It had been a year of comparison. At Christmas, she wanted to make sure the kids got as many presents as the year before. That their grades were just as good. Now, with the whole Glasser family assembled at the Summer House, Whitney wanted to make sure her kids still caught fireflies after dinner—if she could, she would pluck the little insects from the grass herself, open her hands, and watch as once again her children’s faces broke into smiles of wonder. That was the magic of the Summer House.
But now her brother Kevin was missing and ruining everything.
“Could the ghosts have taken him?” Sam asked, his voice brimming with ghoulish curiosity.
“No, stupid, our ghosts don’t work that way. They’re too boring to kidnap people,” Jane said, not looking up from her fashion magazine.
Sam and Jane were sitting on the porch. Sam’s lingering baby-fat cheeks were lit by the screen while Jane, with her headphones and her too-young-for-it bikini, lay in one of the peeling green deck chairs next to him. She was imitating starlets she’d seen on a tourism ad for Los Angeles her father had mailed her—sunbathing: sunglasses and tanning oil on full display. That’s where Allan was living, where the kids would be flying after the week on the Cape.
“Jane, don’t call your brother ‘stupid.’ And I’m sure your uncle Kevin is just out in town,” Whitney said. The closest town, Orleans, was nothing more than a village. But as a child, just shy of Sam’s age, Whitney had always felt the sleepy place held the entire universe: a candy store, the lighthouse bar strewn with peanut shells that snapped when you stepped on them, and, of course, the row of storefronts threaded with little flags, each flapping as if they were waving to her in their own language. In the thirty plus years Whitney had been visiting the Cape—first as a child and then with her own children—there had never been a need to go further. She had only gone further up once, two years ago, when Sam had begged to see the maritime museum.
Sam used to be obsessed with the dead. He’d follow the spirits throughout every room—from the ‘50s style kitchen to the large glass-paneled dining room to the family room and wing of bedrooms—trying to figure out their source until he’d bump his head into a wall, the little ghost detective so consumed by his work that he didn’t watch where he was going. He was such a precocious child that Whitney indulged him by getting him a library card a few years ago. This was back when the family had the house in Morristown and he’d surprise them at the dinner table sometimes, offering gems like: “In Egypt, they used to serve the recently deceased food and talk to them as if they could talk back.” He was full of macabre trivia like that. No one much felt like eating meatloaf that night. Her ex-husband, Allan, had been hard on him, wondering what kind of kid talked like that. Allan blamed the ghosts too, but when he said the ghosts, he really meant Whitney’s family.
“Is that why he took his toilet kit?” Sam asked. He was playing on his video game handheld, but routinely surprised her by saying something that demonstrated he was particularly observant. Her little multi-tasker. His favorite game involved navigating a pyramid full of booby traps, the same death knells playing every time he died until she asked him, Dear, can you please put it on mute?
“He did?” Whitney asked. Sam had been forced to bunk with Kevin in the back bunk room where Sam reported his uncle snored like a broken boat engine.
“If he can leave early, can we?” Jane asked, with that dagger twisting of the last vowel—at fourteen, she had newly mastered the trick. She had whined about coming, whined when Whitney could no longer afford figure skating lessons—Jane didn’t even like skating, just liked that her revealing outfits freaked Whitney out—and whined when Sam got to ride shotgun the entire drive up even though Sam was the one who got carsick and Jane spent the entire ride asleep.
“No, Jane, this is a family vacation. I’m sure Kevin will be back soon. It’s lobster dinner night. Everyone loves lobster dinner night.”
Whitney stood as if struck. It wasn’t the expression on her daughter’s face, but the tone of dismissiveness that reminded Whitney of the marketing firm, of asking the sales team to quiet down and then seeing their barely contained smiles when they said sure. “I’m going to go see what grandma is up to,” Whitney said.
It was a cloudy, New England summer day, and so thick with humidity that the world felt stuck in itself. Should she tell her daughter to put on some clothes, that Whitney could clearly see the little blue veins on Jane’s not-tanning-whatsoever skin? That her matchstick limbs wouldn’t likely resemble a starlet’s until she’d hit puberty, a subject they’d talked about only very recently? No. Whitney’s approach was the opposite of Allan’s. She encouraged, allowed, experimented. Within reason, of course, and whatever she could afford on an associate marketer’s salary. Some experiments failed—the “no bedtime” experiment had lasted 48 hours and resulted in a phone call from Sam’s 5th grade teacher saying the poor kid was falling asleep in class—but the kids respected her for trying, for really making this family her priority. Whitney’s mother told her she should be dating, but no, haha, she was having too much fun being a parent.
Inside was her brother Don sitting on the couch, his hairy legs like two pine branches plopped on the coffee table. On the other couch sat a ghost version of her mother and a ghost version of her father. Both looked displeased. Their gaze wasn’t on Don, but off to the right to some unseen audience.
“We just don’t understand how you could do such a thing,” said her ghost mother. Like all of the ghosts, she was pale and seemed to blur around the edges like an unfocused photograph.
Whitney felt a flare of memory but held back in responding—what was the point? The Glasser family’s ghosts were not spirits of the dead—both of her parents were alive, her father likely sitting in his chair watching TV in the den and her mother in the kitchen, burning lunch—no, the Glasser clan was haunted by recitals of past events. The ghosts were harmless, incapable of lifting so much as a penny. Other houses on the sound were infested by termites or dry rot but the Glasser Summer House had ghosts.
“This isn’t how we raised you,” said the ghost father.
“How are we on lunch?” Whitney asked Don. Don was Whitney’s older brother, serious in all of the ways Whitney was not. Because she respected her kids, Whitney admitted to them that Don was a bit of a stick in the mud. She couldn’t have hidden that if she tried, no sir! So why not admit it and establish that sense that, hey, just because your mom is an adult, doesn’t mean she can’t laugh at her family too?
Still, Don worked in Philadelphia for a mutual fund and that allowed him certain things that Whitney admired. That new Norditrack Home Exercise Regimen. Juice cleanses. Private school. On Facebook, his wife Alice posted photos of their family trips from all over the world. “Greetings from Vail!” read one post, complete with the family of three posing with goofy faces. “Happy New Year from Rome!” was another, and Whitney’s mother called her and gushed about all of the things the Don Glassers were doing and how much fun it must be. But Whitney always laughed and said Oh but you should see the fun we are having! They weren’t going to Europe, sure, there was the mortgage to pay and her divorce attorney’s fees. But they went to the shore last Memorial Day and Sam won some green fuzzy dice they keep in the family car. So in a small way, they always take the fun with them.
“Ma says to help ourselves,” her brother said, not looking up from his book. It was a book on the stock market, which didn’t really seem fair since Don knew that Whitney couldn’t play the stock market since the magazine closed. There had been a fight last year when she had told Don to stop giving her stock tips at the dinner table.
“Any idea where Kevin is?” Whitney asked.
“Think of how this is impacting the kids,” said her ghost father. Whitney flinched.
“With any luck, driving into the ocean,” Don replied. Don likely thought of Kevin’s absence as a blessing, a way for him to make more rude jokes no one would comment on. No one to challenge him for his claim on the last cob of corn.
The ghost parents disappeared. The ghosts didn’t have a schedule, they’d just meander into their spiritual plane like walking into another room. Lately, Whitney had found the front den, the back bedrooms, the covered porches of the old Glasser family summer home to be overcrowded with ghosts of family memories. It was as if the afterlife had no more room and had simply left the Glasser clan to their own devices in a yellow ranch house with a bent sundial and a back bathroom that always flooded.
Whitney found her (living) mother in the kitchen.
“Any sign of Kevin?” her mother asked. She leaned on the chrome-accented kitchen counter. Whitney remembered years when her mother would sit on the counter, kick off her shoes. Now she leaned against it when her cane wasn’t nearby.
“No,” Whitney said. “The kids say he took his toilet kit.”
“Where would he go?” her mother asked. As a child, it was Whitney’s mother who had instilled the magic of the place in her, the sense that all of these people here were parts of a great whole, a blanket you wove together as a family. That when any person was missing, there was a hole that left you cold.
“Who cares?” Don said, entering the kitchen with a glass of brown liquid in his hand.
Whitney held her tongue and instead tried to meet her mother’s gaze. The two Glasser women exchanged a sympathetic look. “I just want to make sure he’s okay,” her mother said. “The roads are narrow and everyone out here drives like a madman.”
“He’s fine, Mom. He’s doing this for attention. This is like the summer of ‘72 all over again,” Don said, and took a long sip from what was Whitney thought was likely whiskey. In the summer of ‘72, Kevin, not more than eight, had hidden for hours during a family game of hide and seek. He had hidden so well—in a suitcase in the main bedroom—that the police had been called. Whitney’s mother was hysterical. The suggestion of peril always loomed over Kevin—he was frequently broke and on the brink of eviction, disappeared for months at a time, survived two car crashes, and yet always made it out okay, as if he was bathed in oil and the world could not grip him fully. Whitney knew that someday Don, who always found life’s to be one tough sled, would write off his brother and be wrong and Kevin wouldn’t be okay. Then the family would never be whole again.
“How are we doing on dinner?” Whitney asked, hoping to change the subject.
Her mother, still not turning from the window, mentioned that someone needed to pick up the lobster and crab. Lobster had been a tradition for generations, but they’d added crab when Don was a child because he had an allergy. Even at birth, Don had been difficult.
Whitney volunteered. She knew that was what they wanted her to do and she was happy to do it, the good daughter, haha, but no it was because she really liked seeing her family relax. She wanted her mother to sit down, talk to Sam about his newfound interest in the Civil War (he’d moved on from the dead, thankfully). And Jane could use some perspective on what it was like to be alive when her mother was Jane’s age. They didn’t have MallRun on their phones or 3-D nail polish parties. Whitney hadn’t had her own opportunity to bond with her grandmother, Mitsy, on account of her stepping in front of the 4:50 to Plymouth in 1948. Whitney would see Mitsy around the house occasionally, always exiting rooms and the only time she ever spoke was to declare loudly “I’m going into town, if anyone needs anything” which were her last words, as far as anyone in the family knew. Still, by all accounts, a sweet woman.
“Ask in town if anyone has seen Kevin,” her mother asked. Whitney hoped she wouldn’t just wait by the kitchen window, looking out at the seashell driveway in case he returned. She hoped that her mother would go outside, sit down, and be the kind of grandmother one day Whitney would be.
Maybe someday her kids would look back and think, “Hey, not everyone got to know their great grandfather’s jokes. Or were able to see what games they played during a rainy summer in 1967!”
But no. Last summer, Sam had questions about some of the words that Great Da had been using, and some of them Whitney had to Google and find that yes, they were indeed racial slurs.
Whitney, during her teenage years, had tried to ask the ghosts questions, seeing if this could trigger different memories. But the ghosts were not intelligent entities, but a bunch of home movies put on repeat. This is likely why Sam stopped asking about the apparitions. They could be boring to a ten year-old.
She found Don’s son, whom the family referred to as Junior Don, DJ, or JD, sitting in the sunroom. When he saw her approach, he shuffled the contents of his book. She saw that he folded a magazine underneath the seat cushion.
“I won’t tell,” she said.
Junior Don’s expression was hidden by the dusted clouds of sunlight. She could tell he was trying to read her ability to be a snitch. “I was just taking a break.”
The poor kid had been studying for a standardized test all week. He was only a sophomore, but Don had related a litany of acronyms he was studying for—APs, SATs, ACTs, SAT IIs—that when their mother had asked, benignly, if Don could cut the kid a break and have him enjoy his vacation, Don had exploded that this was prime season for his son’s obligations—training for football, summer program applications, testing—that if they had only listened to him, they would have skipped the annual trip this year, thank you very much, and it was only Whitney’s “nagging” that got them there in the first place. Then the family had sung Whitney’s mother a happy birthday.
“Have you heard anything from your uncle?” she asked Junior Don.
He shook his head. “But Cousin Jack came through a bit then went off somewhere.”
She nodded. Cousin Jack had drowned in the bay twenty years prior. His spirit could usually be seen on the porches, reciting Doors song lyrics and smoking ethereal cigarettes.
But now that she had completed the task she wanted, she lingered. Poor Junior Don hadn’t had a break all week. A tug in her mind came from when her brother had embarrassed her at her twenty-ninth birthday when he had wondered aloud how she would finish journalism school with two kids. She had showed him, of course, but why did she think of this memory now?
“Want to take Sam into town and pick up dinner?” she asked.
“Would Dad let me?”
She threw him the keys. “He will if you’re already gone,” she said.
After the boy left, she allowed herself a moment to rub her face and take stock. Yes, she had one missing brother. One high strung brother. A father somewhere in the back room watching TV, likely slowly dying while robbing his family of the little quality time with him that remained. But they were together at the family summer house, making memories. They’d likely find these memories roaming around the house, like untied kites, in a few years. Then they’d laugh and say, “Hey remember when?”
Whitney found that Jane had given up on tanning. Outside on the grass, a scene from an old family volleyball game was playing itself out. The ghosts kept hitting an invisible ball, setting it up for a spike and then looking to see if it would come down. It never did, and the scene would begin again.
She’d give Jane this: even her silly habits didn’t last for too long. The stick-on jewelry phase lasted a few weeks. The wish to be called “Aurora” only a month. Mrs. Johnson and the school nurse both said ADHD. But Whitney had put her foot down and said that was over-diagnosed and this family was loving enough to take care of her.
Jane’s summer reading books remained pristine on her nightstand, and she was instead working on a sailboat jigsaw puzzle next to the form of two ethereal children who placed blurry pieces next to Jane’s real one.
“I thought that puzzle was missing some pieces,” Whitney said.
“Well, there’s not a lot of other things to do here,” Jane said.
Whitney frowned. “Why don’t you get some of that summer reading done?” Whitney asked.
One of the children seemed to being having similar difficulties with his ethereal puzzle. She recognized him as Danny Harrison, Helen’s kid. When was the last time Helen had been up here? 1998 when Helen was seeing that tennis pro from San Diego? Was that before or after her first marriage?
“I’m not that bored,” Jane said.
“Licking birds’ bones, you can see your fortune,” said Danny to an unseen audience. Danny would later make a killing in the financial market before, of course, he was indicted for conspiracy and fraud. He was now in a white collar prison somewhere in Nevada. Sometimes, he called on Whitney’s birthday, which was always nice, even if sometimes he asked her to contact women he knew on the outside who he wanted to visit him.
Whitney wished her eldest had taken after her. But Jane had shown no interest in books and so graduate school—though Whitney never forced her own dreams on her children—was probably not a realistic goal. Jane’s grades were never even promising. Whitney hoped Jane wouldn’t one day have to humor CFOs half her age and worry about quarterly numbers.
Before the divorce, Allan had said Jane would find her place, she’d grow into it. Instead, Jane’s grades had plummeted further while her social life crowded out everything else. After a shouting match, Whitney confiscated her cell phone this week. She didn’t want to be one of those mothers, but she had to put her foot down at some point.
Whitney tried to put on a happy face as the sun began to bleed into pastels and there was still no sign of Kevin. Even her mother had given up keeping vigil and settled into cooking. There was nothing to be done. The dinner that Whitney had looked forward to all year would be with one empty seat, one fewer smile and one less person there to create a memory. An unfinished puzzle, Whitney thought, and it occurred to her she might as well throw out that jigsaw puzzle so Jane really would have nothing better to do tomorrow than read.
So the family ate, sans Kevin. By this time, the light had nearly faded, the cicadas had turned up their volume and everyone sat famished. The table vibrated with conversation and the sounds of cracking lobster claws. Even though Alice, Don’s wife, was going on about that terrible ski accident last winter (a story they had heard at least three times), and Kevin was still missing—even Don said he’d go looking for him after dinner with a flashlight if that would help—and her mother was looking at the kitchen expecting him to show up—it was still a family dinner, just like she’d imagined when she suggested this on the phone a few months ago. Oh, they’d said they were busy this summer, that they had already traveled so much (this was from Don), that they wanted to go to summer camp (Jane). But now that they were here, Whitney could feel the old electricity, the feeling from before Allan left, before the newspaper closed, before she took the godforsaken marketing job which paid the bills but only barely, and before Jane tuned her out. Now here Jane was, wearing a nice summer dress and passing the garlic bread. Good girl.
“Whitney!” her father said. She had not realized she was being addressed. He stood in the doorway, his nantucket red pants already stained with butter and sweet corn. He motioned for her to follow. Whitney hesitated to leave her mother to clear the plates, which she knew her mother would do, but it was rare to get an opportunity to talk to her father without the distraction of the television.
“Still a fan of Bloody Marys?” he asked, throwing ice into a long-ago-clouded glass.
She said yes. Of course. She didn’t like to drink in front of the kids; Allan would get short with his son when Sam would follow him around like a puppy after Allan got home from work. The kid just wanted his father to share in his accomplishments! Would it have been so hard to pause making yourself a martini and just say, “Good job, sport, that’s a bang-up job you did beating Call of Duty 4, I bet not every eight year old could beat it!” But no.
“That’s my girl,” her father said, passing her the drink. She let herself indulge in a sip. The drink tasted spicy and heavy on the vodka. Her father bought vodka in cases. The only unkind word he had said all weekend was to her son when he had accidentally dropped a handle as he unloaded the car. That had been a small bump though, and her father was not a stern person, well, not since the stroke. Old grandpa would have been sour all day, she wanted to tell Sam. He used to brood for days and curse if he didn’t have silence while he read his paper. If you went out during a certain time of early evening by the front steps, you could see that old grandpa swear for a full five minutes because of a broken screen door. But now new grandpa is much nicer, don’t you think? She couldn’t say that to Sam, or to anyone, but she kept that knowledge in a secret place, like the lingerie she’d bought for her and Allan’s tenth anniversary. Like the lingerie, she’d likely forget it until it was beyond the point.
“You seem okay with Kevin’s disappearance,” Whitney said.
Her father didn’t answer at first, instead leading her down the hall and out the side door. The granite patio here had never been finished so it just looked like a gathering of stones.
A sunset greeted them; Whitney was tempted to go get the kids and take photos. But her father stirred his glass as if trying to sort through secrets buried at its bottom.
“He’s a grown man,” he said.
“But it’s really rude to mom. It’s her birthday week.”
“So? She’s had eighty of them. She’ll get over it.”
“Dad…” she said. He took a sip from his drink. His eyes fell to his boat shoes. She knew that look. When Milky, her cat, had gone missing one day when she was twelve, her father had that look. Turned out, he had run it over and was trying to find a replacement for her but the shelter was closed on weekends.
“Dad, what do you know?”
“Me? Nothing. Why would you think I knew anything?” His face cracked into a lip-pressed smile.
“Where’s Kevin, Dad?”
The smile fell. He rubbed his eyes and let out a long, haggard breath. Finally he opened his hands as if unveiling a magic trick. “With a woman.”
Whitney rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Why the big secret?”
“She was just driving up to Portland and was only stopping in for a day or two. Kevin isn’t getting any younger, figured I’d help him out.”
“There’s always a woman.”
Her father took a long sip of his drink. “He knows how you and your brother view him. Can’t say I blame him for leaving quietly,” he said.
“Dad, this is family. This is more important.”
“Whitney, listen to yourself. This is important to you. This week was important to you. Most of us have other lives to lead.”
Whitney thought that maybe her father was kidding, but no, he was implying that she, Whitney, did not have a life outside this family. “Dad, I was an editor for years at a prestigious publication and then Allan—”
“I don’t want to go into it. Forget I brought it up.”
“No no, Dad…”
“Don’t tell your mother,” her father said, the bite making him sound more like his pre-stroke self. “She’s in hysterics about ‘having a perfect family gathering’ all the time.” He shook his head. “There’s no such thing. How could you go through this house and not see that?” Whitney thought her father was seeing something through the walls—ghosts of past family fights, of shouting matches and bitter silences. But Whitney saw nothing but the window into the living room with its perfect shutters and white doiled drapes.
“But it’s worth trying,” Whitney said, her grin as broad as the bay.
“If you say so.”
“You don’t think we’re worth it?”
He let out a long breath that he seemed to have been holding for years, since she was a child and first asked her father if he was proud of her. “I think you don’t know there are other things that are.”
After the sunset, her father retired to his den. Whitney could tell by the classic rock blaring in the kitchen that Don was doing the dishes, and the relative silence meant that her mother and Alice had taken Jane, Sam, and DJ to get ice cream—another Glasser family tradition. So Whitney wandered around the halls—back by the back bunk rooms where she and Jane shared one room and Kevin and Sam another—through the glass-paneled dining room, by the blue couches of the living room, to the empty kitchen, the porches, to the east wing bedrooms and finally to the top of the stairs to the basement where the sounds of the TV announced that her father was back in his den.
She was looking for ghosts, but their haunting schedules remained elusive to her. Sometimes it was awkward sitting in the living room, trying to play a board game while you watched a ghost version of your mother break down crying because her grandfather didn’t want her marrying a papist. Late at night, you could get spooked when you’d wander into Cousin Jack trying to eat food from the fridge from twenty years ago. More than once, she’d heard the ghosts from different eras would argue with each other without comprehending what the others were saying, like a movie with two different soundtracks. Sometimes they would link up in surprising ways, but most of the time it was incomprehensible rabble.
Now, she wanted the company. Even that was better than right now, with the house’s unnatural hollow cold.
After the kids had returned from ice cream, their lips colored green and milky white, the family gathered in the living room. They were able to rouse her father too, as even he couldn’t resist the pull of the family sing along. The afternoon clouds had come in, their moist embrace seeping into everything. They put on sweaters. Jane and Sam sat on either side of Whitney on the couch, their legs tucked into themselves. For once, the annual fire in the fireplace was not met with protests.
Whitney’s father and Don took turns trying to start up the ancient furnace. Pilot light wouldn’t ignite, apparently. Junior Don brought blankets down from the cedar closets. Don brought in chairs for Alice and himself while her mother passed out the music sheets. Whitney had never been much of a singer, but she always enjoyed these moments. The entire family was there. It reminded her of the last number of a Christmas special, when the entire cast and crew finally gathered on stage. Here was mom, and there was mom of ‘67. Even Kevin was here. He still hadn’t returned, but there was a version of him here as if to fill in the gap—and even wearing the same shirt! Perfect. Whitney counted four or five different versions of herself there in the crowd— seated on couches and on the floor, standing and with different haircuts and clothing styles. But despite all the different people, and versions of people, their voices blended together into one. Of course, she never could tell which of those times she’d been merely lip syncing, trying to pass. But here, now, she sang and she found it matched with the rest of the chorus, a song they’d been beating the walls with since forever.
There were the old standards: “American Pie,” which usually her father started and then everyone joined in; then “Take Me Home, Country Roads” where they replaced “West Virginia” with “Our Summer House;” and “Going on a Bear Hunt” which, thanks to the ghosts, still featured Kevin’s jumping form and the reactions of her children, in their younger forms, laughing.
They sang for what felt like hours. Feverish and ecstatic and then, during the finale, slow and wistful.
There were summers past when the fire would blaze and all of the windows would be flung open, casting light and mirth across the sound. On these hot nights, the glasses that held their spiked lemonade and Bloody Marys sweated as generously as the rest of the family. But not this year. A breeze had whipped itself up into a frenzy. Sam had fallen asleep on the couch. Jane was working on a bracelet, one end of string tied to her big toe while she looped the strings back and forth. DJ was trying to ignite interest in a board game. Whitney said she’d be back in a second and went outside to watch the buoys rock with the wind.
“It’s not as bad as all that,” came a voice.
Her breath caught. She recognized the voice, her voice. Whitney saw herself, two years younger, pacing the porch on a cell phone. She wanted to reach out and grab it from her, hang up the phone just a few seconds earlier. Then, Whitney would unwind time further so that she would not meet him for that first drink, not attend that conference and spy him across the table, not fall out of love with Allan, not break up her family.
“They’ll like you,” the ghost said. “I’m crazy about you.” There was a pause that felt even longer, seeing it again. The scene’s volume was not loud enough to hear the phone’s reply.
From where she stood, the ghost of Allan emerged. She shivered as he formed, passed through her and, for a moment, occupied the same space. Then he moved towards the ghost of Whitney. “Who are you talking to?” he said.
She knew what happened next.
So Whitney went back into the house and shut the door. With the wind, she decided, this year the windows had to be closed. She shut them all, putting her weight into the ancient pulley systems and hearing the wood scream on its hinges. But they were sturdy windows, tight. They could protect this family.
Jane’s eyes caught her mother’s in alarm. Did Jane know? It had been a hard year, one full of secrets and half-truths. The stare her daughter gave her now made Whitney certain she had seen through it all.
Whitney asked what the board game was and DJ said it looked like no one was interested.
“Oh but we’ll play, won’t we, Jane?” Whitney asked. She could not hear their responses over the blood in her own ears, the constant drum of her heartbeat. The conversation outside was left out there, where hopefully the ghosts would freeze or be blown away by the wind. They just needed to stop haunting her.
Don put another log on the fire. Whitney’s mother called it a night. Her father followed shortly after. The rest settled into Monopoly. The game ended when they began to stop trading properties, accepting their losses to Alice, who had managed to build hotels early in the game.
The game over, Whitney watched her family—corporeal, real—settle in for the night. Whitney felt Sam began to lean into her, wrapped in a blanket and already nodding off. The ghosts, too, began to shuffle off towards their eternal beds. It was over not with a final shout but rather a small dimming, like the fire going down. She made another attempt at starting up the furnace, but no matter how many times she turned the wheel or clicked the pilot light, the contraption failed to start. She fell asleep, aware of a fuzziness to the air, a sense something had reached a boiling point and could not, however hard she tried, be made to settle again.
Whitney didn’t remember falling asleep on the living room couch. She still felt tethered by the cobwebs of dreams. How strange, that memories from last night, Great Da’s words, seemed to echo and then dissipate. She had no feel for the weight of her feet as she walked down the hallway to the dining room. It was like Christmas morning when she was a child; she had never felt so free. The marketing job seemed far away. Jane’s teacher’s stern voicemails and even the troubles with Kevin—what did it matter? There was a warmth here in this house, and it could sustain her.
There was the furnace room and she turned, involuntarily, as if she were on a track, toward the bedrooms. That’s when she saw herself in the very living room she’d left. Strange. She was still under the blanket, but it did not rise and fall. How could she be there if she was walking about?
There was a word for this: Death. But now that she was embodying it, the word seemed somehow lacking. She didn’t feel despair or even a sense of finality. Whatever gave her the capacity to feel angry or sad—that too had been taken from her. But it didn’t feel like a robbery—merely misplacing something you don’t miss, like an errant sock.
With the realization came the instinctual movement toward the back bedrooms, to her children.
“Kids, it’s time for breakfast,” she said. But they did not stir. “Get up, sleepyheads.”
Upon entering the room, Whitney found she couldn’t move any further from the spot she stood. Sam’s face was mere feet from her hand. Jane’s unkempt bed stood just in the corner of her eye. She repeated her commands. They were the only words she could speak, but they did not shake her children awake or open the window to let them breathe.
Christian Holt is currently enrolled at the University of Wisconsin’s MFA program in fiction. His work has appeared or is upcoming in Gargoyle, 7X7, The Bold Italic, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Huffington Post.