by Casey Reynolds
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I live in a haunted house. The slow creak of phantom footsteps in the hallway rouses me from my sleep most nights. The shadow of a woman looms, pausing just outside my bedroom door. I don’t fumble for the bedside lamp, and I don’t cry out in alarm. I lie there in the dark, and I think of my father.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but Dad did. As a child growing up on the Lower East Side, Dad often rode with his father out to Long Island to go crabbing in the early mornings. Driving past the massive cemeteries in Queens, he would press his small face against the car window, eyes wide as he watched the spirits of the dead floating over their graves.
“It’s just the damn fog,” his father would say. “Get your face off the glass!”
Most children who believe in ghosts eventually grow up to become adults who only believe in clean windows. My father never stopped believing, even as his years spun on faster and the cold reason of adulthood threatened to seal away these apparitions. He fled his childhood home in the East, where spirits are hemmed in by brick walls and iron gates, and settled in a cold mountain valley in the West, where the souls of the dead roam free. My siblings and I were raised there among ghosts.
We understood from an early age that our father was a little different. Most adults were satisfied to see just the one layer of reality, but Dad saw them all. The local lake where he took us camping wasn’t just brimming with glacier water: its pitch-black depths were filled with the spirits of the drowned. The dam where he worked for most of my childhood wasn’t just generating electricity: it was also a mausoleum for the deceased construction workers entombed within. At every white cross on the side of the highway stood an unhappy soul or two, still surprised to discover that they had never reached their final destination.
I believed in my father’s ghosts just as surely as any child would until my own years began to spin more quickly. Cold reason arrived right on schedule and set about steamrolling my confidence in Dad and his ghost stories. The lake is dark because it’s deep. It’s just a myth that there are bones in the dam. There aren’t any souls left on the side of the road, just big, green signs reminding us, “Please don’t drink and drive.”
When my parents got divorced, Dad moved into a haunted house, or so he claimed. The previous owner had died of a heart attack in the backyard, Dad explained, and had never left. The dead man resided in the far back bedroom, the one that was a little colder and darker than the rest of the house. This ghost liked fresh air. On summer evenings, my father would walk around the house closing the windows; he would wake in the morning to find the windows wide open.
“You were just drinking again and forgot to close them,” I would say, my voice thick with teenage condescension. I had recently realized Dad drank too much, and that the back bedroom was colder and darker than the rest of the house because it didn’t get any natural light. My father’s ghost stories had acquired the patina of fantasy. My grandfather had been right all along: it was just the damn fog.
As an adult, I moved across the country to the Midwest, a place untouched by my father’s ghost stories. Dad was haunted by alcoholism, depression, a third divorce. He wrote long emails to me about his bankruptcy proceedings, and I wrote short, restrained emails to him about job hunting and student loan payments. I got married for the first time, and he got married for the fourth time. He called to admit that he had a drinking problem but assured me he had found a solution: giving up beer and switching exclusively to whiskey! I did not tell him that I was worried about my own escalating alcohol consumption, that I wondered whether it was a symptom of young adulthood or of something more sinister. But my own overindulgence came to a halt the year that I had my first child, the same year that my husband and I bought this beautiful, old house with crown molding, crystal doorknobs, and a restless spirit who paced the upstairs hallway every night.
This ghost was—I told myself at first—just a weird half dream, a symptom of sleepless new parenthood. I was so obviously projecting my own anxieties onto the midnight creaks and groans of this old house: I had the idea that she was a mother, too, and that she was fretting, pacing the hallway, checking on my sleeping children, of which there were now two. I came across the name Evelyn while I was sifting through the title paperwork for the property. She had been one of the original owners of the house—a mother of two, according to the 1940 census—and had died here in 1973. The identity settled nicely onto my idea of this midnight visitor. “What are you doing up, Evelyn?” I would whisper toward the hall when I woke to the sound of her footsteps. “The kids are safe, everyone is fine. Go back to sleep.”
Dad was still living in his own haunted house, in that same mountain valley, still tormented by the same demons. He had been widowed by his fourth wife shortly after I had become a mother, and he was adapting to his new role even more poorly than I was to mine. He was lonely and I was uncharacteristically sympathetic. When he emailed suggesting that he come out to visit, I told him to go ahead and buy a plane ticket.
I was nervous. What in the world would we talk about with so much time together? What would we do? And what about Evelyn? Her presence had been an amusing distraction from my struggle to rearrange my identity around parenthood, but there was a low chord deep inside of me that pulsed with possibility: could Evelyn be real? My father’s pronouncement, or lack thereof, could seal her fate.
Dad’s visit was just as awkward as anticipated. He had a lot of trouble navigating the steep stairways of my old house, and we both had a lot of trouble navigating the precipitous angles of our renewed relationship. I held the baby while he pushed the toddler on the swing, and we subsisted on conversation about the Pacific theater in World War II, and the many failures of the federal tax code.
It was a relief to wave good-bye to him at the airport, but I drove home disappointed. He hadn’t said a word about Evelyn.
It really was just the damn fog all along.
From then on, I would wake at night and hear the house groaning and settling around me. I heard the cats patrolling for rodent incursions in the hallway. I heard the wind blasting at the windows and felt my own anxieties crashing down around me. I did not hear Evelyn.
Then the phone call came from the mountain valley: Dad was dying, sinking slowly away from this world and into the next. I flew home to help him go. I had never come out for any of his previous hospitalizations, and my appearance in his room was a dark foreboding to the conclusion of this hospital stay. I was the angel of death, raw and unformed.
“What does it feel like to die?” I wanted to ask as I sat alone with him the day before he passed. “What are you seeing? What do you know?”
He was already too far gone to answer, and I did not ask.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but my siblings do, and something inside of me was buoyed by their faith and by our collective grief. The day after he died, we pushed open the door of his house and stood among the earthly residue of his seventy-three years of life, full of anxious anticipation. He’ll be here, somewhere. He would come back if he could.
All those years my father moved through a world inhabited by both the living and the dead. All those years he pointed out the little rifts in reality where the normal and the paranormal met. All those years and all he leaves for his children is an empty house.
“Mom, something weird happened last night,” my oldest son says to me with a frown one morning. It has been several months since Dad died. In my closet, there is a box full of overdue bills for his estate; I am having nightly stress dreams about selling his house.
“I woke up and saw an old lady,” my son continues. “She was standing in the hallway looking into my room. Do you think it was a ghost?”
“Oh, that’s Evelyn,” I say.
Something shifts open inside of me. The fog disappears.
My son’s eyes go wide with fascination. “Who’s Evelyn?” he asks.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in family heirlooms. I tell my children that tonight, in Queens, the souls of the dead will float over their stone angels, the sleepy drivers oblivious as they pass those cities of the departed on their way out to East Rockaway. A dead man will walk through an empty house, gleefully throwing open windows, which the baffled realtor will have to close again in the morning. The ghosts that populated my childhood will emerge in their gray corners, the places where reality and unreality mingle.
And Evelyn will be here again tonight, walking the hallway.
“What are you doing up, Evelyn?” I will whisper into the darkness. “Everything is fine. Go back to sleep.”
Casey Reynolds grew up in the North Cascade Range of Washington State. Much of her childhood was spent swimming, camping, and hiking in the mountains. She left to attend Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, earning a bachelor’s degree in classical archaeology. Casey still lives in Saint Paul with her husband, two young sons, and two ridiculous cats. She enjoys coffee, nonfiction books, and cold winters. She is currently working on her first novel, a ghost story set in a small town in Minnesota. Casey loves the Upper Midwest but will always miss the mountains.