The night before the house across the street was demolished, my mother claimed to see the ghost of a small boy up on its roof. He was sitting on the ruins of the chimney, she said, and it looked as though he were reading a book. Then he vanished. But the most important detail about the encounter was this: The boy had waved at my mother. She was sure of it. This was so important, she said, because it suggested some sort of cognizance on the ghost child’s part — he’d reacted to her. There were those who argued that ghosts were nothing more than imprints of consciousness stamped into time — a spiritual residue left behind by a life, ridged as a recording — and that these imprints were not necessarily indicative of some ever-after awareness or freewill on the ghost’s part. But the boy on the roof had waved. Did I see the distinction? my mother wanted to know.
“Sure,” I said. “He reacted.”
“Precisely,” she said.
She poured me another half glass of champagne. I was only 12, but tonight she wanted to celebrate. To clink glasses with her son. That abandoned house across Lewiston Street was finally coming down. This was a testament to our persistence, she said. It was a great victory. For as long as I could remember she’d fought to have that place leveled, going to town meetings, handing out little pamphlets I’d helped her design on the computer, etc. The place was an eyesore, she said. And it was dangerous — the rusted nails, the broken glass. Tomorrow morning, all thanks to her and me, the bulldozers would rip it apart. She had won.
I hadn’t seen her like this in months. Earlier that evening we’d shared a pizza from Elvio’s — a rare splurge since she’d quit her job at the bank. She’d made a chocolate cake from scratch. In blue icing she sketched the outline of a house, the word RUBBLE written above the roof. For some reason she couldn’t stop laughing. She kept touching her face with her hands, as though she expected to find the nose and lips and cheeks of someone else. At one point she put on a record and picked up a potted bamboo plant, thrashing at the fronds with her hand as she pretended to strum along on guitar with Stevie Ray Vaughn. I kept waiting for the familiar gloominess to start gnawing at her again. But it didn’t.
“I have an idea,” she said to me now. The two of us were sitting on the kitchen counter, our bare feet thumping the cabinets below, the last crumbles of the cake between us as we picked and prodded with our forks. I took a sip of champagne. I didn’t really understand how alcohol worked, and I was wondering what exactly I should be feeling. “How about we go over to that house and check things out?” my mother said at last. I asked her what she meant. “You know,” she said. “Look for the ghost.”
“Like, break-in?” I said.
“That’s illegal,” I said.
She chimed my champagne glass with her fork. “So’s this, Mr. Capone. Find a flashlight, will you?”
Going to that abandoned house was about the last thing I wanted to do. For one, I was scared — not of the ghost, really, but of neighbors, police, etc. — and two, it just seemed stupid. But my mother was in a rare mood, and I wanted to prolong this mood as long as possible. It might not swing back around for quite some time. I hopped off the counter and went in search of the big Coleman lantern. I wasn’t sure I believed in ghosts, but I was sure my mother believed, and for her sake I hoped they were real.
This was the summer she began peering into the spirit world — her phrase. It was also the summer my father ran off to Boca Raton with the wife of one of his co-workers at the paper mill. For good, this time, though at first I didn’t believe it; leaving was something my father did, sure, but coming back was something he did, too.
In my mother’s mind, my father’s departure and her own newfound connection with the spirit world were linked. “He had this terrible, brutish aura about him, your father,” she told me once, “and I think it must have interfered with my own innate abilities. Like light pollution blotting out the stars.”
In his absence, my mother began encountering apparitions everywhere — the supermarket, the gas station, etc. — and eventually she left her teller job at Outlook Savings in order to devote herself more fully to her gift. For days on end she holed herself up in her bedroom, conducting séances, the rich scent of burning sage seeping beneath the closed door. Sometimes she sat cross-legged on the floor with a pen poised over a notebook as she waited for an entity to guide her via automatic writing. I live on the singed rim of dreams, she’d written on one such occasion, over and over again — filling many pages with her huge, jagged scrawl — and in the weeks that followed I’d often catch her mouthing these words as she struggled to decipher what they might mean.
I found the lantern in the hall closet. The batteries were still good.
“Jesus,” my mother said. “You could guide a ship to port with that thing.”
She wasn’t kidding. The lantern had the illumination thing down pat. It was the lantern my father used when he took me hornpout fishing over at Pearl Lake. Those spring nights he and I’d catch 12, 13, 16 fish. He’d clean them right there in the shine of the lantern. First he’d cut off the whiskers. Then the heads. Then he’d run his blade along the soft, slick-brown bellies, pinching out the intestines like slimy fuses and shaking the fish bloodless beneath the water. Back at home he’d rub the meat with salt and pepper and a little bit of cornmeal and say, “And the crowd goes wild!” as he dropped the filets into a skillet practically screaming with hot oil. That lantern made a mockery of the dark, and reeling those hornpout in, one after the other after the other, my father would howl, “Swim toward the light!” And the fish listened.
My mother took another slug of champagne. “Ready?” she asked.
I said, “We’re really doing this?”
“It’ll be exciting. Don’t you think?”
“Exciting,” I said. For years she’d instructed me to keep away from that house. Now here she was with an open invitation for a grand tour in search of some ghost child she’d seen enthroned on the chimney. I put on my sneakers and followed her outside.
It was almost midnight, and up and down the block the houses were mostly dark save for the pulsing blue light of televisions in windows. I kept the lantern off. I was having visions of my mother being handcuffed — me too, for that matter. The reality of what we were about to do shot adrenaline through me like some wild voltage. Crickets trilled. In the Peterson’s lawn, a forgotten sprinkler spit water in a stuttering hiss.
“I want you to promise me something,” my mother said as we crossed Lewiston Street. “Promise me you’ll remember nights like this. I mean, when I’m old and senile and slurping butterscotch pudding in some nursing home. I was fun too, right?”
I promised I’d remember, though I did not know how it was possible to forget. She raked her fingers through my hair and squeezed a handful. “My boy,” she said. It was a clear, cool August night, the stars thrown against the black sky like pulverized crystal, the moon so sharp I could see its shadowed craters from a quarter-million miles away. In two weeks, I’d start eighth grade. In two years, my mother would marry a kind, loose-faced chiropractor and stop seeing ghosts altogether. In two decades, I’d be a computer engineer in Raleigh with two ex-wives and three kids, and my mother would be dead. But none of this existed as we waded through the tall, brittle grass growing up around the derelict brick ranch, both of us dazed with too much chocolate and cheap champagne.
The rest of our lives were wound around our hearts like a secret thread.
“This way,” she whispered, leading me to the back of the house. She moved with the confidence of an actor following a well-written script. The backdoor opened without issue, and suddenly a strange thought floated to the surface of my mind: She’s been here before. I had no proof, but I felt sure of it.
Inside, she said, “How about a little light?” I shut the door. The lantern revealed the dark, bombed-out remnants of a hallway. The walls were leprous with rot, the spongy floor cobbled with glass and splintered wood and crushed Budweiser cans. The air smelled of mildew and trapped heat. Following my mother from the hall into what must have been the living room, it occurred to me that people once lived here. Real people. This place had contained lives. And my mother and I were the last lives it would ever contain.
“Hello?” she called out into the empty house, her echo chasing itself through the rooms. It was so quiet I could hear the patter of moths as they hurled their powdery selves against the lantern. In the light, their shadows were projected against the ruined walls like monstrous animations.
“I feel a — presence,” my mother said. She kneeled. She ran her fingers over the rubble-strewn floor, as if searching for a pulse. She paced about the room. Knocked on the plywood-boarded windows. I held the lantern up high. Walking through the woods around Pearl Lake, my father used to jog ahead of me with the lantern. He’d turn it off and hide. I was never scared, because I knew he was somewhere close, watching. I’d listen for his breath. For the jangle of the tackle box. But he was always very quiet. And then the lantern would come on again. So bright I couldn’t see him through the glare. Except I knew this for sure: He was there, standing behind the light.
“Feel that?” my mother asked. “That boy’s here somewhere.” She bit her lower lip. The gloominess was creeping back in. I could see it. It came quick. She looked wrung out. Tired and unsure of herself.
“I feel it, too,” I said. I turned off the lantern. The light collapsed into one curl of orange filament, then went out, and the abruptness of the absolute dark made my mother gasp. “I feel it, too,” I said again.
She called out to the ghost. She said she knew he was here. She told him not to be scared. To show himself. To give us some sign of acknowledgement. I held my breath. “Please,” I said. I shivered in the heat. “It’s okay,” I said. It would be such an incredible story, I thought, if the ghost boy appeared before us now. Neither of us would ever forget it.
The boy did not come.
“Let’s go home,” my mother whispered.
But I wasn’t ready. This mood she was in was something I wasn’t about to relinquish. She’s been here before, I thought again, and I imagined her shuffling through these bare, moldering rooms, holding a fistful of flaming herbs up against the dark, stepping through vanishing portals of sweet, sweet smoke.
I live on the singed rim of dreams.
I said, “Did you hear that?”
I could not see her, but her earrings tinkled as she shook her head.
“I didn’t hear a thing,” she said softly.
“Shhh,” I said. “Listen.”
I wondered what my father would have said had he seen us now: me and my mother standing in the total blackness of a condemned house in the middle of the night. Then, carefully and quietly, I reached to the floor and grabbed a handful of debris — twisted screws, crumbs of glass, chunks of disintegrating sheetrock — and pitched it all in the direction of the hall from which we’d just come. It clattered loudly in the dark.
“Jesus,” my mother said. “I heard it. Oh, God. I heard it.”
I turned on the lantern.
“Follow me,” I said, and I grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the sound.