WINNER OF THE 2013 MATT CLARK FICTION PRIZE
SELECTED BY BENJAMIN PERCY
Gail’s husband, Nick, used to teach photography at a community college. Every fall, he and Gail and a makeshift crew of college friends would go out to the woods around Raleigh and film a horror movie to submit to the amateur festival in October. They would come home again with their clothes ruined, covered in all that fake blood, white face putty and gasoline drippage from the chainsaws without chains on. In the five years they were married, Nick made an unwilling actress of Gail. He had beheaded her, gouged her, strangled her. He had lain her down in an icy pool and drowned her. That one, The Devil of Fever Swamp, had given her one of the worst head colds she’d ever had. After that, Nick had turned apologetic for a while and had said this would be the last year, no more short films, but the next year, they were at it again, and Gail was out with him in the woods, digging a grave for herself.
She’d pretended then that it drove her crazy, though really it was the highlight of the season for her. And even though Nick had been gone three years now, autumn always came around with a feeling of expectation, like she had a job to do, a role to play. As soon as the leaves started turning, she felt an impulse to carry out her tasks with grace, no matter what was asked of her.
Nowadays, Gail worked at Oakwood, a mental facility tucked away in the Appalachian foothills. When the nursing director took her on her first tour around the grounds, he told the story about the haunted on-call house and the psychiatrists—reasonable, un-superstitious people, he assured her—who would not stay there overnight. Allegedly, the ghost in the house was that of a patient who had escaped through the air duct seven years ago, stripped off his clothes on his way across the parking lot and vanished into the kudzu-covered woods on the other side. He drowned himself in the creek just north of the hospital, and the on-call house apparently trapped his desolate ghost and had kept it ever since.
The house itself was a small, plain structure with yellowish siding and a wrap-around porch. A cypress hovered over its east side, a row of boxwoods underneath its windows.
“Folks’ll bring pets for company,” the nursing director was telling her. “And there’s a TV in there, DVD player and everything. Drowns out the noise when the house settles.” He laughed. “’Course, most of y’all just stay over on the couches in the lounge. This place is creepy as hell.”
Gail was quiet. She had been quiet throughout most of the tour, which caused the nursing director to give her unsure sideways glances, as if he could not see her clearly. He was a grayish, moonfaced man who sought to make others comfortable, the kind of person who liked getting a good bead on folks. But Gail had been told that she was more deadpan than most, which was one of the reasons why she had made such good corpses in Nick’s horror films. She had few feelings for the nursing director, or for the hospital or its employees or its patients, but she felt something when she looked at the on-call house: joy maybe, anticipation, hope.
She settled in for her first overnight visit in October, a month after they took her on as a nurse practitioner at Oakwood, a month after she’d moved out of her mother’s house in Cary. She could see the main facility push up through the trees when she approached it from the highway: a stone beast with a spiny grey back. To the east stood a collection of greenhouses where the patients potted plants and grew seedlings, and south of that a garden path encircled a statue of some female Greekish figure overlooking a dry fountain, which had been out of order for years. Alongside the main entrance, they had tacked on a wheelchair ramp.
Gail was a little disappointed when she found the interior of the main facility to be quite modern and clinical, a sea-foam tile floor, wide windows that let in a calm, diffused light, a comfortable nurses’ station, each room with spaces and angles that made it look larger than it was. Of course, it was foolish of her to be disappointed—this was a hospital and not a Gothic cathedral, after all—but she couldn’t help but believe that the 1980s renovators had smoothed over some spectacular opportunities.
On the evening of her first stay, Gail stood on the sinking gray porch of the on-call house in a cardigan. She leaned her shoulder against the post at the head of the steps and heard it make a curious sound, like quiet breath. Suddenly, she became aware of a bright flash to her right.
One of the psychiatric interns, a scruffy guy named Willem, was holding a Polaroid camera just up the walkway.
Gail blinked and squinted at him. “Did you just take my picture?”
Willem looked stunned when she spoke, as though he’d considered her a silent component of the scenery. “Yeah, sorry. I wanted to get some shots of this place and mail them to a couple friends of mine in Kansas City. Oakwood, man. It’s ridiculous, you know. You have to see it to believe this place.”
“I guess,” Gail said. Willem annoyed and intrigued her. When she first saw him in the Women’s Wing, a patient came up to him and started speaking about her hellish dreamscapes as if they had been in conversation for the past ten minutes or so. Willem engaged accordingly: “Oh yeah, girl, that shit is crazy.” He was as lanky as a teenage boy, his face gentle and smirking, edged with a half-grown black beard. Strode around in a white coat and corduroys. His very existence dripped with irony.
“Can I see the picture?” Gail asked.
“Oh, sure, yeah.”
“Where did you find this camera?”
“Flea market,” he said.
“Of course you did.”
Willem laughed. “What’s that mean?”
Gail fanned the Polaroid until the image began to reveal itself. It was very blurred, to the point where Gail looked faceless, but all around were clear shapes, folding and eddying around themselves, like a pale lattice that had laid itself over the image.
“Oh,” Willem said, his brow wrinkling. “Well, that’s weird.”
“Something’s wrong with your camera,” Gail said.
“No, it’s never done that before.”
Gail squinted at the picture and laughed. “Ghosts?”
She felt sorry for laughing when she saw that Willem looked anxious, staring around him at the framework of the on-call house. Suddenly, Gail felt a full, swarming sensation around them that she hadn’t noticed before. She pressed her shoulder against Willem’s until the feeling subsided. He took another picture, and this time it came out normal.
“That is fucked up,” Willem said. “This place is fucked up. Anyone told you yet?”
“Yeah, they told me,” Gail said.
“Damn,” Willem said. “Well, gotta go. You can hang on to those pictures.”
He started up the driveway at a wide-paced saunter. Gail noticed that his corduroys barely covered his ankles.
“That’s it?” she asked. “You don’t want to check this out?”
“I’m late, girl,” he told her.
Willem was a kid, really, only twenty-five. Gail was thirty-two. Her mother would tell her he was too immature to be of any interest to Gail, which was probably true, but Gail had not made any friends yet. The Oakwood staff was rather insular and Willem had been the first person to approach her directly.
In the weeks to follow, they didn’t talk about the weird phenomenon in the Polaroid, but they did talk about late 90s alternative music and politics and how best to deal with patients who were being dishonest. Willem annoyed most of the staff, hipster fool that he was, but Gail enjoyed having someone to talk to.
Then it came. He became interested in her. Gail felt it on a particular day close to Halloween, when Willem’s body language slanted toward her, and his voice softened, and his smirk became warmer. Gail had been steeling her mind for this, had been coaching herself, saying she was ready, saying she wanted…
“You want to go to a Halloween party with me?” Willem asked, cornering her in the lounge.
You are in high school, Gail thought. But she agreed.
“I guess. Yeah. That sounds fun.”
Gail had worked for seven years at Raleigh General. In this time she got her Master’s in nursing and met Nick at one of her classmate’s parties. She married him pretty quickly. After Nick died, she quit her job and ended up living with her mother, unemployed, for much longer than she had originally planned. The longer she went without a job, the harder it was to get one, and Oakwood had hardly been at the top of her list. Inevitably, her choice was to be an NP at Oakwood or start at the bottom of the food chain elsewhere as some staff nurse, getting pats on the butt from ancient physicians that the hospital simply wouldn’t fire because they had been there so long. As a thirty-two year old adult woman, Gail felt she’d earned herself a certain place in the workforce.
She was apprehensive about working at a mental institution, but Gail believed she could make up for this with what her mother used to call “solid, ice-edged competence.” She’d always been good at her job. Oakwood was just a different kind of job.
Her mother called every week, anxious as hell about Gail’s transition, asking how she felt, asking if she was sure she’d made the right decision. “It’s just a chilling thought,” she said, “you working at an asylum.” Though she knew full well they weren’t called asylums anymore. Gail had played with the idea of making up stories about icepick lobotomies and electroshock therapy to mess around with her mother, even though Oakwood performed neither of these procedures. But after Gail’s three-year stay during unemployment, her depression, her social and professional paralysis, her mother had lost some of her sense of humor.
Conversations typically went like this:
“It’s fine. Things are fine here.”
“Anything other than fine?” her mother would ask. “You’re meeting people?”
“I’m meeting the patients.”
“Well, that’s not what I mean.”
“Yeah. Hey, you know, there’s a woman here who’s always pregnant. That is, she says she’s pregnant. We can’t figure out if she’s lying for the attention or if she actually does think she’s pregnant. The crazy thing is, her periods have stopped.”
“Are you engaging with anyone other than crazies?”
“I just don’t want you to be alone.”
Gail refrained from telling her mother about Willem, maybe out of defiance if nothing else. When you live in your childhood home, jobless, for three years, it’s hard not to become something like a teenager again. Gail would be happy to report on her regained self-sufficiency, to tell her mother that she’d received crisis intervention training to defend herself against and restrain these “crazies.” But her mother wanted to picture Gail dating people, not putting them in headlocks.
Still, no one could predict how competent she really was at her Oakwood job. She performed efficient, thorough physicals—firm, but not unkind. Gail felt as if she’d seen the vagina of every madwoman in the county. She’d become skilled at detecting lies too, to be skeptical when the patients asked specifically for Vicodin, for Dramamine. A rail-thin woman named Lavinia complained about her pain every day: “I got so much pain. Help me, Ms. Gail. You got to undahstand me.” But Lavinia always ate like a horse, especially on pancake Sunday, and she claimed to be allergic to any pain medication that didn’t have codeine in it.
Probably the most important thing Gail learned was that these women did not need anyone’s pity. Drug addicts, agoraphobics, hypochondriacs, builders of sky castles. These were people who had been abused, indulged, hated, and neglected, but they had acquired their ways because these were methods that had ensured their survival. Sometimes they despised Gail and spat at her feet, but Gail knew she could not despise them back. They were functioning the only way they knew how.
When Willem showed up at Gail’s place to drive her to the Halloween party, he was wearing an old-fashioned nurse’s uniform, complete with a wig, cap and white stockings.
“Nurse Ratched,” he told her.
Gail, much less clever, was a gypsy, piles of rags and scarves obscuring her shape. “You are terrible,” she said.
At the party she clung to him while all his local friends crushed in. She knew no one, was older than most of them. She regretted coming, wondered what had made her agree in the first place. But after a while, Willem seemed to get tired of the crowd and he took her out to the gravel parking lot behind the apartment building and kissed her. Half-drunk, Gail realized how much she had missed this intimate touching, wanting and being wanted.
But when he took her home, she looked at her smeared face in the side mirror, a painted, ugly version of herself. She felt overwhelmingly sad and guilty, guilt which was blurred and intensified by drinking. Willem had expectations. She didn’t think she could meet them.
“Willem,” she said.
“I was married. My husband died three years ago. He flipped his car.”
Willem parked in front of her house. He turned to look at her. Sometime at the party, he had removed his cap and wig, but still had on the stockings and stuffed bra. Gail looked at the bra. She felt the universe was laughing at her misery.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “If you want to take it slow…”
“No, I just wanted to tell you. I’m not looking for anything real serious right now. I just wanted to tell you.”
Willem stared. He hiccoughed. “You want to talk about it?”
“No,” she said. “I’m pretty tired.”
She gathered up her things.
“Hey. Do you mind if I borrow your Polaroid?”
“Uh?” Willem said. “Yeah, sure. I used up the film for it though. You gotta buy that stuff online. It’s not cheap.”
Willem undid his seatbelt and reached over the headrest. The camera was sitting in the backseat, which was probably where it had been since he first took pictures around the grounds at Oakwood. He handed it to her.
When he drove off, Gail sat down on the steps of her porch, feeling the weight of the camera in her hands. She felt relieved to have the device without Willem attached to it. She felt relieved to watch his taillights recede into the darkness, leaving her on her porch alone.
Some time passed before the film for Willem’s camera came in. By then the weather was getting cold. On a particular night in November, Gail set up a space heater in the on-call house and slept with it running. This was the night she felt the ghosts swarm in.
A rare fullness overcame the room, one that only exists when you are with someone who knows you well, when you are connected and aware of another person’s thoughts and feelings, and they likewise are aware of yours. Gail felt as attuned to the crowding ghosts as to her own body. But perhaps this was what they were, Gail’s own body, multiples of Gail, quantum Gails born every time an atom decayed and a new universe bubbled up into being. There existed an infinite number of them, infinite possibilities.
Gail took Willem’s Polaroid camera from the bedside table and snapped a photo of the opposite wall. When the photo developed, she could see the ghosts inside, trembling shapes at the edges of the frame, like nervous animals. Gail rose from the bed and snapped more photos throughout the on-call house, linoleum kitchen and tiny, tiled bathroom. When the photos developed, the distorted fish-eyed shapes pushed toward the edges of the frame. She wanted to understand them, to see them in their entirety. There was a message here.
She had every light in the house burning when she burst out the front door, barefoot on the ice-whitened steps. She snapped her photos into the darkness, up the drive where the brooding silhouette of the hospital stood.
But the shapes became thinner and fewer. When her last photo developed, there was nothing in it but the black woods and the drive, which glowed pale from the flash. The ghosts had moved on.
She took the photos inside and laid them out on the floor so that she could see them at them all at once. Maybe that was where the message was. If she pulled back far enough, it would reveal itself to her, then it would not be just Gail. It would be Gail and the ghosts and their secrets.
The following week, she showed Willem the pictures she had taken.
“What do you know about this stuff?” she asked him.
Willem was less intrigued with the pictures than she might have thought. He looked at them, fanned out on the counter of the nurse’s station. Then he looked at his ID badge.
“It’s not just your camera, either,” Gail said, “though they do show up better in the Polaroids. You can see a bit of something with a disposable camera too. They’re all over the place. Maybe the drowned man was the first to get trapped here, but there are so many others.”
“Gail,” Willem said, his voice remonstrative. “Why are you messing with this?”
She stared at Willem’s face, which was more sincere than she’d ever seen it. He had shaved off his beard-scruff and was no longer wearing pants that were too short for him.
“The people who work here know about it, don’t they?” she asked. “At least, they know about the drowned man.”
“Yeah, they know about it,” Willem said. “But they don’t mess with it. You shouldn’t mess with stuff like that. You shouldn’t—look for stuff like that.”
“Why?” Gail asked, laughing. “You think I’ll get possessed?”
“No,” he said. “Not possessed. Well, maybe. I don’t know. I’ve been here over a year. We just don’t mess with it.”
“But you know there’s something.”
“Everyone knows there’s something.”
His response disappointed and frustrated Gail. Everyone knew there was something. Surrounding the grounds was a tangible miasma. Deer and rabbits never came into the adjacent fields when they were fallow, and even the grackles wouldn’t sit long on the power lines across the road without looking nervous. A service dog someone brought in for a blind patient once sat on the steps and whined and gnawed on its legs. It would not come inside.
On her way back to her car that day, Gail snapped a picture of a blue Pontiac Tempest parked in the drive, which belonged to one of the psychiatrists in the Women’s Wing. The car’s windows were cracked, and when the photograph developed, Gail could see the ghosts getting in and settling down in the back seat. Everyone knew there was something. Did they know the ghosts followed people home?
Gail decided to open the boxes with Nick’s things in them. It wasn’t like she thought she’d be able to summon him—nothing as specific as that. But if these items could help her understand what she was seeing, it would be worth the physical pain of taking them out and looking at them. Here was Nick’s life work, photography contests submitted to and lost. Here were his books and bad horror movies: Plan 9 from Outer Space, Blood Diner, Chopping Mall, 976-EVIL, and his personal favorite, 976-EVIL II: The Astral Factor. At the bottom of the box she found his glasses, the ones he’d been wearing in the crash, but the lenses were missing.
Next when she stayed over at the on-call house, she placed the box open in a corner of the room. But nothing happened that night. The box was too heavy. Too much. She watched the movies, one after the other, until she fell asleep on the couch.
It was hard to say that the ghosts in the photographs looked like anything. They were, in a sense, formless: at first glance smooth, curved shapes; at second glance, jagged; at third, a series of loops and lines, layered over one another. Gail would hold them to her nose and then pull them back the way she’d done her Magic Eye books when she was a child—stereograms. Let your eyes kind of cross and you can see a dolphin or a heart pop out in 3D from underneath. She thought she saw things, complex things: her mother by the windowsill in her childhood home, circus animals, the blurred runners of her high school track team. Sometimes she saw children, or a child—an amorphous creature with many limbs and eyes and smiles.
She was nervous about showing them to people after what Willem had said, and she certainly wouldn’t show the photos to patients. The Polaroids required an objective eye, and you could never trust a neurotic to be objective.
Once, the unit manager—a gray, wiry woman named Zora—caught her looking at them in the lounge. Zora seemed like the last person to be interested in what was haunting the hospital, but she seemed inquisitive when she looked over Gail’s shoulder.
“Workin’ hard?” she asked.
“No,” Gail said. She waved one of the pictures in front of Zora’s nose. “You’ve been here a long time. You must know about this as well as anybody. What do you see?”
Zora took the picture and squinted through her glasses. “Looks like psoriasis.”
“No, pull it back from your nose. Let your eyes cross.”
Zora glanced at Gail, but she obeyed, focusing and not focusing at the same time. “Looks like a man. Short man. Bald. Big, egg yolk eyes.” She returned the photograph to Gail. “My ex-husband, the bastard. It’s a dead ringer for him—but he’s been in the ground seven years now.”
Gail stacked the Polaroids together. “That’s very specific,” she said. She wasn’t sure if she felt envious or disappointed.
Zora looked like she was about to launch into an assertion, possibly a reprimand, but then Willem appeared in the lounge doorway with a clipboard in his arm.
“Code Grey downstairs, ladies.”
Zora looked offended. “Why the hell didn’t they call it? What’s wrong with the intercom?”
Willem raised his eyebrows but didn’t answer. He disappeared down the hall. In his absence, Zora clicked her tongue.
“I liked him better when he was an intern,” she said. “He acted like a sixteen-year-old at a drama camp, but at least he wasn’t a pompous ass.”
So, Gail thought. Willem was a resident now. Dr. Willem—how absurd that was. Dr. Willem buying flea market junk like an Asheville hippie, dressing in drag at Halloween parties. He was different now, she guessed, but when had this change taken place? It seemed like only last week that Willem had begun shaving like an adult person, and just a week or so before that they’d kissed in the parking lot behind his friend’s apartment building.
“Zora,” Gail said. “How long have I been working here?”
Zora tilted her head and counted to herself. After a while, she gave up. “Hell, time does blur together in this place. I can’t safely say how long I’ve been working here, let alone you. Who knows anything about you? You don’t speak.”
“I speak,” Gail said. This accusation astonished Gail. She had not been actively cutting herself off from the rest of the nursing staff, but they were cliquey, girly, most of them married, many of them with children. Sometimes one of them would be crying in the lounge because a patient had called her a name, and the rest would hover around in there and comfort her. What was Gail supposed to do? Reach her hand into the huddle, a relative stranger, and say, “There, there”? Yes, she admitted, part of the reason why she hadn’t worked her way into the huddle was because she didn’t have the energy. She’d resolved herself to the belief that she would never again have the comfortable group of friends she’d had at Raleigh General. Now, during the birthday things and the mini-celebrations—someone was getting married, someone was having a baby—Gail watched from afar as the women showered love and attention on one another.
Of course, when you live in your childhood home, jobless, for three years, it’s easy to forget how to make small talk. The friends from Raleigh General had kept in touch as well as anyone could, but it’s hard under those circumstances. It was sad and humiliating and hard.
She’d never intended to quit work after Nick died; in fact, she went back three weeks after the funeral, an attempt to restore balance to her life. To stop working would be to turn brittle, to collapse, so she filled up her schedule—worked in the day and took night shifts, went out with friends in between. Friends encouraged her to drink, to take up smoking. A little self-destructive behavior after something like this is perfectly common, expected even. Everyone commended her bravery.
But then she woke up cramping. She took a Midol and went on to work, but the cramps intensified, and by noon she was bleeding, and stars were bursting in front of her eyes whenever she stood up. She began to disconnect from her body. She wandered in a haze until someone stopped her and told her she was bleeding through her scrubs.
At no point had she realized she was pregnant, and no one could say that anything specific she’d done had caused the miscarriage. Gail had already had two miscarriages, one before they were married and one afterward, so she and Nick hadn’t been actively trying to have children. She’d even conceded that she and Nick would’ve made for immature parents, Nick especially. He liked to be waited on. When he had a cold, he was worthless, sniffling and moping to elicit her pity, asking her to rub his chest with Vicks VapoRub, asking her to make him peppermint tea.
Still, it was as if he’d died twice. One death was a strident echo of the other. One possibility, two possibilities—both collapsing and bursting, insidious might-have-beens that would never leave her. She’d hated Nick and his miscarried child for handing her this. What could she make from it? Where could she possibly go from here?
Time progressed, but it seemed as if Oakwood never moved beyond autumn. The weather was always chilly, and the naked trees never budded green the way they did in the rest of the world. When Gail laid out the photographs on the floor of the on-call house, the color pallet was always rich red-brown and yellow, interspersed with silvery specters.
She’d moved much of her stuff into the on-call house. Nobody ever used it, so she would stay there for weeks at a time cooking her dinners in the little yellow kitchen, showering and dressing while the house settled around her. Those creepy sounds had become familiar. It had crossed her mind to cancel her lease altogether, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Living at the mental institution for good had connotations, no matter how well she did her job.
Willem had begun fading to a memory when the staff started saying that he and one of the nursing technicians were dating. Then they were engaged. Then in an eye-blink, the girl was pregnant. Gail overheard two nurses carrying on about it in the hallway while she was interviewing one of her patients.
“Remember him when he first came here? Such a baby!”
“Oh, I couldn’t stand him. You’d have thought this place was a playground the way he chased tail, but he’s grown into himself, I think. He’ll be sweet to her.”
Gail listened half to the nurses and half to her patient. When she realized she’d written something down incorrectly, she went to the doorway.
“You two are being loud,” she said.
The nurses looked up.
“Did you hear Dr. Prier is getting married?” one asked.
Gail’s patient scooted to the edge of her seat and leaned forward. She was large but not fat, her face hawkish, somewhat ravaged. “Who’s getting married?” she demanded.
“Please,” Gail said to the nurses. “Please, him? He is a child. This is a shotgun wedding. It’s obvious.”
The nurses looked unhappy about this accusation. One of them counted on her fingers. “But they’ve been engaged for—”
“Whatever,” Gail said. “Just, whatever. I hope it works out for him. But I’ll bet anyone a hundred dollars that girl was pregnant before they got engaged.”
“I had a baby out of wedlock,” Gail’s patient said. “You want to come back to your little desk and judge me for it? At least they’re gettin’ married. My man hitchhiked cross-country to get away from me. What you got to say to that?”
This uncomfortable moment lasted much longer in Gail’s mind than it did in reality. She felt strange and terrible violence rising in her, but she couldn’t unleash it on the two nurses, and she couldn’t unleash it on the patient either. She remembered Willem’s camera, sitting on the dresser in the on-call house and imagined herself fending him off if he showed up on the front porch to get it back. She imagined herself lapsing into a childish tantrum. No, I’m still using it! I still need it! She had learned nothing and everything, and there was more to see.
But he never came for the camera, never even asked about it.
Afterward, it seemed as though Gail’s comment about Willem’s marriage had gotten her a bad rapport. The staff rallied around Dr. Prier and his new wife and sent them off warmly on their honeymoon. Gail stood to the side, still the taciturn NP who took pictures of the ghosts. She was caught up, self-absorbed. She stopped answering her mother’s phone calls, and eventually her mother called up reception in hysterics, begging someone to let her speak to her daughter.
“I called you six times,” her mother said.
“I know. I’m sorry I didn’t answer. I’ve been busy.”
“Has something happened? Were you attacked by a patient?”
“No. Nothing’s happened.”
“Why didn’t you call me back?”
Gail sat thinking about this. She had not called back because the conversations were always the same. There was nothing she could say to her mother and nothing her mother could say to her that would shed new light on any problems or events or issues. There was nothing enjoyable about the conversations—they pained her mother, she could tell, and to have this pain come at her via cellular, knowing that it had flown up into space only to be bounced back to this miserable stony planet once again, was intolerable.
“Honey,” her mother said after a long silence. “I just—sometimes I can’t stand thinking of you out there by yourself. Sometimes I just wish you’d come back here and stay near me.”
“No!” Gail shouted, horrified. A couple of psychiatrists looked at her from across the lobby. Eyeing them, she hung up the phone slowly.
Gail bought more film, took more pictures. She littered the floor of the on-call house with them, but while she searched for balance, the universe around her shifted. She didn’t find out that Willem had landed a new job in Atlanta until she saw it posted on the events bulletin. She overheard from someone else that his wife had already been accepted into a Master’s program there. They were leaving Oakwood behind.
Since he’d clearly forgotten about the Polaroid, she didn’t feel bad keeping it, but she had made no progress in figuring out the true nature of the ghosts. They were as elusive to her as ever, sometimes nearly decipherable and fully formed, sometimes smears of white with no message, no answer at all. Outside, the leaves had become crystalized in ice, clinking against each other like glass when the wind blew. Gail fell asleep listening to their dissonant music. Snow fell, melted, and froze again.
It was on a night like this that the drowned man appeared to her. No more hidden by a trellis of blurs or fuzzy lines, no more a secret shape to discover. Fighting off sleep, Gail propped herself up on her elbows and saw him nude at the foot of her bed, lazy-eyed, his lips blue and swollen. He was so old, so badly aged he seemed mummified. The crown of his head was bald, with whitish fuzz around his ears. He seemed to shrink when she looked at him, his body stretched and ravaged by the current of the icy stream in which he’d drowned.
“It’s you,” Gail said.
The ghost opened his mouth as if to speak, but it was stuffed full of leaves and mud and acorns. Gail shuddered.
“Say something,” she said. “Tell me something.”
But it was clear he couldn’t speak.
Silence. The ghosts were silent. They had no message, no meaning. She could feel them now, working to swamp and submerge her body with their emptiness. A sound came to her, like a sigh, breath leaving a body, and the room went suddenly cold. She shivered, became terrified. Get out of the house. Get out of the house or freeze, be stuck forever. So she tore the covers from her body and tried to gather up her husband’s things in their box, to save them from whatever was overtaking her, them. In her frenzy, she rammed her knee into the corner of the dresser and heard Willem’s camera hit the floor. A piece of it broke off and clattered away into the dark.
All the while, the drowned man stood where he had appeared at the foot of the bed. He watched her with his dead, mute expression, and he was watching her still as she fled, limping, out of the house.
When she reached the gravel drive, the porch collapsed behind her.
Gail stood very still, barefoot on a thin sheet of wet snow. From where she stood, she could see the rot that had been working its way deep into the posts. Beneath the eaves, the wood was almost black, shingles hanging limp as paper.
The sound of the crashing porch brought some on-call folks out from the main facility. They looked at the house and looked at Gail. Nurse Zora came up, squinting in the dark.
“What happened?” she asked. “Are you hurt?”
Gail couldn’t tell her. She wasn’t sure enough to explicitly say what had happened, or whether or not she was hurt.
Nurse Zora whipped her head around. “Wait a minute—you’re not on call tonight. What are you doing here?”
“Nurse Jamison, she’s been basically living here,” someone said.
Gail shook beneath their stares. Her feet ached from cold and her knee stung, bleeding through the leg of her pajamas “My things,” she whispered, pointing to the ruined porch. “I have to—go back in—get my things. Can someone help me?”
Sometime later, Gail was sitting in a car outside of Willem’s house. It was a nice house, and she watched as movers came and wrapped up pieces of avant-garde art, the kind that hangs in coffee houses, so that they could pack it away in a white van. Willem’s wife was a short, temperamental-looking girl. She moved in and out of the front door, fully-dressed but in slippers.
Gail held the camera in her lap. Though she was sure it was beyond repair, she felt an impulse to return it to its original owner. She waited for the right moment to approach, considered if there was in fact a right moment to approach at all. When Willem came out into view, the sharp, afternoon light made him look so much older than she remembered. His hair had begun to recede, and he’d put on a little bit of weight in his face. How strange to see Willem outside of Oakwood, in a neighborhood so pristinely different from that place’s dim, gothic flavor. And then, as she watched, two children followed him out into the yard. Two, dark-haired girls—his oldest now looking about five, his youngest a toddler.
Gail regarded the children with a strange sensation. She didn’t dislike them, but they were alien to her, as bizarre as if they had grown from fruit trees overnight. They grow so fast.
A jogger ran by Gail’s passenger window. A man came out to get his newspaper, shaking it when he found it wet with melted snow. But Gail sat there, still. Even when the sky grew dark, when Willem and his family had long since gone inside, even then, she sat still, moving only to place her hand over the stack of photographs in her pocket.