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Ghost Cams

By Rainie Oet From Issue No. 6

Baba Galya, my grandmother, looked at the dust, she watched the dust rising and settling, in the last month of her life, on the futon couch in the TV room, where I’d snuck views at Futurama late at night.

We all kept it secret from her that she was going to die. But she knew, anyway.

My father says she was mean to him in that last month, December—she was mad that he didn’t invite her to go on vacation with him next June—everyone else was invited.

Baba Galya knew she was going to die, and she kept that a secret from us. We weren’t supposed to say cancer.

After she died, my father and his sister found notes in her own clothes she’d folded away upstairs, before she became bedridden. “These are for Lina,” “These are for Zina,” “These are for Inna.”

After Baba Galya died, I got obsessed with ghost cams.

My father found out she was going to die on the day I became a real chess player. He ducked out of the awards ceremony—me getting handed trophy for best fourth grade chess player in all of Ohio—and got the call. Three months.

After she died, we got deep into chess. My father stopped being my father. My father became my rider. He rode me across spiky brambles for miles—20 tactics problems a day, 30, 40, 60, 100. I faked them all.

He yelled at me and my little brother when we couldn’t focus anymore during a daily three hour study lesson. He’d read out of the Russian chess books he ordered online. He’d make us guess the grandmasters’ moves.

Some nights my father would play chess on the computer in my room from the time I went to sleep to when I woke up in the morning. I liked these nights, because I wouldn’t have to be afraid as much, but sometimes he wouldn’t turn off the sound. And, throughout the night, I’d hear the computer saying “Your move, your move, your move.”

On the nights I was alone I refused to open my eyes in case I opened them and saw her towering visage in the dark. I would walk to the bathroom with my eyes closed.

Sometimes I would run into my little brother’s room and sleep on his floor until morning, I was so scared.

I was so scared all the time it was hard to breathe.

It was early internet. Geocities pages about ghosts. Forums. Links to online video feed constantly connected to the world’s most haunted places—library, mansions, hospitals, parking lots. Usually on a dark background with bright red or green text.

The ghost cams were live but had to be refreshed every five seconds. They didn’t refresh by themselves. I had to refresh them. Hitting, over and over, F5, F5, F5.

My favorite place to attack with a pawn. F5. The move I made that lost me nationals, and my father screamed at me.

He rode me over oceans of his grief, trying to fall off the map.

I couldn’t stop watching the ghost cams. Every day for three years after school. I was addicted to them. And so I couldn’t stop thinking about ghosts.

I never saw a single ghost.

One dream I had during that time was my grandmother coming to visit me, I was in my little brother’s room, and he was there too. Only I could see her, but she didn’t know I could see her. I saw her. I screamed, and then she screamed, realizing she could be seen.

I picture myself without a face. A horse, a machine my father rode to get away from himself. I picture my father with my face. I picture my grandmother watching us. I started hating chess.

Puberty started, and I started screaming back at my father when he’d scream at me. My whole brain opened. The whole world opened. I started feeling my own mind when I saw the trees waving dark outside my window.

I stopped going on ghost cams, electing for e-strip-poker instead. I stopped dreaming of my grandmother.

I was too scared to go back on the ghost cams, and I had never cried for her before, but now I cried because I thought I’d killed her for real, since now she wasn’t even in my dreams.

I was the Phantom of the Opera for Halloween three years in a row. My favorite movie and musical. White mask covering half my face. Imagining grotesque acid burns beneath.

I stopped playing chess in high school.

I stopped talking to my father after that.

These are some ghost cams I remember:

  1. A dusty basement floor in a warehouse. Enormously wide elevator doors near the top right corner of the frame. Tables, construction vehicles. Supposedly, sometimes the construction vehicles will turn on by themselves. I hit F5 again and again, but never saw that.
  2. A staircase in an old mansion. No other explanation. Hitting F5, and hitting F5. Nothing. Hitting F5, and then! I almost jump out of my seat. A ghostly hand appears on the banister. F5. She’s wearing a gray dress, coming down the steps. F5. She’s almost at the ground, and she’s looking at the camera. F5… She’s here! Her face inches away from the camera, staring out of my screen… Then music and confetti plays. A e-joke. “Email this to a friend?” My heart is in my mouth. I laugh.
  3. The parking lot of an abandoned amusement park. The rollercoasters can be seen, distant curlicues poking over the fence in the back. It’s night, and there are two pools of light, vaguely intersecting, from two streetlamps near the edges of the frame. F5, F5. One car pulls up, and nothing else happens. After about twenty minutes, another car pulls up. I really need to pee, and when I come back, and hit F5, the screen refreshes to show both cars are gone.

I’m twenty-four. My father and I talk again. The conversations are strained, and always feel too long. Last night, he told me that his father had just started chemo. I didn’t even know he had cancer. Lymphoma. We don’t know what will happen.

Last night, I dreamed that I screamed at my parents and then went to a huger version of my parents’ house and it was haunted and I saw a bunch of ghosts in the bottom floor computer lab, including Baba Galya’s ghost, and I was afraid but then I went back and said hi and she was so happy to see me and happy to be talking to me and she didn’t have a mouth at first, just blank skin and eyes, but then she had a mouth after I said hi, and we walked around and talked about a lot of things and it’s the first time I’ve had a dream like that and then even after she left things felt so warm.

She was so happy that someone could see her.

She was never expecting to run into me.

Today, I look for the ghost cams. Most of the websites are down. Still, one remains, and I decide to sit on it for an hour. I don’t need to hit refresh. It auto-refreshes. I have it on the side of my screen while I browse Facebook and answer emails. I send my parents an email to let them know when I’ll be visiting.

It’s a lobby of a hotel. The hotel is still in use. People move around in it, carrying suitcases. Supposedly, a figure will sometimes appear and float through people’s bodies, without a single one of the people noticing. It can only be seen on video.

Near the end of the hour, the hotel fills with what I recognize can only be chess players. Kids with chess bags, preparing for a tournament. I wonder if they know they’re on camera, that I’m watching them. I wonder if they know the ghost might be around them right at this moment, floating some erratic path through their bodies, connecting them like dots to a curving line.

No, they can’t possibly know.

About Rainie Oet More From Issue No. 6