MY MOM AND STEP-DAD married each other under the blaring North Carolina sun when I was eight years old. I danced down the aisle, tossing white rose petals in the withered grass, and my slightly younger brother, Evan, pouted as he handed over the ring pillow to the pastor. The weekend after the ceremony, Evan and I were crammed into a drafty, centuries-old B&B room with our new step-brother, Patrick, who smelled like a musty basement and went to evening mass with his dad instead of regular church with Evan, my mom, and me.
“I mean,” Patrick chimed in, and I rolled my eyes, reversing their course mid-roll, “she’s got a point, Evan. A locked door in a hotel room—so what are they trying to hide?” He jostled the door handle a few times as he spoke.
I raised an eyebrow, and Evan paused his game. Normally, Evan didn’t entertain my overactive imagination, and I had to fight to capture his interest, but now I had backing from Patrick—the newcomer, the oldest of us, if just by two years.
With Patrick leading the discussions, we theorized wildly about what could be in the closet—was it a dead body? An old-fashioned treasure chest? Gold doubloons? Spy equipment? When we toured the Biltmore Estate the next day, we pooled our allowance money to buy a gold skeleton key that resembled the old-fashioned lock on the closet door, returning to the B&B with anticipation hammering in our chests.
For the first time, we fell into our natural hierarchy: Patrick holding the key, Evan and I positioned on either side of him. I bit my lip, watched the key slide into the lock. The tumbler clicked. The key turned sideways in Patrick’s grip. And, by some miracle, the closet door opened.
Inside, we just found extra sheets, blankets, and towels—no skeletons to be exhumed or treasure maps to follow—but afterwards, I kept the key on a keychain that first lived on my second-grade backpack, and now rests in my attic in the bottom of a box of Goosebumps paperbacks, cheap slingshots, and loose K’nex pieces. The fragments of slow erosion. But that moment in a cramped B&B, that gold skeleton key, was the beginning of us.
We moved into our new house out in the country a month after the wedding and immediately took to exploring. There was the closet under the stairs, the trapdoor that led to the crawlspace, and the stuffy, bare attic. Restless footsteps pacing in the empty attic above our heads sent us scurrying outside. In the heat of midsummer, we explored the overgrown pastures and the half-decayed barn littered with rusted Coke cans and the grave of one of the previous owner’s horses. Patrick was always the front-line soldier, whacking spider webs, lifting twisted barbed wire to reveal holes in fence boundaries, and snapping pesky tree branches over the path. As the lone female, I was relegated to the position of medic or scientist and walked behind the other two, charged with examining fossils, limestone mollusks or leaves imprinted on creek stones, and the bleach-white remains of turtle shells.
On one of our earliest exploratory ventures, we discovered twisted piles of what we later learned was raccoon droppings on the dirt floor of the barn. They were only on a specific piece of discarded plywood, innately purposeful in their organized towers, and we examined the board cautiously, wondering if a stranger was living here without our knowledge. Such mysteries were ours to solve, and we liked nothing more than to hypothesize outlandishly about anything that seemed slightly out of place. Luckily, there was no shortage of strangeness in that house.
In the middle of the kitchen was an old wood-burning stove, some remnant of the previous owner’s dream to pursue a pastoral life. It was black and pot-bellied, with a pipe crawling up to the ceiling and out the roof. I doubted it even worked—it was just another broken space-holder in that patchwork house, like the built-in microwave from the 70s and the Dutch door onto the back porch.
But one day that first summer, while Patrick, Evan, and I were eating bowls of Cookie Crisp at the kitchen table, there was a strange scuffling from the pipe. We froze, cereal left to soften, and crept towards the belly of the stove.
A strangled shriek sent us scrambling.
My mom opened the thick black gate as we peered in, holding our breath in anticipation of what she would release. It was a bird, panting, its ruffled feathers covered in soot. My mom cradled it gently, hands practiced from a childhood spent on a farm, dipping its beak towards a bowl of water. Patrick, Evan, and I crowded around her. We’d never seen a bird drink before. Its eyes flicked every which way, and its throat jerked up and down with the movement of the water. It flitted away as soon as it was released.
“So,” Patrick said. We sat in a line on the porch swing, the metal chain creaking as it gently rocked us. “Obviously, there has to be a reason for this.”
We’d just watched a snake documentary on National Geographic, and the images of snakes unhinging their jaws and swallowing bird eggs whole must have been on Evan’s mind. “I bet that bird had a nest up there, and the snake scared it into the pipe.”
Evan’s explanation wasn’t enough—his science, versus my faith, a tension in its infancy. I knew in my chest this was about more than the birds; the birds were pawns in a much larger story, beyond the survival of the fittest hierarchy of the animal kingdom. I just needed to connect the dots. “You guys know that sound we’ve been hearing in the attic?”
Patrick and Evan nodded. Footsteps above our heads. The mystery we’d all been hesitant to explore.
“What if they’re connected? What if it’s a ghost?”
I wove a fantastical narrative of the ghost whispering a siren song on the wind, luring birds to the blackened pipe projecting from the roof. The birds, seeking food or refuge or fulfilling curiosity, peered into the perilous maw of the pipe—and tumbled.
We weren’t quite satisfied by this explanation, the ghost’s lack of motive and unverifiable nature, but the body count continued to rise. The next two birds succumbed to the fall. My mom wouldn’t let us see them. She wrapped their stiff little bodies in paper towels and threw them in the Rumpke. The kitchen smelled of death.
We knew we needed to face the attic and whatever was inside.
“I know it’s in here somewhere.” My younger brother, Evan, rifled through his closet, upturning sedimentary layers of toys, clothes, and food wrappers. In the master bedroom beneath our feet, rumbling up through the scratchy blue carpet, were the beginnings of disagreement. I closed Evan’s bedroom door to drown out the staccato volley of the strained voices of our parents.
Finally, Evan emerged, holding a BB gun aloft. The orange-tipped fake machine-gun, complete with a magazine, was the twin to Patrick’s. A pump-action rifle decked in a camo pattern was balanced on my own shoulder.
Down the hall we went, one by one, following Patrick to the abnormally small doorway outside the guest bedroom. We hesitated just a moment outside; Evan, Patrick, and my breathing gradually became one—one massive inhale, one reluctant exhale. Then I nudged Patrick forward.
Rule One: You needed shoes on to go up to the attic. The floors were plywood, rough and unpainted, and the people who lived there before us had stored construction supplies in one corner. Evan discovered this the hard way when we first moved in, and he came hopping down the stairs one day with a tack sticking into the fleshy part of his foot.
Rule Two: The far room, the one with exposed insulation and the rumbling furnace, was off-limits. The floor was weak enough that even I, who was sixty pounds soaking wet, could feel the give of the boards under my feet. I had nightmares for weeks of falling through ceilings and floorboards, but I always woke up before I hit the ground.
Rule Three: You stayed up there only as long as you absolutely needed to.
Wind howled through the eaves like an unearthly scream. In hanging garment bags, my mom’s satin wedding dress and Tom’s suit swung from a closet railing like gallows’ warnings. We ignored the shiver of fear up our spines and upended boxes of picture books and tarnished silverware, relics of a past life, looking for clues. We found Tom’s old student ID from law school, where he sported a thick, comical mustache. In another box, a manila folder full of official looking documents with my mom and dad’s names on them—Patrick yanked them from my hands before I could read any of the cramped text, stuffing them back in the box.
Evan sighed, tapping his foot with boredom, tugging on his sandy blonde curls. “Let’s go. I mean, what are we even looking for anyway?”
“Something left behind, or something out of place.” Patrick’s oversized Midsummer Night’s Run 5k t-shirt was covered in dust. “You know, the kind of thing that would tie a ghost here.”
I dug my fingers deep into the recesses of a box of old sepia-toned photographs of my mom in a black sequined prom dress, surrounded by her brothers and sisters, and nicked my skin on the corner of an envelope. I sucked on the paper cut, holding the letter up for scrutiny. It didn’t have any address on it, just the words To my love, written in looping cursive.
“This looks like something,” I said.
Patrick and Evan gathered around me, bodies pressed so close that we were practically occupying the same space. I untucked the flap on the envelope, unfolding the letter with the delicacy of an archaeologist uncovering some ancient artifact. And inside, we did find something ancient—the smoldering embers of a pining love. A romance that the writer acknowledged would never happen, but mourned for all the same. The handwriting wasn’t my mom’s elegant scroll or my dad’s sloppy doctor’s hand, and we determined it definitely wasn’t Tom’s after comparing it to some old handwritten essays.
“This must be it,” Patrick murmured. “One of the movers probably saw it up here and tossed it into a random box.” He took the yellowed paper and held it reverently.
“How old do you think it is?” Evan asked, drawn to genuine fascination by mirroring us.
“Decades, at least,” Patrick remarked. “Look at how fragile it is, and the weird old-timey way some of the letters look.”
Downstairs, a door slammed. An attempt at reconciliation ended. Just then, a low, throaty rumbling emanated from the furnace room, vibrating through the rough floor and up into our bones. We snapped to attention, grabbing our BB guns and catapulting down the stairs two at a time, shutting out the disgruntled groans behind us. I herded Patrick and Evan out the back door, towards the woods, where we were safe under the canopy of trees and patches of cerulean sky.
We argued about what to do with the letter. Patrick said we should keep it in the barn and set up our Sony camcorder on a stall to see if any paranormal occurrences could be captured on film. Evan said we should burn it—and while he was on the subject, camp out in the backyard and have a bonfire with s’mores. I was the deciding vote and didn’t want to take any chances, so we piled dead branches and chopped firewood in the pit underneath the massive oak tree beside the barn. The letter shriveled, blackening at the edges, curling in on itself like a dying spider. We reveled in our perceived success at uncovering and defeating this ominous mystery in our lives. Evan burned marshmallows to charcoal crisps, and we belly-laughed while swatting at mosquitoes emboldened by the dying embers of the bonfire. Patrick was supposed to go to his mom’s house the next day, but we stayed awake until dawn anyway, listening to the patter of June bugs on the roof of the tent and telling ghost stories about the horse grave in the woods.
Once the school year started, we spent every weekend playing Tales of Symphonia on the GameCube in Patrick’s room. It was a Friday, so late that the sky was lightening to plum, and wind wailed through the caulking around Patrick’s window. We’d already had three close encounters with Tom coming up to check that we were asleep; each time, we flipped off the TV, then the GameCube, and smoothed our faces into fake sleep with practiced panic. Three was our lucky number. Three times evading punishment, and we were safe.
But then, the stillness of the night-cloaked house was shattered by a scream. The blood drained from my face. Patrick and Evan were tensed beside me, elbows pressed into my ribs. I wondered if my mom and Tom had been murdered. I wondered if Tom had murdered my mom. I wondered if we were next.
When the scream ended and night sounds reclaimed the house—crickets, the gentle hoots of a brown owl, the creaks and shivers of old timbers—there was an unspoken agreement that we wouldn’t speak of this until the comfort of sunrise. We returned to our game, our child fingers gripping the controllers with anxiety built for adult hands.
The next morning, we waited in the kitchen until my mom stumbled in, bleary-eyed in a cotton robe. I sighed, the tension carried in my chest unravelling.
“How’d you sleep?” Evan blurted, pulling his knees to his chest.
“So, I guess you all were awake then?” She smiled in the way that doesn’t reach her eyes—that is more for the person watching than her.
“Well, we were woken up.” Patrick covered for us, maintaining the illusion of responsible childhood that we thought our parents believed. How we thought they didn’t notice Patrick avoiding carrots by dropping them in his orange juice, or Evan cramming all of his belongings into a pre-avalanche in his closet instead of cleaning his room, or me sneaking Honey Buns upstairs in the pocket of my hoodie, I’m not sure. Back then, the three of us were the masters of deception, the great solvers of mysteries and decoders of the universe.
“We thought someone was getting murdered,” I chimed in.
My mom grimaced. “It’s called a night terror. It’s where you wake up, but you still think you’re dreaming.”
“What was your dream about?” I pressed. I think, in all our hearts, we knew we had gloated too soon about vanquishing the ghost. That a haunting couldn’t be cured by burning a love letter over Hershey’s-and-graham-cracker-dust littered logs.
My mom paused, probably considering whether she should be truthful or keep from scaring us—but for some reason, she needed us to know this. “It was a man looming over me, over my side of the bed. He was completely black, like a silhouette.”
“He just stood there?” Evan asked, an eyebrow raised as if to ask, Why was that scary?
We didn’t understand at the time how the implication of violence could be more terror-inducing than the violence itself.
“Yep.” She popped open the fridge to grab a bottle of lemon water.
Evan, Patrick, and I started staying in Patrick’s room every night, lulled to sleep by the shifting images of Rocket Power re-runs until the inevitable witching hour. We would hold our breath as the screams lingered. Then, we would listen to the low, insistent drone of Tom’s voice ordering my mom back to reality. We woke with achy backs and bloodshot eyes from our shared bed of carpet, fleece blankets, and pillows.
My mom developed bags under her eyes and gained thirty pounds. She stopped cooking, and we ate Zaxby’s and Dairy Queen and Wendy’s for dinner. Patrick, Evan, and I overzealously collected keychain stuffed animals from McDonald’s kid’s meals, using the red cardboard boxes to build houses for our expanding community. We built mud-brick houses by the creek, beat every level of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and started writing and illustrating a book about a warrior mouse. On the title page, Evan asked to share Patrick’s last name.
After a few months of nightly attacks, my mom started sleeping in the guest room, saying she hoped the change would get rid of the terrors, and Tom worked late, even when Patrick was at our house instead of his mom’s. When they were forced together by car rides, my mom and Tom argued constantly and stopped caring whether us kids were around to hear it.
“I know what I see every night,” she spat from the passenger seat. She had stopped doing her hair, and it stuck out from her ponytail in frizzy black ringlets.
“Ghosts aren’t real.” Tom’s grip on the steering wheel turned his knuckles white. We widened our eyes at that—the first confirmation that we had solved the mystery all those months ago.
“There is something not right about that house.” My mom shivered, and so did I. “Why else would I see the same shadowy black figure every night?”
Tom’s tone was dismissive—flippant. “Because you’re crazy?”
My mom stopped talking about the spirit. She clamped her mouth shut and threw herself into cooking. She cooked us feast after feast of roast beef and chicken casserole and Swedish meatballs. She cooked enough to feed a small army, pulling sheets of blackberry thumbprint and chocolate-peanut butter surprise cookies out of the oven for desserts. Patrick, Evan, and I sat around the kitchen table after washing dishes to scarf them down piping hot. Tom went on bike rides with us through the winding country roads around the house, and my mom had freshly made iced tea waiting for us. There were no more dead birds or footsteps in empty rooms. Even the night terrors grew more sporadic, gradually fading altogether. We thought we must have been wrong about the ghost; that it must have died with the letter, scattered from our bonfire along with marshmallow ash. Years passed, and the ghost, the letter, was forgotten—another memory resigned to the attic.
Then, my mom decided she wanted to renovate the kitchen. One day, I awoke to see the construction crew hauling the pot-bellied bird killer to a dumpster in the backyard. It spat a cloud of noxious black smoke as it was tossed in the heap of cracked orange tiles and fractured butcher’s block. The kitchen was gutted and replaced, bit-by-bit, with polished wood floors and French country cabinets and marble countertops. My mom sealed our old dishes, remains from her and Tom’s wedding registry five years before, in cardboard boxes and hauled them up to the attic. She ordered a new set from Williams-Sonoma: pure white, un-scraped by forks and knives, no chips from being dropped into the sink.
I saw the ghost during construction—or, I saw a translucent plastic tarp that cut off our kitchen from the rest of the house. And behind it, a shadowy figure walked through the debris. He melded into each fold and crevice of the devastation, feeding on it, until I could feel him like coal in my lungs. Our interlude of peace was over.
The door to the master bedroom was open, and my mom and Tom were arguing about money. Snippets of their words shot through the walls like bullets: You think you can just do whatever you damn well please. Do you even know how much that countertop cost? Sacrifices? You’re a fucking mess. Don’t fucking talk to me like that. Stop being hysterical.
I knew where to find Patrick and Evan. They were sitting cross-legged on Patrick’s floor playing Shadow of the Colossus on the PS2. I shut the door behind me to muffle the sounds of our parents fighting.
“Guys, we’ve got a problem.” They barely batted an eyelid. “Guys.” Something in my tone got Patrick to pause the game.
“What?” he huffed, probably still angry at me for stealing the shared desktop computer to AIM my best friend for three hours after school that day. “Can’t you see we’re busy?”
I crossed my arms, cocking my hip. “I saw it. Him. Whatever.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The ghost is back.”
Patrick raised an eyebrow. “You mean that stupid story we made up like five years ago?”
Hot tears trembled in the horizon of my vision. “I’m telling you, I saw it. It was dark, like a shadow, and like six feet tall.”
“Bullshit.” Patrick laughed. “You’re scared of everything. It was probably just the light reflecting weird.”
I looked to Evan, but he was focused on his socks, picking at a fraying thread. My chest constricted.
“You used to believe, you know.” I swallowed the rest of my words—a plea for things to be the way they used to be, with investigations and wild hypotheses and the three of us exploring, uncovering, together.
“And then I grew up.”
I stopped sleeping. Instead, I lay with the comforter tucked to my chin and listened to my mom and Tom and thought about the ghost and what it wanted. Why it was back. How it had managed to ruin our family. I never got an answer.
My vent was connected directly to my mom and Tom’s bedroom beneath mine. Like a loudspeaker, their yells traveled up the metal pipes and into my room every night. Tom told her she was a witch, a demon, who was bleeding him dry. My mom told him he wasn’t a real man. I pictured him shoving her. She slammed the door in his face, and the bolt was driven home with a clunk. Tom slept in the guest room most nights.
Evan’s bedroom was adjacent to mine, my bed facing away from the shared wall in a mirror image of his. After the maelstrom ended, I would knock quietly on the drywall above my headboard, and he would knock back once. It was funny how many words a single knock could contain.
One night, I received a knock on my door instead of the wall. I cracked it open, heart racing, wondering if the ghost had finally come for me. It was Evan.
“Can’t sleep.” Dark crescents ringed his eyes. He was almost the same height as me at the time, maybe a half-inch shorter, but he seemed so small then. He had the fleece blanket we used to share in Patrick’s room draped over him, dragging to the floor, and his shoulders were hunched forward.
I took a deep breath. “What’s wrong?” I didn’t dare mention the ghost. Not my own fears. Not the aftershocks still reverberating through the foundations of the house.
Evan bit his lip, twisting the folds of the blanket over and over again in his hands. “Can I sleep with you tonight?”
I couldn’t help but remember when I had looked to him for help, for him to stick up for me in front of Patrick. The automatic no was poised on my tongue.
Evan’s eyes were the same golden hazel as mine, and in them, I saw my own fear reflected back. I saw my own heart-wrenching disappointment when Patrick refused to believe me. I saw myself, shivering and alone in my room night after night as the ghost tore at the bonds of our household.
And I stepped aside. I let him in.
It takes seven agonizing years for my mom and Tom to get a divorce. Little moments of light, months of home-cooked meals and family bonfires, interspersed with slammed doors and curses and threats to call the cops. After they move Evan into his college dorm six hours away, and they are alone in that five-bedroom house in the country, there is nothing to force them back together. The cycle ends.
Patrick’s room is empty except for a folded air mattress and blanket—mine from the previous night. I slept there to be close to them, to be close to that memory of a blue room and the press of bony shoulders and the deep hum of an old TV. But I feel more lonely instead. Patrick is living two states away with his new wife, and Evan is at his new-student orientation.
Evan’s room is filled with trash bags still waiting to be taken out to the Rumpke. When I arrived the day before, I discovered an archaeology of memories expecting excavation. His closet looked as if it had not been touched since the day we had all three been children together, searching for his BB gun: the bottom layer was clothes that it seemed he had simply molted out of in his growth spurts, still covered in brambles from our tramping through the woods; then wrappers of PopTarts he’d snuck up to his room over the years; then video game discs that he had never bothered to return to their cases, sticky with chips and soft drink residue. I’d called him and asked if there was anything he wanted to keep. He’d asked me to throw it all away. He didn’t want to come home to anything unearthed.
My room is bigger than I remember, gutted of any lingering furniture or nostalgia-influenced junk. It’s strange how my mind fills in the empty spaces with a bed covered in a pink comforter; a desk strewn with colored-pencil drawings and my pad-locked diary; a bookshelf stacked top to bottom; and a television stand with a cabinet underneath where I’d once stowed a bowl of fresh cherries and forgotten about them until they were rotting under a film of green fuzz. This is my bedroom the year we moved to this house, when everything was untarnished and whole.
In the attic, I picture the ghost watching me from beside the false window—the one that surely looked out over fields of grass swaying in golden light before it was blocked off by bloody red bricks when the house was expanded. I wonder if he regrets what he’s done, or if it would have ended this way even without his influence. If we, connected by blood or marriage, would have grown apart no matter what.
Tom hasn’t cleared out the attic yet, so I have to sift through boxes of his belongings to find my mom’s. It’s hard to differentiate between the two; both seem to have sealed away the remains of their short-lived previous marriages in countless layers of cardboard: china, unopened cooking appliances, old photo books—some filled with pictures of my dad, and others with Patrick’s mom. I wonder how many boxes eleven years of marriage will look like.
My shoulders scrape the walls of the attic stairwell as I try to remember to carry with my knees instead of my back and haul the heavy boxes, the archives of my mom’s life before Tom, out to the trunk of my SUV. On my last trip up those plywood stairs, I discover the attic almost emptied of my mom’s possessions. The last item hangs from a closet railing.
I unzip the garment bag to find creamy satin, delicate fabric flowers, a tulle layered skirt. When I remember the wedding, my first thought is the B&B in North Carolina, and Patrick taking my side about the locked closet. I remember the honeymoon, a beach resort where Patrick, Evan, and I solidified our three-ness.
My mom doesn’t want the dress. She told me to leave it, that Tom can sell it if he wants to. But still, I wonder if I should take it back to my apartment, have it altered, and wear it for my own wedding someday.
After a moment of hesitation, I zip it back up and tuck it into the closet. I don’t look back as I careen down the steps two at a time, an old habit.
HANNAH SCHULTZ is a Kentucky writer who is currently battling the frigid north to pursue her MFA in creative writing at Minnesota State University. She also teaches English at MSU and is a fiction editor for the Blue Earth Review. Her writing has appeared in KAIROS Literary Magazine, The Gordian Review, Kentucky’s Best Emerging Poets Anthology by Z Publishing, and The Asbury Review.