by M. Caroline McCaulay
We bought the house privately. That was why we got lucky, because it wasn’t listed on any of the realty websites. There was just a sign in the road, pointing to a windy drive that ended at a detached garage. It was what the owner called a one-and-a-half garage. I only knew that term thanks to the blessings of HGTV marathons which had kept me sane through unemployment. We were moving for Henry’s job – his techie bosses were over city living and wanted to stretch into the suburbs. I’d finished teaching at a middle school downtown in May, afraid to commit to another school year until I knew what the commute would be, and given we found the house in the midst of a red autumn, I had plenty of time to visualize all the home improvement projects I wanted to recreate myself.
There wasn’t a laundry room in the house, the homeowner said, but that extra half of a garage was where the washer and dryer hook-ups were and he’d leave the washer and dryer for us, if we wanted, or else he was just going to dump them. Henry was like great, a housewarming gift but I was so sick of laundromats and shared facilities in apartments, my appreciation was genuine.
But that wasn’t the best part about the garage.
There were wooden steps on the outside that led up to a door with a small, hammered-glass window in it. The door frame looked a little wonky, like someone had replaced the door but hadn’t gotten the right size so they shoved some extra plywood in to make it fit.
The widower called it a mother-in-law apartment. Another home renovation show term. It was a dreamy little space. The kind of teeny artist loft idea that is desirable in your twenties and then becomes unrealistic for practical reasons like having dinner guests over and needing a place for them to sit that isn’t your bed in the middle of the room. But I could see the potential in that space. Little things. Like the dripping sink in the corner (there’s plumbing!) and the hanging light with the pull string switch (and electricity!). I thought art studio. Which was a really romantic thought because neither Henry nor I do any art. I thought reading nook. For our single shelf of Henry’s sci-fi books. I thought game room! For our uno cards and Catan set. Or cool teen hangout! Even though we don’t have kids yet.
I had this vision of a daybed, to be built against the curved window overlooking the drive. I didn’t know why we would need it. I just knew I wanted it. No matter what title that room over the garage would get one day, a daybed would fit right in.
And so that’s what I was doing, just a week from when we signed the final paperwork in the man’s kitchen, now our kitchen, my hand struggling to sign the curves of Henry’s surname as my own – I’m still not used to this! a delightful chirp – when I got the call. I was drilling the last bracket into the wall beneath the bed frame when my phone played a twinkly song.
Hey, Julia. It’s Nora. David took a turn last night. And this morning – he died.
When I was in first grade and Nora in eighth, our parents moved us into a smaller home to make ends meet. It was a two-bedroom so Nora and I had to share a room, to her vexation and my excitement.
Our parents had this system they called green light, get up! which they had imposed upon me from toddler age because I tended to wake before the sun even had the idea of rising. I was supposed to stay in my room at least until the light on my clock turned green, signaling it was 7:00am, and that remained my earthly challenge until the end of elementary school. In that room with Nora, I still waited patiently for the light to turn green. When it did, I would crawl out of my bed and into hers, bringing a Clifford book with me. It was the inverse of our bedtime routine. I would read her awake.
Sometimes I think nostalgia is its own form of grief.
I was devastated when she left for college. She’d call once in a while then. She was always adventurous, always willing to try new things. She made friends that changed that hunger for trying new foods to trying new drugs. And when she dropped out, the calls home slowed. Then they stopped. When I was in tenth grade, she disappeared for three months. I thought she was dead.
I didn’t tell my parents I thought she was dead because they kept this grand faith. They had this feeling, they said, that she was out there, somewhere. They said they would be able to feel if she wasn’t with us anymore. They turned out to be right. But I grieved her for those three months – and then she came back to us. Shorter hair, sharper hip bones. But she was revived.
My parents took her to a treatment center in Indianapolis. Six months later, it was like kindergarten again. She was there, in our small bedroom with the same twin beds, and when I woke in the morning, I would read to her – from dystopian teen fantasies and romances instead of picture books. Eventually, she got a job and a place of her own and things seemed good. She stayed clean. She didn’t slip. But I always carried this feeling in me: when she was out of my sight for too long, she was disappearing on me again.
I know she met David at a singles mixer. She said she’d gone with her friend Christina because of the free drinks. She was allowed to drink, she said, because of the concept of harm reduction. I wasn’t supposed to have an opinion on that. But David was a good, clean man with a job. He was older, but not in a way that made me uncomfortable. Older in the way that made me think that’ll be good for her. He’s mature. And he was good for her and he was mature, but he was also sick. I can’t be mad at him for that, because he didn’t know then, and he didn’t know until well after Nora fell in love with him, but I want to be mad because now he’s dead and Nora is hurting, and I can’t let her disappear again.
I told Henry we should have Nora come stay with us two days after I finished the day bed. There were half-emptied boxes all over the main house. Some of the furniture was still laying in stacked pyres. I had neglected what I needed to do for what I wanted to do. But we had our bed, we had our couch, we had the kitchen, and because of my diligence in transforming that garage space, we had the attic apartment.
There had been one shiplap disaster in the apartment, in which I decided I didn’t like it only after I used tile grout to stick it to the wall. Some plaster needed replacing from that aggressive demo job. But however ugly, it was a livable space and my nerves were building on me. I could not sleep at night thinking about Nora alone in her apartment, surrounded by David’s things. I could not sleep thinking about her left to her own devices, grieving, in pain. I was grieving David, too, but I was not alone. I had Henry to lean on. That wasn’t the only difference, but it was the one I pointed out to him in my prepared statements.
Maybe she can stay in the garage apartment, I said. Just until the funeral.
She can stay as long as she wants, Henry said. He had no hesitation, but Nora did.
Nora didn’t want to come. She said things like, There’s no room in the house of newlyweds for a grieving widow. That just made me push harder.
We aren’t newlyweds.
You’ve been married a month. You’re still tan from your honeymoon.
I did what any little sister would do. I called my parents. I asked them to tell her it was a good idea. And that assertive move, along with an oversell on the absolutely great detached apartment, got her to come. She liked the idea of the apartment. She could be there and be close, like I wanted, without feeling like she was standing in our way, like she wanted.
I went out to get it prepared that night. I had linens to put in the washing machine, to make the daybed with. The garage door is manual, so I had to put my basket down and heft the door up and make sure it was pushed past the point of crashing back down before I walked underneath it. I still had my hands on the door latch, over my head, when the bird flew into the garage. I’d say it was a sparrow. I don’t really know. Any bird that isn’t obviously a robin or a blue jay or a cardinal is a sparrow to me.
It flitted around overhead before finding a resting spot along the garage door track. Hey there. It sidestepped down the rail, shaking its wings. Pretty bird. Hi. Please don’t poop in my new garage. There were enough questionable stains on the floor already. I dropped the laundry in the washer with detergent and set it before I headed back out and up the steps into the apartment. I left the garage door open, hoping the bird would take the opportunity and leave on its own.
The first thing I noticed up in the apartment that night was that the washing machine was loud. It was still only filling the tub, but that alone sounded like crashing stones beneath my feet. It had something to do with the broken plaster, I thought. Sound was seeping in through the cracks. The only thing to remember until that could be fixed was not to do laundry while any guests were sleeping.
Until the wash cycle was through, I tidied up. Wiped sawdust off the windowsill, scrubbed out the sink, and plugged a little air freshener into the wall outlet. The crashing rocks turned into a consistent thunking as the washer’s drum spun. I had this feeling – it was something strange and hard to articulate. A tickle against my back, a little warmth to my temples. Maybe like I was being watched. I couldn’t place it. But I didn’t bother dragging the vacuum out and up the stairs like I should have, if I were a good host. I popped the linens into the dryer and turned it on, shutting the garage door behind me before I scooted back to the house.
You look sweaty, Henry told me. Nevertheless, lovingly pressing a kiss against my forehead. And nervous. You okay?
I told him I was fine. The sweat was from cleaning up. The airflow out there isn’t great. I kept a fan running while building the daybed. But I didn’t want to trouble him with any second guessing, any creeping feelings about the home we’d just bought together. I really thought it was one of those new house things. Like when you suddenly realize you’re not just visiting on vacation, you’re permanently here, and this is your place, and it feels kind of strange and maybe like trespassing still. And maybe, too, I was beginning to feel the true ache of losing David. I’d buried it so quickly – he was Nora’s husband, and Nora would need me to be strong. But he was family to me, too.
In the morning, I went out to get the sheets from the dryer before Nora arrived. I hoisted the garage door open and watched the light roll in. And when I saw the bird, my first thought was just oh, yes, I forgot about you. But the sparrow was dead.
It was just lying there. On the concrete. It looked fake. Like one of those hyper-realistic Christmas decorations they sell to mount amidst the faux fir strands, to make it look au natural. It was just a little bird, laying on the ground. No gore, no blood, nothing. Just lying there, dead.
I ran from the garage, an alarming pain in my chest. It was my fault for leaving it in overnight. I had killed it. Not directly, not with my hands, but I had prevented it, somehow, from its potential life, and that’s the definition of killing. The sensitivity I was feeling hadn’t gone away overnight. It was too much. The wedding, the house, David’s death, Nora’s grief, my own grief, and now the bird. I was crying before I even got the words out to Henry.
It must have been sick, he said. Comforting me by attempting to prove it wasn’t my fault. Birds don’t just die overnight. It wasn’t you locking it in there. It was a sick bird. It’s okay.
He went out with a pair of gloves and a trash bag.
I told him to hurry. I didn’t want Nora to see it. And I fixed myself up, too, so I didn’t look weepy for her. There didn’t seem to be a worse way to welcome your grieving sister to a stay in your home than by letting her know death had started his morning in the room under where she would sleep.
Nora showed up after noon, past lunch, her car tires crunching all the branches that fell onto the drive. She was well bundled for fall, her nose pink, eyes red, but her spirits seemed high. If she found anything eerie about the garage apartment, she kept it to herself. She pointed out that the plumbing in the tiny bathroom only half-worked. Fortunately, the half that worked was the toilet. She’d have to come into the house to shower. I told her again that she could come stay in the house for everything – not just showering and the meals she would take with me and Henry – but she refused again.
I like this space, she said. Really. It’s intimate. And I need it. Space.
I left her in there, creaking all the way down the steps.
And things were fine for a few days. That was long enough for me to finally unpack the rest of the living room boxes, because I couldn’t access my apartment project. I moved on to the behemoth task of moving boxes out of the master bedroom closet – where all the boxes marked misc. had been shoved, out of sight, out of mind. I thought if we could just get into that closet, we could hang the clothes we still had packed away and then we would soon, finally, wonderfully, be wearing more than the same three outfits run through the wash every couple of days.
I was sitting in that closet, trying fruitlessly to discern one misc. box from another when Nora appeared behind me. I have to say I was startled. She didn’t say anything at first. She just stood there in the doorway until I saw her from the corner of my eye, saw the hair hanging limp on either side of her face. I said oh God, Nora, oh Lord, you scared the living shit out of me and clutched the front of my shirt. In that swell of adrenaline, I was trying not to be mad. I hate being scared. I hate the feeling of numb running through my shoulders and down into my fingers. I hate that it feels like all my bones might have just turned into mush and if I move, I’ll be a puddle. But she looked terrible. And that worried me more than I was mad.
I said her name again. I said, Nora?
Some of the light returned to her eyes. I could see the depth of her breath as her stomach went in and out.
She said, I just saw David. He was in the – he was in my room. In the apartment.
Even now, I don’t know what the right answer to that is. What do you say to someone who says they just saw their dead partner in your garage? Maybe the right response would have been to run out there and make sure there wasn’t some creep hanging out in the rafters. But my mind didn’t go there because she didn’t seem scared by it. She was shaking, but it wasn’t fear.
So I was thinking that Nora had been sleeping a lot – she came over for breakfast, she came over for lunch, she came over for dinner, and she was eating just fine, but whenever I went to check on her in the apartment she was just rustling awake from a nap. A baby bird lifting her head out of the nest for sustenance. Retreating if there was none.
I was thinking that Nora had just gone through something traumatic. I was thinking that Nora was mourning. And sometimes we see what we want to see, when we’re tired and grieving. Sometimes we hear a voice calling our name from another room. I know this. I remember this. I thought I saw her all the time when she was lost all those months, but it was always someone else. So maybe I didn’t react right. Because all I did was go to her to hold her in an embrace. I ran my hand up and down her back, feeling the ridges and divots of her spine under my palm. And then I smelled her hair.
You need a bath, I said.
She laughed into my shoulder. A chirping, surprised sound. Do I smell?
She laughed more. Warming beneath my arms.
While the water ran into the tub, I went down to the kitchen and fixed her a cup of tea. I thought about pouring her a glass of wine, but I was afraid to invite that for her. We feed colds, starve fevers, intoxicate grief. But I believed she was doing this without substance. I wasn’t going to bring it to her. I wanted to protect her. I have always wanted to protect her. That was why I brought her to my home. I wanted to keep Nora safe.
She had velvety white bubbles in her hair when I came back into the bathroom. I put the mug of tea onto the edge of the tub.
I only have chamomile, I said.
She said, it smells fine. Her cheeks had a rosy look to them. There was color in her face where there hadn’t been before. You don’t need to sit and watch me, you know. I’m not going anywhere.
I did think we should probably talk about her seeing David, though, and I told her so.
She dunked her head under the water to scrub the shampoo out of her hair. I lowered the lid of the toilet and sat on it. The bathwater went cloudy as the soap swirled around. The bathroom started to smell like peaches. Nora came back up mostly suds free.
Ok, she said. I was in bed. I was reading. I thought I was reading, but you know that thing when you realize you’ve just been reading the same page over and over and you still haven’t gotten it? I was doing that. And then I saw him out of the corner of my eye. David was just there all the sudden. He was by the sink. He was just standing there. She sounded cautiously excited, timidly thrilled. And I don’t know what came over me exactly, but I picked my shoe up off the floor and I threw it at him like he was some kind of bug.
We used to get those house centipedes, the ones that looking like walking eyelashes, in our bedroom at our parents’ home. And neither of us ever wanted to get up close to it to squish it, so we’d throw our shoes at the wall. Our parents hated it. Not just because it was loud and it left sole marks on the drywall, but because it was wildly inaccurate. Odds were we’d miss – and that feather-legged bug would go scampering off into some other plane of existence where we might never see it again, but we’d know it was still there just waiting to crawl up our noses in the middle of the night or something equally offensive.
David didn’t move. He just looked down at his chest. The shoe went right through him. And then I said, ‘David?’ And he looked at me again, and I blinked, and he was gone. And then the sink started gurgling and I—I booked it out of there.
Nora had her legs pulled up to her chest, covering her bareness. She leaned over her knees, chin coming to rest atop them. What to say to that? I tried caution. Were you asleep?
I don’t think so.
We stayed there for a while yet, silence only broken when she leaned forward the tugged the drain cover open and the graying water glugged slowly down the pipes.
It felt good, you know. To see him.
I thought it was a one-time thing, David’s ghost in the garage attic.
But then Nora said he came to her again.
This time she said he knelt beside the daybed, listening to her talk. This was why she was late coming over for dinner. She was talking to David when she saw my text to come over. She waited until he left first. She didn’t want to lose the opportunity.
I hadn’t told Henry, so this came as a surprise to him over baked chicken and green beans. He looked at me like, are you hearing this? but I couldn’t meet his eyes. I thought, somehow, we’d resolved it with that bath. A good scrub had séanced the ghost away. It hadn’t. It alarmed Henry to hear Nora speak as if David had been there, clear as day, in front of her. It alarmed me, too, that she was so confident he was there. But it was not something to dissect over dinner – not in front of her – so I nudged Henry into just nodding until she was finished recounting. When Henry got up to clear the plates, I told Nora I wanted her to sleep in the house before I followed him into the kitchen.
I think you should go look around the apartment, I said. Just in case.
Just in case we’re being haunted? What am I going to do about a ghost, Julia? Suck it into a vacuum?
Just in case there’s someone out there.
Henry seemed even more alarmed at that.
Did you really think ghost before intruder? I asked.
No, I thought – you know, something else before ghost.
I knew what he was implying. I was scared to say it. I was so afraid to speak it into truth.
He puttered around, considered searching our misc. boxes for his old baseball bat, but settled for arming himself with a forearm sized scrap of ragged wood from the shiplap project trash pile on the driveway.
What’s he doing with that? Nora was watching from the living room window as David climbed the steps, one side weighed down like an unbalanced Scales of Justice.
He’s checking for ghosts, I told her.
She didn’t want to sleep in the house, in case David came back again. I stayed stubborn until she relented. One ghost sighting? A write-off. Two, and I worried for Nora’s safety. Dead bird, creepy chills, and strange sounds aside, something haunting was happening to Nora. I wasn’t going to let her go. After Henry poked around the apartment and found nothing – nothing but shadows and creaky floors, he said – we sacrificed one of our own bed blankets for Nora to use on the couch in the living room.
It’s hard to talk about someone when they’re in your house, a thin-walled room away, so the conversation didn’t get far with Henry that night.
Is she okay? He was searching through dresser drawers for his night retainer.
I don’t know, I said. When Nora had first seen David, she’d come to me looking haunted, but also excited. This time, it was more like enchantment. Infatuation. I pulled open the nightstand drawer and tossed Henry his retainer box. You didn’t see any…
I really didn’t want to say it. I didn’t want to invoke it. I didn’t want to wake it and give it existence. Henry wasn’t in my life when Nora was gone. I told him; we’d talked about it. But he doesn’t have that scar tissue to press on and remember. He doesn’t know the fear that someone is dead and the fear that they aren’t all at once.
No, he said. I wouldn’t know what to look for. But no uh, no small baggies? Or anything out of place like that. I don’t think–… do you think?
I don’t know what I think.
Henry popped his retainer into his mouth, slipping under the covers of the bed. It’s weird, Julia. But maybe after the funeral things will get better. They have to, right?
I wasn’t so sure.
He carried on, saying, I really don’t think David became a ghost and decided to haunt our garage, and I didn’t see anything else out there. No strange men, no strange things.
No real comfort for me.
In the morning, I had this feeling.
I woke with sweat on my face, a breath stuck in my throat. Startled, like someone had given me a shake. It was before my alarm was set to go off, but there was a faint light streaming through the window. With it, I could see the hair on my arm was standing on end.
This feeling. Like someone was shaking me, pushing me, yelling get up in my ear even though the room was silent.
Nora Nora Nora.
I swept my legs out from under the covers and tried to keep my footfalls quiet as I padded into the living room. I thought she was there, at first, and took my first solid breath. But then I realized the clumps of blanket and throw pillows, haphazardly tossed around, weren’t covering a sleeping body. She was gone.
I felt pressure building between my shoulder blades until my still sleep-clouded brain thought to tell my feet to move. It didn’t take much for me to come to realize she’d gone back into the apartment. I understand it. I think I do. If Henry died, and God forbid, but if he died – if he came back? I would want to be with him, too. I would welcome his haunting. I would let him possess me.
The morning mist hadn’t yet settled and it was cold as I stepped across the driveway. I couldn’t tell if my bare feet were cold or wet as I climbed the steps. I realized I could hear her. She was talking. The door was closed, the door was locked, but I could hear her. I pressed my cheek to the window in the door, trying to see through the distorted glass. I could see the general shape of a person, outlined from the light streaming in the window over the daybed. They were swaying on their feet. Left, right, like a pendulum.
Nora? I tapped my knuckles against the door. Nora, it’s me. Open the door.
Her chatter didn’t stop. It sounded like she was soothing someone. I couldn’t tell if it was her, if the rocking person was her, but I heard her. Purring, murmuring, melting honey words.
Nora. Nora, open the door. Is David there? Let me in. Nora, let me in.
The shadow of a person tilted. Unsteady.
Nora! Open the door!
The figure fell. An oof cut through Nora’s whispers.
I reached down and picked up the wood scrap Henry left at the top of the stairs and I took it back and swung at the window in the door until it broke and shattered off in icy shards and then I reached inside for the lock and I let myself in. Nora was on the floor, on her side, a strange shiver coursing through her body. She was still conscious. Still talking. Muttering. Grinning. I heard David. I heard a giggle. I was on top of her fast. I turned her onto her back. Startled to see her lips had turned a purplish-blue. Her lips were lilac flowers, perfuming the room with her chatter.
What did you take? I said. Really, I screamed it. What did you take?
Nothing – get off me! David, tell her. I haven’t—
I hate to say that I shook her. It didn’t change her answer. All it did was make her sick. She did manage to get an elbow underneath her before she started to spit foamy saliva onto the floor. I was shrieking, still, at her, and to Henry in the house – he told me later, he heard me whisper in his ear to wake up just a second before he heard me shouting. He was sharper than I had the capacity to be. He dialed 911 when he heard me. He dialed before he even came outside.
The firemen arrived first. A man in a unit t-shirt pulled me away from Nora. I couldn’t stop screaming at everyone. I was saying she needs Narcan and the firefighter said we can handle this, ma’am and then one of the monitors on his belt screamed back at me. The firefighter turned to his partners, a sharp movement of his arm toward the door. Move out! Get her on oxygen. Ma’am, come on, we need to evacuate the building. Ma’am, that was my carbon monoxide monitor – how long has she been in here? Do you know how long she’s been exposed?
The ambulance came. The police met us at the hospital. There isn’t much else to say.
Nora had alarmingly high levels of CO in her blood. Not heroin. The doctor put her on oxygen. They said, we don’t know for sure, yet, but she probably has heart damage. It was a slow poisoning. The levels waxed and waned – from the old dryer. That shiplap. That goddamned shiplap. I tore open the dryer vent when I broke it off the wall. Just a crack. Just enough. It was an accident. It was an accident. But it was accident that I kept repeating every time I turned the dryer on. It was my fault. I wanted her close. I wanted to keep an eye on her.
She was fine before she came here.
M. Caroline McCaulay is a writer from Carmel, Indiana. She earned her MFA in Fiction at Indiana University and is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her work can be found in Portland Review and Boudin, the online home of The McNeese Review.