By Jacob Strunk
The thing about being haunted is that you get used to it. The bumps in the night. The creaking floors. Shadows bending at the edges of your vision. Here, at the tail end of a wine bender, alone and listening to the wind, plodding about her one-bedroom apartment, she almost expects a dark figure to step through the hallway behind her reflection in the mirror. The ancient furnace kicks on two floors beneath her, rattling the walls, and she waits for a whispered voice to sneak in from the stairwell. The rhythmic pings from the radiator must be a message. Some communication. Something meant for her.
It’s the end of her third semester at Massachusetts State College. She’s more than halfway through her graduate studies in the state’s scrappiest MBA program. The streets outside are deserted, desolate. It’s the last week of December, that urban campus no-man’s-land between Christmas and New Year’s, and she might be the only student left in Salem. Her forehead pressed to the cold glass of the window, she wishes she had cigarettes. Listening to the radiator hiss and groan, she’s glad the town empties out for the holidays. Let the kids go home. She has nothing in common with them. Thirty, single, out of cigarettes, out of enthusiasm. Home for the holidays, yes, because this is her home: three rooms off the second floor landing, a sealed fireplace, 150 years of draft running under all the doors, around all the windows, whistling in the three-story chimney. A fresh start. A used futon in the living room. Her laptop on the battered coffee table. Second-hand dishes in the kitchen sink. A mattress and box spring in the bedroom. Books. Ashtrays. Around her, the remainder of the empty building sleeps.
Still, she is haunted.
The house in Nashua was home, too, once. When the agent first showed it to them, she’d joked about the cemetery across the street, about ghosts in the attic, about skeletons in the converted barn. The oldest house on the block, it spoke to them each night, whispered secrets in the language of old wood and square nails, breathed through fresh paint, each day a promise. Young, in love, they picked out a farmhouse sink for the kitchen. They ripped up grungy linoleum from the ‘60s, tilled the cramped backyard for a garden. Full of life, they moved the clawfoot tub to the front porch, filled it with plants, fucked in their new shower. On their new gas range they made clam sauce, laughing, and because it was late summer, they ate on the front porch, sipped cold wine. After cleaning out the barn, she gave him a blowjob in the loft. In the dining room, he spread out the photos he’d found in the basement. They walked from room to room, holding up the photos and matching the backgrounds. Posing, laughing, they slipped into the past. Touching hands, tracing black and white faces from decades earlier, they resurrected the dead.
The thing about cancer is that it hungers always. First to St. Joseph, then Lowell Medical Center. Tests. Blood. She’d squeeze his hand. She’d lean in close, her lips touching the sensitive skin of his ear, promising him everything would be okay. Turning up Wilco in the car, singing along to Dire Straits, she drove countless round trips as he dozed in the passenger seat. Then it was Boston, Dana-Farber, the best oncologists in the country. Machines that sang, that screamed. Lines and fluids. Prognoses. Experiments. Hail Mary long shots. She stayed close, squeezed his hand, sang and screamed. She pressed her forehead to his and breathed her breath into him. And when he came home, propped up in a rented hospital bed where once they’d placed an antique loveseat, she tried to laugh and smile and cook and dance, all of it for him. Ghosts in the attic. Skeletons in the barn, in the living room.
Two days after Christmas. You have to let go, they said. You have to let go of his hand. And she did. And he was gone. The house went silent, nothing left to say. The garden dead. The ground frozen hard. She stood too long in her new shower. She boiled noodles on the new gas range. At night she listened. She waited. Until the house was gone too, and their savings, gone to treatments that failed and hospitals that reeked like abattoirs.
Leaning forward on the futon, she empties another bottle of wine into a plastic cup. She flips open her laptop, opens iTunes. Turning on the lamp she got at Goodwill, she sings softly along to Wilco. Her bare feet move across the cold floor, not minding the draft. The wind picks up outside, and far below her the furnace rattles to life. She lets herself smile, and the shadows begin to dance with her. She sips her wine and sings. A creak on the staircase outside answers. She turns up the music and spins, and forms at the edge of her vision draw closer. She upends the plastic cup, drops it on the floor, and wraps her arms tight around her shoulders. The radiator pings, and the draft from under the door moves up her legs like soft fingers. The wine filling her skull, warming her heart, she lies on the futon. She tosses her shirt across the room. Pinpricks of tears tracing hot lines down her cheeks, she pushes her sweatpants past her ankles, squeezes her eyes shut. The wind whistles in the three-story chimney.
Feeling familiar hands on her body, she whispers, Welcome home.