I sensed the ghost before I saw her. Something in the air changed, just a fraction. I picked up a dull vibration, like the humming of bees or the crackle of leaves tossed around by the wind. At first I mistook her for one of the mourners, until I looked properly. Then, my palms grew slick and I wondered if anyone else could hear my pounding heart.
The flurry of emotions that stirred in my chest was too conflicted to let me settle on just one. The ghost had crappy timing, showing up on the day of my mother’s funeral. But then again, the ghosts I’d known had never been big on tact; they were far too self-centered.
When I was a kid, I saw them everywhere. They intruded into my life on a daily basis. It was my mom who taught me how to block them out. Now, funnily enough, the woman who protected me from the dead had gone to join them.
Don’t be afraid, Chloe, I remembered her telling me. Just stand your ground and tell them to leave you alone. To my surprise, it worked. They went away and until that afternoon I hadn’t laid eyes on one since. Deep down I’d always known they’d come back, but why today?
I was sitting in the front row between Grandma Fee and my kid brother, Rory, watching the shiny mahogany casket being lowered into the ground. I wanted to cry, but there were no tears left. My eyes were already raw and burning. Grandma Fee gripped my hand, the only sign of emotion she allowed herself to show in public. Don’t get me wrong; she wasn’t unfeeling. She was just British. Her fine-featured face, still beautiful despite its lines, was set in stone. Rory looked small and sad, hunched over with his knees squeezed together. Swamped by an oversize suit, he looked younger than his twelve years. His eyes were pinkrimmed and his nose was running, perhaps a combination of grief along with his plethora of allergies. I was tempted to reach out and push back the coffee-colored curls falling over his eyes, but I didn’t trust myself to move even an inch.
I was holding my breath and tensing every muscle into a coil. If I let go, even for just a second, I was scared I’d break into a thousand pieces. I was sort of like Humpty Dumpty. I might have been put back together, but nothing was in the right place. I would never be whole again.
The funeral service was almost over, and the reverend was sweating beneath his heavy black vestments. I watched a bead of sweat swell at his temple and meander down to disappear behind his left ear. Out of the corner of my eye I sneaked a look at my dad. Over six feet tall and lanky, he sat at an awkward angle, spilling out of his chair like he wasn’t sure how to arrange his limbs. I’d never seen him look so lost.
His broad hands gripped his knees so tightly, the knuckles had turned white. And every intake of breath was an effort, like he had to keep reminding himself to breathe. It made me wonder how he was going to get through the rest of the day.
But right now I had a bigger problem on my hands. The ghost stood not more than twenty feet away from me. At first I refused to acknowledge her, throwing only a cursory glance in her direction, hoping my indifference might drive her away. I held myself ramrod straight and fixed my eyes on the newly dug cavity in the ground waiting like a hungry mouth. It was strange to think that from now on this spot would hold the physical remains of my mother. The thought made me slightly dizzy, and my throat constricted to the point where I wanted to gasp for air. I found myself thinking about the casket rotting away until it finally collapsed in on itself, granting access to whatever parasites lived in the damp earth. My whole body started to tremble, and I quickly averted my eyes. Those kinds of morbid thoughts weren’t going to help anyone. I needed to stay strong for Rory and Dad. If I didn’t, who would take care of them?
Only when the casket was in place did my father let out a soft, shuddering breath. His face was an open book, proclaiming his loss. But who could blame him? My parents had always believed their relationship was strong enough to weather any storm, except death, I guessed.
As the reverend’s voice droned on, hollow and comfortless, I watched the gray clouds gather overhead. I let my eyes flicker to where the ghost stood. From across the well-worn path that separated us, she kept her own silent vigil. It was so brazen, the way she stood there in broad daylight even though we both knew she wasn’t alive. She was in the original part of the cemetery, where most of the railings were rusted and eroded, half-buried in the earth. Around her, cracked headstones sat crookedly like bad teeth.
The woman clearly didn’t belong to my world. She was dressed in black from head to toe, including the ruched bonnet framing her sallow face. Beneath it, her hair was parted severely in the center and wound in a bun so tight, the veins in her temple throbbed. The bunch of wildflowers she clutched was already beginning to wilt, as if everything in her presence quickly lost the will to live.
I didn’t need a second look to know that this was not a happy ghost. Then again, the ones left behind to haunt the earth rarely are. You could always tell from the look in their eyes that they were restless and troubled. Maybe their lives ended tragically, maybe they had unfinished business or maybe they were just never able to let go. As a child, I assumed everyone could see them. It was years before I realized I was alone in my abilities. I would sometimes wonder, Why me? Who singled me out and decided I’d be up to the task? These were not questions anyone could answer, so I simply learned to live with my little quirk, hoping that one day everything would finally make sense.
I was still waiting for that day to come. The ghost commanded my attention again when her eyes widened and she sank to her knees. I let out an involuntary gasp, causing more than a few heads to turn in my direction.
My little brother glanced anxiously across at me. For just a second, I was filled with a f lutter of hope. Was it possible that Rory could see her, too? Much as I hated the idea of him being tormented by the dead, it would mean that I wasn’t so alone, that I wasn’t such a freak. But as I looked back at him, I saw only concern for me reflected in his eyes. He couldn’t see anything else. I shot him a tight smile to show that everything was fine. Except that it really wasn’t.
Not even close.
I decided to try a new tactic. I squeezed my eyes shut and focused on willing the apparition away. The reverend’s voice, softer now, reached me as if from a distance: “‘Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.’”
I opened my eyes just as the muted chorus of amens rang out. The woman was still there, right where I’d left her.
Only, her eyes looked different now. They seemed mocking, as if she was amused by my efforts to dispel her.
My mother’s words f loated back to me once again: Look them right in the eye. They can’t hurt you. And so I did. As I held her gaze, the scornful expression began to dissolve. The rest of her soon followed, blurring at the edges like a chalk drawing on the pavement washed away by rain. Eventually, she just wasn’t there anymore.
With the final prayer concluded, everyone rose in unison and began to make their way back to the parking lot. I slipped away and headed in the opposite direction, until I was right in front of the little headstone where the woman had stood. The inscription, eroded by time and the elements, was barely visible, but I could still make out the words: Thomas Jerome Whitley 1906–1910. He’d been just four years old when he died.
“Chloe?” I turned to find Grandma Fee standing behind me in her tailored black suit, not one silver hair out of place.
She scanned the gravesite, and I could tell she wanted to ask about its significance. But now wasn’t the time. Instead, she placed a gloved hand on my shoulder. “You can come back anytime you want.”
“I know,” I murmured. But I wouldn’t be back anytime soon. I didn’t need to come here to feel close to my mother.
When I thought of her, I wanted to remember the things no one else would think about—like the way she used to snort sometimes when she laughed too hard, or how excited she got about birthdays, or how she’d leave little notes in my lunch box even after I was in high school. I certainly didn’t want to remember her by this dismal affair.
“Come on.” Gran shepherded me away. “Let’s go home.”
The drive back to the house seemed to pass in a blink. I’d been hoping for more time to brace myself for the congregation of mourners that showed up in our living room to pay their respects. I vaguely recognized some of the women from our church bearing casseroles and chocolate pies. It felt weird seeing all these strangers. I’d never seen them around when Mom was alive—what right did they have to show up now that she was dead? Gran found me in a corner, trying to avoid conversation or anyone who might attempt to hug me. She pushed a tray of mini quiches into my hands.
“Put these on the table,” she instructed. I didn’t object;
I was grateful to have a job. I looked around for my friends Natalie and Samantha, but I couldn’t see them. They’d been at the funeral but probably had decided to skip out on the awkward part. I wasn’t surprised. If there were no tequila shooters or boys in snapbacks, they couldn’t handle it. I caught sight of Rory as he made a hasty escape upstairs. I wasn’t going to drag him back. He was even more uncomfortable around strangers than I was. There was no reason we should both suffer. Dad was doing his duty, shaking hands and thanking people for coming, even though his movements were robotic and the faraway look never left his face. For once I was glad Gran was there to take charge. She had that air of authority that nobody questioned. I think it was her British accent that always made her sound bossy, even when she was just commenting on the weather.
“I think we need more plates, Chloe,” she murmured as she walked past me. I slipped silently into the kitchen to grab a few minutes to myself.
I’d barely had a chance to catch my breath when I was distracted by the sound of a child humming. I looked around in confusion; I couldn’t remember seeing any children among the mourners. Then I realized it wasn’t coming from inside. I moved to the open window and peered out. In the middle of our yard stood a majestic fir tree, a tire swing suspended from one of its lower branches.
My eye traveled slowly up the tree that my brother and I had climbed countless times as children. There, in the uppermost branches, sat an odd-looking boy. For a second I thought it was one of the neighbors’ kids who had wandered over and climbed too high for his own safety.
I was on the point of alerting someone when the details sank in. The boy was wearing shorts with knee-high beige socks and old-fashioned shiny lace-up shoes that even the dorkiest kids in our neighborhood wouldn’t be caught dead in. That could mean only one thing. He was dead.
Like the woman at the cemetery, he, too, fixed his gaze on me as he swung his legs and continued humming his doleful tune. I wondered how it was possible for his voice to reach me so clearly. He certainly wasn’t dressed for climbing trees. His clothes were starched and wrinkle free, and there wasn’t a single graze on his smooth alabaster knees. I’d never set eyes on him before, yet somehow I knew his name was Adam and that in life he hadn’t been allowed to climb trees.
Gran poked her head through the door.
“What’s the holdup with those plates?” We both knew she wasn’t really asking about the plates. She was checking up on me. More than anything, I just wanted to be left alone. My body was numb from head to toe. My own house felt alien. I saw familiar faces around me, but they seemed like strangers.
“Sorry,” I mumbled without making eye contact. “Got distracted.” Gran sighed and folded her arms.
“Chloe, please try to remember that everyone is here because your mother meant something to them.”
“You mean they didn’t come for the free food?”
She looked at me sternly. “Now is hardly the time to get stroppy.”
I wasn’t sure what stroppy was supposed to mean, so I assumed it was an English thing. Grandma Fee hailed all the way from Hampshire—Jane Austen country, as she liked to tell anyone who would listen. She’d met my American grandfather on exchange in college. They’d been inseparable, marrying soon after graduation and traveling around the States as Pop built his career as an investment banker, until he passed away from cancer a few years ago.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, she’d packed her bags and gone back to her roots. Maybe there were too many memories here. When I was growing up, my dad used to jokingly refer to her as Hurricane Fiona. Board up the windows—Hurricane Fiona’s about to hit, he’d say and now I understood why. She was a woman on a mission.
“Sorry,” I repeated. I really wasn’t trying to be rude. I was just absent, operating on autopilot and counting the moments until I could collapse on my bedroom floor and never get up again. “I just… I don’t think I can do this, Gran.”
We both knew I wasn’t talking about the next half hour. I was talking about the rest of my life. I couldn’t picture it anymore. I’d had all these lofty ambitions. I was going to study like crazy on my SATs, get into an Ivy League school and end up as a journalist for the New York Times. But it all seemed like a waste of energy now, given that I didn’t even know how I was going to get through the next few days.
Grandma Fee tucked a loose strand of honey-colored hair behind my ear and straightened her shoulders like she was preparing for battle.
“Yes, you can,” she told me. “Do you want to know why? Because you’re a Kennedy. And Kennedys were built to weather any storm. Things might knock us down, but we always get back up again. Do you hear me?”
I knew that if I tried to speak, the words would get strangled in my throat, so I just nodded mutely. Grandma Fee kissed my forehead. “That’s my girl.”
When she was gone, I turned back to the window for one final look. The boy was gone but his appearance had left me deeply unsettled. My strange ability had been lying dormant. I hadn’t seen a ghost in almost ten years. Now two had shown up on the same day? It had to mean something. Were they here to send me a message?
Was this some kind of Cole Sear–type deal, or had my mother’s passing simply blurred the barrier between the living and the dead? I had no idea, and there was no one I could turn to for advice. But I knew one thing for sure. These ghosts were different than the ones that had visited me as a child. Those had simply been there, passive and unobtrusive, almost part of the furniture. But the woman in the graveyard and the little boy in our yard…they wanted something.
I knew one thing for sure. This wasn’t the last I’d see of the dead.
Ghost House is out on September 1, 2014.