When he stopped breathing, the kitchen cabinets screamed. Silverware rattled. Drawers slammed. His mother rushed into the room where he slept to find him in his crib, on his stomach, face pressed into his baby blanket. I imagine her moving him gingerly, her heart in her throat. I imagine her lifting his forehead to her lips. A pale, quiet moon.
Years later, he would curl against her side and tell her about the kind girl who watched him around the house when she wasn’t there. You must have a guardian angel, his mother shrugs. She couldn’t explain it. Her son, my boyfriend, tells me there isn’t anything to explain. I resist asking questions, staunchly scientific. But, I start. How can you be sure?
My boyfriend, a military child, has a ghost story for every home he’s lived in. New Orleans. Alaska. Rotterdam. Charles Town. I, unlike my boyfriend, have lived in the same state my entire life. West Virginia is a minefield of folklore and hauntings that pull tourists to poor towns. Harper’s Ferry and the hog-fed Dangerfield Newby. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum and it’s tortured patients. The young bride murdered in the Greenbrier who appeared to her mother with the name of her killer. I love the lore, the way storytelling revitalizes the forgotten, the way we humans make sense of death, loss, the inexplicable. The way we comfort ourselves in the face of fear.
But when my boyfriend tells me about seeing figures in graveyards, catching sinks turn on by themselves, hearing pans clatter in the restaurant he works in during closing, I find myself shutting down. I want him to admit that these sightings are a stand-in for unresolved trauma, manifestations of anxiety, self-defensive hyper-awareness in a revolving door of foreign spaces. I want him to admit that his experiences are just stories. I want him to tell me the truth, which is to say, I want him to lie.
On my eleventh birthday, I told my friends I’d seen a ghost in my childhood house. Elm trees lined the land like columns, the sound of the nearby creek, raining glitter. We’d moved from that house to the home we lived in now, a log cabin just less than a mile up the hill. Both homes were isolated: it takes thirty odd minutes of driving to reach any real landmark of civilization to this day. I didn’t believe in ghosts even then, not really. But the family-owned graveyard (not ours) between both houses and adolescent party fever had left my friends wanting. I had little other choice but to give a modest tour.
We hiked down my hill to my family’s old place, huffing in the still September air. We tiptoed onto the property but giggled loudly between ourselves. I pointed at the screened-in back porch. I used to play there. That’s my old rocking horse. They clasped each other’s hands and gasped, spooked by their own hope. The house’s white paint clapboards were chipped. The foundation sunk into the ground. The halo of oak trees surrounding it creaked. Grasshoppers and robins whispered to each other quietly. I desperately wanted my friends to have a good time.
A branch snapped behind the abandoned barn adjacent to the gravel driveway and my friends bolted. They ran through the tall yellow grass that led back to our hill wailing at the tops of their lungs, their small heads dipping beneath a wave of cattails. They pumped their arms, stretched their vocal cords, trampled through recently dried mud. The sun, so bright. I followed suit, but not before looking back.
Once we reached the safety outside the dense forest we circled up, drenched in nervous sweat. My old rocking horse, I gulped. I saw it. Moving. My friends screeched, delighted with my finding.
I hadn’t actually seen anything. But when I’d looked back, my friends ahead of me, light dipping behind my hills, I shivered. I felt a presence. It felt as if a girl watched me from behind the closed windows. That presence was one I’d longed for to be real, one that I claimed as real, believed as real for many years after the fact. But the fear I felt sliding its cold hand up my spine that day didn’t come from the dead. So much life had filled that house, life that I’d lived. I couldn’t believe something once loved so deeply could be left alone so long and still stand there. I wanted this place, this part of my history, to be sacred. So, I saw a ghost.
I loop my arm around my boyfriend while we stretch across a bed we laid on my living room floor. Candlelight dances across the dark walls. Birch trees whip at my back windows. He laughs at something on the television while I watch his face change. I didn’t know love could feel like this: like discovery, like hope. In two months, I’ll be halfway across the country at a new school in a new state. I’ll be alone for the first time in my life. I am terrified. We plan on staying together, making it work long-distance. But, ever the realist, I anticipate floating between rooms in a quiet, empty house, his memory of me little more than static on a dead phone line. Already, I feel so close to disappearing.
I pinch the skin of his elbow. Pay attention to me, I whisper. I breathe on his neck, nestle the lobe of his ear with my nose. I make a silent wish to be rare. That he will, like me, find it difficult to move on. The hairs on his arms stand up as I watch myself pass through him.
Amanda Gaines is a PhD candidate in CNF in OSU’s creative writing program. She is the nonfiction editor of Into the Void. Her poetry and nonfiction has been published in The Oyez Review, Gravel, Typehouse, Yemassee, and Redivider.