanted to scream, but the blankets pinned her to the bed, squeezing her diaphragm with ungodly force. Something held her eyes open. Mama’s voice remained trapped in her throat.
Her mind raced back to the rumors of genocide. That time she asked her husband. How angry it made him. The little voice in her head that knew better. The larger voice that spoke of consequences. Her two children. Her husband.
“Why have you come here?”
Tears welled in Mama’s eyes, but still she could not move. All at once the weight of her world crushed her. The family, the house, the TV show, the town, made a ghost town by them, the silent and the fearful. She saw a vision of those three corpses, hanging from the rafters in the basement, necks snapped. The whole house shook. Windows rattled. Tight like a noose was the blanket now, suffocating her.:
A single thought sliced through her consciousness like razor wire: escape! The house released its grip and let her go.
She grabbed Dasha and Alexei and sprinted down the hall.
“Papa! Papa! Come! We are leaving!” she shouted to her husband.
“The prize…we can’t…” he protested in his sleep.
“Mama, they said it’s time to leave,” Dasha said. “I’m scared.”
“Come, you ox! For once listen to me!” shouted Mom. But she knew he was lost. Smoke filled the room.
“It’s an illusion, a trick,” he insisted through the blackness, “Just stay calm.”
The house would not let him go. She could feel its anger. These spirits would take his life.
Down the stairs they ran. Past the ﬁreplace that now spewed embers like a volcano. Past the curtains engulfed in ﬂame. Out the door. Down the hill to the town, to the producer, to the crew that gathered in the street.
“You must…he won’t listen…” But she could see the orange glow reﬂecting oﬀ their faces.
She turned to see the roof collapse into the blaze.
© Mike Kreiner
Mike Kreiner grew up exploring the woods of Loch Raven before studying mechanical engineering and writing at University of Maryland Baltimore County. He’s spent the last fifteen years examining aerospace patents for the U.S. Patent Office. He enjoys playing drums, watching football, and writing stories. He used to operate the last functioning Linotype machine in Baltimore, its birthplace. His favorite punctuation mark—believe it or not—is the em dash.