It becomes an icebreaker, a fun fact you recite at parties. I was raised in a haunted house. Most of the time they laugh, unbelieving, but you don’t expect them to. It’s easier, really, if they don’t. You don’t want to answer too many questions, you just want to take your three squares of toilet paper or your handful of M&Ms. Lydia, Winter River, first year, photography/English major. You give them a taste and leave it at that. You’ve played this game before.
Delia writes to you from home. She’s lonely now that your father is gone, two years in July, a heart attack while sleeping in his recliner, newspaper draped over his chest, English swallows chirping at the feeder. As peaceful a death as a man could wish for. Barbara and Adam do what they can to comfort you, but they are still ghosts. Their knowledge of death is intimate, but it is not the same. Death, they remind you, is very personal.
Otho came to the funeral. He did not come inside the house. You overheard your stepmother on the porch, Is there any way to contact Charles? He patted her hand and told her no, and that’s a good thing. It means his time here on Earth is up. That just makes it harder. That just means there’s no handbook.
Some days you say his name. Just once. Just to see the light shimmer, feel the air begin to spark. Hard to believe you were almost married. You tried saying that during Freshman orientation, I almost got married when I was 16, but all that got you was a trip to the RA’s office. You explained it was just a joke. The groom was eaten by a sandworm, you stop yourself from saying. Josh The RA tells you to come to him any time, day or night, if you feel vulnerable or scared. You saw a demonic whorehouse, a snake man, your father’s boss fired like a missile through your roof. Nothing scares you anymore.
You turn off Siouxsie and put on Harry Belafonte. It doesn’t sound the same from your tinny little speakers as it does from the turntable in the living room, but at Christmas you’ll drink one of Delia’s Mai Tais and dance around the kitchen again. Adam will do shrimp hands if you ask. If you pass biology, he teases at the top of Delia’s weekly letter.
Delia has a show in Manhattan. Her first in two years. You wish you could be there to support her, but it’s the week of your finals and biology looms. She can’t wait for you to come home. She sends you pictures of her newest sculptures. You see your father’s death in every lonesome shape.
The girls in the corner suite insist that it’s haunted. Christina tells you that someone sits on the end of her bed, someone moves their remotes and hair dryers. You have to help us, she insists. You know about this shit. You do. You know better. But you light sage and Yankee Candles, chant made-up incantations to put them at ease. When you go to leave, you hear her murmuring: Josh got pissed when I told him I had a boyfriend. You recommend they get a brass door stopper, hang their mirror facing their door. Ghosts do not like that they cannot see their reflection, you tell them.
And men don’t like it that they can.
Some days you say his name twice.
You miss the tension. You wonder what he’s up to, if he ever got his shit together or if he found another couple to con. At night you picture him ducking and weaving his way through the endless spiraling hallways of the Netherworld, wondering if he even remembers you. In another life you might have been friends, two outcasts trying to find their way in the world. But that’s just not who he was. He was a trickster spirit, a devil-God, an angel of chaos. You wouldn’t have had him any other way.
Josh leaves roses by your door. He asks you to dinner, first at the dining hall, then at Luigi’s Ristorante off campus. I like your spooky vibe, he tells you. I’ve got friends in a frat who throw a great Halloween party. A no, he seems to believe, is just the first line in a negotiation to a yes. You hear Delia’s voice in the back of your head: You’ve got to take the upper hand. There’s no hand to take here. Just keep to yourself, avoid his stare, get dressed in the bathroom so he doesn’t try to see your tits beneath your towel. You press your door closed with one of Delia’s smaller sculptures. If you had a mirror, you’d move it, but you grew up in a house without them. Seeing your own reflection still startles you sometimes.
Delia is thinking about moving back to the city. Keep the house for weekends, or sell it to someone who could understand its history. I can’t stay here forever, she confesses between news from town and a new pasta recipe she’s trying. I am not Barbara and Adam. But you don’t want to move, don’t want to leave them behind. They are family as much as she is, but they can’t come visit, can’t send letters, can’t pick up the phone and call long distance. They would be lost to you, and you have already lost too much.
You still have your red gown. Christina asks to borrow it for her Cyndi Lauper costume. You don’t feel right lending it out. It’s your wedding dress, after all. You should come to the party, she offers. I bet you’d have fun. Against your better judgment, you say yes. You dress up in a beauty pageant sash and updo. You carry Josh’s roses in gloved hands.
The football players here don’t dance on the stairs. They wait by the keg, ready to strike. Josh is among them, two cups in hand. He offers you one. You pour it in a nearby plant, tell Christina you’re leaving, and make the trip back to campus, utterly alone.
The catalog you ordered arrives torn into pieces. Maybe it was the ghost, Christina suggests. Maybe you have awoken something in our hall that you cannot put back. But no ghost would write SLUT on your whiteboard. No ghost would get his friends to catcall you on the way to class, making wet kissing noises and threatening to make you their teenage bride. Those are problems for the living. The dead have better things to do.
Yesterday you came back to your room to find your stereo smashed. Last night you awoke to a key in your latch. Delia’s door stopper worked, but this morning the corner-suite girls are whispering. Josh is pissed, Christina repeats in the elevator. You may want to go home for the weekend, wait for him to cool off.
Outside you see Josh smoking a cigarette. He stares at you with violence behind his eyes. The veil between the worlds is thin today. The air is so cold that your breath makes ghosts.
You don’t even need to say his name loudly.
You just need to say it three times.
LIBBY CUDMORE is the author of the hipster mystery THE BIG REWIND (William Morrow 2016) and the Martin Wade PI series at ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE. Her work has been published in SMOKELONG QUARTERLY, HAD, RECKON REVIEW, THE COACHELLA REVIEW, BLEED ERROR, THE NORMAL SCHOOL, THE STONESLIDE CORRECTIVE, the BARRELHOUSE blog and several anthologies, including HANZAI JAPAN, MIXED UP, WELCOME HOME, A BEAST WITHOUT A NAME and LAWYERS, GUNS AND MONEY (co-edited with Art Taylor). She is a three-year alum of the Barrelhouse Writer Camp, the recipient of the 2018 Oregon Writer’s Colony prize and the co-host of the OST PARTY, The SHATTERED SHIELD and the MISBEHAVIN’ podcasts. Follow her on Twitter at @libbycudmore.